Mozart, mit Schlag

Special to The Times

THERE'S no escaping Mozart here this year.

Austria's celebration of its native son's 250th birthday is an artistic and commercial extravaganza calculated to flood the country with tourists and to awe audiences with myriad performances, seminars and tours.

There are two ways to experience the Mozart year -- through mass marketing, including kilos of kitsch, and through an enormous array of musical events and other Mozart-related activities, many of them designed by independent artists and musicians.

Celebrated conductors Riccardo Muti and Nikolaus Harnoncourt will be leading orchestras performing Mozart works. From Southern California, stage director and impresario Peter Sellars will produce the works of new composers inspired by Mozart, and Texan Robert Wilson, known for his innovative interpretations of classic plays and operas, has overseen the refurbishment of the composer's birthplace in Salzburg, Austria. Renowned singers will trill Mozart arias, and numerous other creative individuals will have a chance to display their visions.

"You don't just sit down and say, 'Wonderful Mozart, genius musician, greatest of all times,' " says Peter Marboe, artistic director of the Mozartjahr in Vienna, one of the organizations coordinating the year's Mozart activities.

"We asked ourselves, 'What does one mean by a "Mozart year"?' You start to think about your life. We asked, 'What does it mean for this city, Vienna, that this genius lived and worked here for 10 years? What has it meant for the past 250 years? What does he mean for young composers? For children?' And then you try to give some artistic answers throughout the year."

Marboe, an unabashed advocate of using the Mozart anniversary to spur new ways to think about the composer, has put together an astonishing array of programs. Working with about $36 million from the Vienna city government -- of which $12 million has been allocated for Sellars' productions -- Marboe's organization commissioned 40 new works by contemporary composers as well as the renovation of Mozart's home on Vienna's Domgasse, half a block from the soaring St. Stephen's Cathedral, where Mozart was married. The Mozartjahr organization has arranged for concerts of Mozart's religious music in the three Vienna churches to which Mozart had a personal connection and has provided funds for yearlong Mozart programs in the public schools.

Prisoners, the handicapped, the elderly and the homeless will also be feted with Mozart music through programs run by the Roman Catholic charity Caritas, Vienna's homeless shelters, the state institution for the blind and several prisons.

Salzburg, where Mozart was born on Jan. 27, 1756, will offer a huge selection of music, exhibits and lectures. In addition to the annual summer Salzburg Festival, it is showcasing all 22 of Mozart's operas, including a number of rarely performed minor one-acts.

On the narrow Getreidegasse, in the house where Mozart was born, the International Mozarteum Foundation commissioned Wilson to reimagine the conventional exhibit in place. Wilson has added his signature lighting as well as paintings and music and has moved some of the exhibit's standbys, such as period instruments, into new positions -- tucked into nooks and peeking out of wall recesses.

Paris, London and Milan, Italy, where Mozart performed and studied other composers' works, will provide their own musical Mozart feasts, but Austria has by far the most offerings.

The sheer volume of events -- along with the omnipresence of products bearing Mozart's image -- may so overwhelm casual visitors that they long to hear the music of almost any other composer or simply wander quietly through picturesque villages. Indeed, it will be hard to walk 10 feet in either Salzburg or Vienna without confronting Mozart's white wig, red waistcoat and outsized violin on umbrellas, candy and a host of other products.

With little effort, the visitor to Vienna this year can rise in the morning to Mozart music on the radio; shower and dry himself with towels emblazoned with Mozart's visage; eat Mozart wurst (shaped like a violin) for breakfast; take a tour of Mozart's house on the Domgasse; listen to a reading of the letters he and his father, Leopold, wrote to each other; and write home about it on Mozart monogrammed writing paper.

Peter Vujica, the music critic for one of Austria's leading newspapers, Der Standard, throws up his hands in exasperation at the spectacle.

"Mozart is well known. Why do we need this enormous expenditure of money and effort? Yes, there will be some remarkable productions, but there always are in Vienna. There is no new work of Mozart, there is no new mode of Mozart. It is not as if he needs to be rediscovered," Vujica says.

"The whole country is standing on its head because of this Mozart year."

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A revenue bonanza

FROM the point of view of the government as well as hoteliers, restaurants and merchants, the birthday celebration presents an opportunity to capitalize on one of the country's best-known and least controversial commodities. In Vienna, the tourism board expects an additional 300,000 visitors this year -- up from 8.5 million in 2005. The Salzburg tourism board anticipates a 5% increase in overnight visitors, and there is likely to be a far greater rise in the numbers going to such Mozart sites as his birthplace, where a 20% to 25% increase over last year is expected.

So far, prices have remained stable, with hotels charging their regular rates, but already the streets of central Vienna, usually quiet in winter, teem with Japanese, Italians and Americans.

The crowd of tourists means that the best seats to Mozart operas sold out long ago. If bought at the last minute from scalpers, a pair of opera tickets could easily run several hundred euros.

However, lower-cost options also abound. The celebration begins Friday, the birthday, and for the following three days Vienna and Salzburg will offer a number of free activities as well as ticketed concerts. There will be a 24-hour broadcast of Mozart's music from orchestras around the world as well as outdoor multimedia presentations, films, theater pieces and other performances in his honor.

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It's the music that matters

BUT Mozart's birth date is only the beginning. The events stretch through the year, and some of the performances by new composers -- including those sponsored by Sellars' New Crowned Hope project, named for the Masonic lodge that Mozart helped found in 1791, in the last weeks of his life -- will not even begin until November.

Although most of the presentations will be in German, a number will rely heavily on their musical and visual components, so that non-German speakers should be able to follow them easily.

Marboe counsels visitors to remember the reason for the extravaganza and forget the marketing: "No one should try to claim Mozart .... The marketing is a total nuisance. It's only because he is a worldwide marketing name.

"I think about all these 300 products with the Mozart name as I am walking to work and then I think, 'But what is all this in contrast to the First Violin Concerto?' Just listen to 20 minutes, and the music will dwarf the silliness."

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The L.A. connection

IN cyberspace, there's a website devoted to the multitude of Mozart-related events this year in Vienna and Salzburg, www.mozart2006.net but no such guide exists for

the Southland. That doesn't mean, however, that local music lovers won't have many opportunities to hear works by the composer.

At 9 a.m. on his birthday, Friday, KMZT-FM (105.1) will carry the first live broadcast in Southern California of the Vienna Philharmonic when the station airs the celebratory concert in Salzburg, conducted by Riccardo Muti. KMZT will repeat the program at 5 p.m.

Then, at 7 that night, KUSC-FM (91.5) will play three Mozart piano concertos performed by Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and recorded live at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The broadcast is part of a partnership uniting LACO, the station and National Public Radio that plans to air the performances by Kahane and the orchestra of all 23 of Mozart's original piano concertos over a 15-month period.

A bit earlier, Tuesday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre and Wednesday at UCLA's Royce Hall, clarinetist Sabine Meyer will join the Tokyo String Quartet for performances of the Clarinet Quintet in A.

Wednesday through Sunday, the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra -- which usually convenes in June in San Diego for the Mainly Mozart Festival -- will give concerts in five cities: Escondido, La Jolla, Fallbrook and, in Mexico, Tijuana and Mexicali.

A bit later, Feb. 23 to 25 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Christoph von Dohnanyi will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Mozart's Requiem. Also on the program: the Piano Concerto No. 27 played by Andreas Haefliger.

And from March 25 through April 15 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Opera will revive its production of what many regard as Mozart's supreme operatic achievement, "The Marriage of Figaro."

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