The Sound of Summer: Mozart Music: At the BSO and across the nation, seasonal symphony series mean everybody's favorite composer, or they mean nothing at all

August 01, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If it's summertime, the music must be Mozart.

Ever since 1966, when New York's Lincoln Center started its Mostly Mozart Festival, the composer's works have become a summer industry, as one orchestra after another has copied the formula.

And for good reason: no other composer's music works as well in these languid months.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra learned that in 1992 when -- because of recording commitments -- it programmed almost nothing except Rachmaninov and Copland. One look at the disastrous box-office receipts and the cry of "Never again!" resounded from the corner of Cathedral and Preston streets.

It's been mostly Mozart ever since, and only Mozart tomorrow night in Meyerhoff Hall when the BSO's Summer MusicFest concludes with an all-Mozart program.

But why Mozart?

Summer is the lazy season, and Mozart is the perfect composer for the indolent.

Before Mozart's time, music was tied to the function, time and audience for which it was written.

Mozart -- and his somewhat older contemporary, Haydn -- may have been the first to write music that was apt for its time and place, yet that was also able to transcend them and have meaning for later generations.

It is at once easily accessible and also filled with thought-provoking layers that repay serious listening and repeated hearings. Of no other composer's music is this as true.

The same Mozart string quartet can serve for intense listening or as background music at a cocktail party. Try using a late Beethoven quartet for the latter purpose and be prepared for your guests to leave early.

Appealing to both the musically sophisticated and the uninitiated was something Mozart strove to do. Of his first three piano concertos for Vienna (K. 413, K. 414 and K. 415), Mozart wrote to his father: "These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult. There are passages here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages were written in such a way that the less-learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why."

But much the same thing could be said about much of Haydn's music; the extraordinary appeal exerted by Mozart is complicated by sociological and psychological factors that have very little to do with music.

In the 19th century, Mozart's reputation was as high -- not less than 50 plays were written about him -- as that of Bach, Haydn and Beethoven.

But the looming shadow he casts over the repertory is a phenomenon that was created during the 20th century, particularly its latter half.

In the mid- and late 19th century, Mozart performances were rare. Only three of his operas -- "Don Giovanni," "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Magic Flute" -- were performed with any regularity. The repertory of the Vienna Philharmonic between 1848 and 1910 shows performances of only seven of his symphonies, three serenades, two overtures, five piano concertos and two violin concertos. His music was considered mannered and dated.

And as late as 1956, during the worldwide celebration of the bicentennial of Mozart's birth, the Swiss composer, Arthur Honegger, complained that "Mozart is not particularly appreciated by the audiences, and not particularly well-known."

Record catalogs from that time reveal only the last three symphonies as being readily available in first-rate performances. Decent performances of most of the great piano concertos were also rare.

How dramatically the situation had changed by the bicentennial of Mozart's death in 1991.

A set from Philips, for example, contained every work Mozart had written -- 145 discs for $1,669.99, in 45 volumes, available separately or packaged together in two large boxes, with plastic handles, like giant boxes of laundry detergent.

Soaring sales

By the end of 1992, sales of the performances in that set had reached the extraordinary figure of 9 million discs. If Mozart could visit a modern record emporium, he would no doubt be pleased by how many more bins his discs occupy than those of "Papa" Haydn and -- were he to browse under "S" -- how little by Salieri.

But that Salieri is there is a consequence of Mozart's popularity -- or at least of the industry that has sprung up about him.

In the approximately 15 years between the late 1960s and early '80s, the movie "Elvira Madigan," which used the slow movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 21 for its score, Peter Shaffer's play "Amadeus," and then Milos Forman's film version of it helped make Mozart an even bigger cultural icon than Beethoven.

He even played a part in an international agreement signed between Austria and Germany in 1981, whereby only Austria was allowed to export Mozart Kugel and only Germany Westphalian ham.

Appreciating Mozart and his music had become a status symbol of sorts. And the film "Amadeus" had made him easy to like -- he was just an average guy, who had trouble meeting the rent, was given to cursing (scatological wordplay was a particular favorite) and to chasing girls.

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