In the world of classical music, the body of oft-played music known as standard repertoire amounts to a kind of warhorse parade. No warhorses are more welcome, though, than the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
This year, the occasion of the bicentennial of Mozart’s death gives timeliness to the widespread programming of his music. On Saturday and Sunday, the Ventura County Symphony Orchestra joins the party with “A Mozart Celebration.” The program could also be called a celebration of the key of E flat, the key of the Overture to “The Magic Flute,” the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 297b, and the Symphony No. 39, K. 543.
For a contemporary point of contrast, music director Frank Salazar has also put on the program Darius Milhaud’s seminal jazz-inflected piece “La Creation du Monde.” Written in 1922, Milhaud’s ballet predated Gershwin’s more popular “Rhapsody in Blue,” by two years.
“Mostly Mozart” concerts need no historical rationale. More than any other composer, Mozart represents an ideal balance of popularity and seriousness. His music exists in a state of grace, conveying both emotional expression and formal poise. While festive and urbane, the music also boasts rigorous design and spiritual expression.
Aside from the appeal of the music itself, it hasn’t hurt Mozart’s popularity that his life story was the stuff of legend. Hollywood, inevitably, took interest. Now, much of the public’s impression of the composer comes in the form of actor Tom Hulce as an impish Mozart in the movie “Amadeus.”
The film was, of course, controversial. Music lovers balked at the irreverent characterization of the composer as a snickering vulgarian. Whatever harm director Milos Forman (working from Peter Schaffer’s play) may have done to Mozart’s memory, he did put his music before a large audience.
Mozart’s reputation is as a prodigy who wound up a creative whirlwind, under-appreciated in his time. In his 35-year life, Mozart created a body of work that surpassed most composers who lived to twice his age.
The son of prominent Austrian musician Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang was born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1756. He was giving harpsichord demonstrations at 4, wrote his first sonata at 6, his first symphony at 8 and his first comic operas at 12 (including “Bastien and Bastienne,” a popular version of which was recently released on the Sony classical label).
Young Mozart toured Europe and wowed audiences with his talents. But if his musical life began auspiciously, fate led him astray. More often than not, he lived in financial straits, in stark contrast to his creative resources.
As he matured, he worked under the patronage of the archbishop in Salzburg. He traveled Europe again, but this time found little acceptance. After returning to Salzburg, he had a falling out with the archbishop. Finally, in 1781, he found some success with the opera “Idomeneo” in Munich.
He married Constance Weber in 1782 and moved to Vienna. He won more admiration with his opera “Don Giovanni” in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and was granted a post as Viennese court composer and chamber musician. Still, his meager salary made life difficult.
The year 1791 was grim, but also productive. He wrote some of his finest music, including the opera “The Magic Flute.” He died impoverished and was buried in an unmarked grave. By the turn of the century, Mozart’s music was well on its way to immortality.
The works on the Ventura Symphony’s roster lean toward his stormy late period, with the exception of the Sinfonia Concertante from 1778 (a short life means short periods).
A sinfonia concertante is a baroque form that blends the symphony with the concerto-- playing off the virtuosity of soloists. Originally, Mozart wrote a piece to feature four woodwind players from the Mannheim Orchestra. The score, of which no copies were made, mysteriously disappeared before the original was performed. Mozart suspected the dirty work of a jealous composer.
What we hear today is a reconstruction of the lost piece. There has been some speculation that the work is only attributed to Mozart, but its signature characteristics are hard to deny.
In 1788, Mozart wrote three great symphonies in six weeks (the Ventura Symphony will play No. 39 this weekend and the last two, the G minor and the “Jupiter,” at the following two concerts, respectively).
Listening to the vitality and composure of No. 39, you’d never guess that the artist was in the depths of despair over money woes and future prospects--a testament to his ability to find refuge in music from depressing realities. No anxiety or bitterness enters into the emotional fabric of the piece.
As identifiable as Mozart’s music is, versatility was one of his constant virtues. His music deftly bridged the baroque and classical idioms, without adhering strictly to either. With its subdued emotional energies, Mozart’s music also showed early glimmers of the romanticism that was to sweep the next century’s music. And yet he was the master of playing contrary emotions off each other, creating tapestries that change emotional color from moment to moment.
The vibrancy of Mozart makes for standard repertoire with none of the aftertaste. Concentrated doses don’t hurt a bit. Today--in 1991, in Ventura--Mozart’s music continues to soothe and awe.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Ventura County Symphony Orchestra, at Oxnard Civic Auditorium, 800 Hobson Way, at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. The program includes Mozart’s Overture to “The Magic Flute,” Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat, K. 297b, and Symphony No. 39 in E-flat, K. 543, and Darius Milhaud’s “La Creation du Monde.”