He was baptized Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. He went by Wolfgang Amadeus but liked to be called Amadè. He died Dec. 5, 1791, less than two months before his 36th birthday, and the mawkish hooey began immediately.
No, Mozart wasn't poisoned by Salieri, entertaining a notion as "Amadeus" might have made it seem. Forget the romantic perception that the requiem on which he was working when he died was a personal farewell. Mozart was living beyond his means, and this was a handsome commission. The most likely explanation for his death is that Mozart caught the streptococcal inflection that was going around at his Masonic lodge. The weather in Vienna was particularly nasty that fall, and so many were sick. Mozart had been expected to get better.
No matter, Mozart's last year — in which he wrote two operas, including "The Magic Flute," two concertos and a host of other pieces — holds a lasting fascination, the extraordinary final maturity of an incomparable musical genius. The year may have a special allure for Gustavo Dudamel, whose birthday, Jan. 26, is a day before Mozart's, and who turned 36 this year.
Whatever the reason, Dudamel has chosen to dedicate the first two weeks of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's 99th season to the Mozart of 1791. This includes the orchestral programs over the weekend and later this week at Walt Disney Concert Hall, as well as a chamber music program Tuesday. It is a happy, not melancholy, choice.
There was no premonition of death in the often sunny music of the opening program, which I heard at the Sunday matinee. It featured the first piece Mozart finished that fateful year, his chirpy, lyrical Piano Concerto No. 27 (completed Jan. 5). There was also his last finished work, a slight, upbeat cantata dated Nov. 15. Mozart was well enough to conduct it three days later at the dedication of his Masonic temple, New Crowned Hope.
Both pieces are crowned with nothing but hope. The concerto goes so far as to quote a little ditty popular at the time, "Come Sweet May," and you'd have to make an impossibly fanciful leap to find any hint of Mozart fearing that this would be his last May. In the case of the cantata, hope underscores an ode to brotherhood that foreshadows Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. In addition, the program offered the overture and two arias from Mozart's final opera, "La Clemenza di Tito," proposing here a hopeful vision of peace through forgiveness.
The only intimation of death came at the end from "Ave Verum Corpus," a consolatory motet so brief that it could be called a motetlet. Mozart tossed it off that summer for an organist friend to play at the Feast of Corpus Christi. Those seeking an excuse to claim Mozart's art as divine inspiration need not look beyond these four pure minutes of lyricism that rise above pain and tragedy to the reaches of sublime beauty.
Dudamel has grown into a probing Mozartean. He excellently conveyed the inner workings of subtly sophisticated scores with a lyrical grace but also theatricality.
In the concerto, Javier Perianes brought an unusual degree of sensitivity that clearly won over the crowd and the applauding orchestra. The Spanish pianist's exquisite playing reached its apogee with the heavenly slow movement, but I found a surfeit of refinement verging on the inappropriate.
The concerto was actually sketched out a couple of years before Mozart finally wrote it, when he needed something for a concert that might bring in money. Yet when Perianes insinuated his silvery tone, which has the consistency of aural mercury, into the orchestral blend, it felt as though he were suggesting a Mozart already preparing to sublimate the composer's characteristic joy and sassiness to his impending fate. Perianes' style, though, excellently suited his solo encore, Chopin's Nocturne No. 20.
Once dismissed as a hastily written opera, "La Clemenza di Tito" has only lately been coming into its own. The L.A. Phil never got around to playing the overture until 1984, and only then under an assistant conductor. (The other mature Mozart overtures have been in the orchestra's repertory practically since Day One.) But now we know better, as Peter Sellars' revelatory production of the opera at the Salzburg Festival this summer demonstrated.
Dudamel conducted the overture convincingly enough to make it sound like Mozart's best orchestral music. The opera's two best-known arias, "Parto, Parto" and "Deh, per Questo Istante Solo," were meticulously, if somewhat impersonally, sung by mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges. Boris Allakhverdyan supplied the fluid clarinet obbligato in the first.
Paul Appleby was the clarion tenor soloist in the cantata "Laut Verkünde Unsre Freude" ("Loudly Proclaim Our Joy"), which also featured soloists Jon Keenan and Aubrey Allicock and the men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, in this inspiring score of male bonding.
Curiously, all four of these excellent young singers have had major parts in John Adams' operas, with Bridges and Appleby currently in rehearsal for the premiere of "Girls of the Golden West" in San Francisco. Beginning Thursday, Julia Bullock, another emerging opera star heading the cast in Adams' new opera, will join Appleby in extended excerpts from "The Magic Flute" for the four performances of Dudamel's final 1791 program.
"Ave Verum Corpus," exquisitely sung by the full Master Chorale at the end on Sunday, swept all before it away. The four minutes might have lasted, as Mozart has, forever.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
What: L.A. Phil chamber music program with Martin Fröst at 8 p.m. Tuesday; L.A. Phil with Gustavo Dudamel performing selections from "The Magic Flute" at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
Info: (323) 850-2000, www.laphil.com