Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Mozart: whatevs?

AC Douglas is doing yeoman's work in culling the best ruminations on the Year of Mozart (YOM) here.

Good reading, as I myself have been wrestling with some mixed feelings about the YOM. Even for people who like Mozart a lot, the cult of Mozart carries a lot of undesirable baggage that needs to be dealt with. It's not an elitist thing. Just an understanding that the way of Mozart as he is understood in the culture at large -- as shorthand for 'genius' and catch-all for classical music as it happened in some mythical time gone by -- is the path to irrelevance. Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus", surely the most elegant expression of some of these notions in our own times, has very little to do with Mozart's music, which is reduced to a terribly effective set piece set piece. The fear that this indulgence in the 'idea' of classical music will be accepted as a substitute for the actual thing is why the cult of Mozart looks so threatening.

So there is bound to be some groaning when every program link for the next month returns an "All-Mozart" line-up. It's like the eye-roll when one sees a Mozart piano concerto chucked into a program that has nothing to do with it times a hundred, accompanied by the requisite dark thoughts about how Mozart is just bait for the people who only want a classical music-flavored night out. And it is compounded when one's smart, interesting friends, who are just on the other side of being interested in the music, make a point of noting that Mozart is "too pretty" or "too sweet" for them. And when they say it, you know they're compounding quite a bit more than just Mozart in that statement.

Amidst all that baggage I find myself wondering how the current glut of Mozart can really do much good, and numerous snarky thoughts pass through my head about how maybe a lot of Mozart kind of deserves its rep as aural wallpaper, and won't I be glad when this is all over, and boy does Mozart squeeze out a lot of other interesting stuff out of the concert hall.

But then I calm down, and I am reminded that that Mozart has in fact been responsible for two of the most extraordinary musical experiences I have had this season, ones which I am likely to remember for a long, long time. I still haven't quite sorted out the above, but in honor of the YOM:

The first came in a masterclass Leon Fleisher gave in November. Enjoying Fleisher a lot and having read rapturous descriptions of his past masterclasses, I was quite happy to come into a ticket, but felt neither here nor there about the actual pieces at hand: the piano concertos K488 and K595. Each student played the first movement of their respective concerto at the outset, and my reaction was standard: nice...some things noted...pleasure at getting to actually focus some energy music I sometimes find too easy to zone out to.

But then Fleisher started in on them. I'm still not quite sure what kind of voodoo magic that man's words are capable of, but as the talented young pianists began to process and translate what he was getting at, it was as though a different Mozart entirely rose up from the keyboard. Something to do with a greater structure being revealed, the precise connections being made -- like suddenly the deeper and vastly more resilient architecture of the music was made clear, unlocked only by playing of an almost supernatural grace and omniscience. The pianists couldn't get it consistently, and frankly, I'm not sure how anyone can, but when they did...the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.

The second came during the recent Cosi Fan Tutte performances at the Met. I'm hardly a stranger to Mozart's operas, yet I had never experienced their dramatic power in person quite as I did at that performance.

I suddenly understood the radical contradictions which the operas force us to contend with: for example, in the second act, where Fiordiligi sings a song of love, and lust, and longing to this absurd stranger, her boyfriend's friend in disguise, and yet. That these things coexist is breathtaking, and terrifying, yet at no odds with the beauty of the music. How do we reconcile this? That her longing is real and beautiful, even as the reality of her situation is so pitiful?

And then, near the end, at the faux wedding feast, when together, they sing a quartet of weariness in which they ask to forget all that has happened and get on with their lives. It is the music which has passed through all of our minds when we try to make sense of our infinitely confounding selves. Yet the opera suggests this may in fact be the best option.

Mozart is difficult for two reasons, as far as I can tell. First, he does not offer up answers easily, because to find those answers you can never, never, give into the aural wallpaper response. It is all hidden in the graceful lines and elegant melodies, and our ears are simply not preconditioned to interrogate these. Second, understanding him requires finding more familiarity and truth in the music of a man of the eighteenth century than our long vantage point is inclined to allow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your post has moved be because I have spent four years studing vocal music. My first perception of Mozart was 'popular classics'. But when I started stdying Requem during my senior year I realized that there was also a different Mozart. Mozart that is not known to most 'popular classics' fans.