Get With The Program

I wanted to wait until the Mozart 250th birthday hysteria died down before addressing this recent milestone in my column because it seems like an irrationally touchy subject. For instance, someone posted a fawning paragraph in tribute to Mozart on one of the bulletin boards in the University of Illinois music building; in the margin, someone else, presumably a composer, had scribbled an irate rejoinder challenging the original poster’s unquestioning advocacy of W. A.

This is hardly the only example of tempers flaring at the mention of Mozart’s anniversary. Between rapturous paeans to the master’s craft and bitter denunciations of his shallow predictability, everyone seems to have a strong opinion. I admit that I was caught up in the hurricane of emotion as well: I posted a statement on my personal blog to the effect that we should all just forget Mozart for one day out of the year. I suggested that we call it Salieri Day, as in “we went down to Charlottesville and spent Salieri Day with the in-laws.”

Looking back, though, what’s the big deal? Of course Mozart is great. So is air, love, and sushi. Tell me something I don’t know. A huge celebration of Mozart is like a list of the greatest rock and roll bands that starts with the Beatles: They may have been the best group of all time, but it’s 2006, and the Beatles is a pretty damn boring pick for best band even if it’s true. But Mozart adoration is a relatively harmless pastime unless it begins to distort our ability to program concerts effectively…which, of course, it did.

I think it was Frank J. Oteri who observed some time ago on this very site that single-composer programs are rarely as satisfying as we feel like they should be. I recently heard an all-Brahms concert here in Champaign-Urbana, and although all of the pieces were of indisputably high quality, by the beginning of the second half I felt that I had simply heard enough Brahms for one evening. (I don’t know if a single concert-length piece like the German Requiem would have made me feel the same way, but I doubt it.)

The Oteri Principle was never more evident than around Mozart’s 250th this year. Most musicians—even composers—harbor no ill will toward Mozart or any other composer fortunate enough to receive retrospective concerts, but the fact that such a concert can attenuate the audience’s experience should be enough to foster more “fair and balanced” approaches to programming. I was unable to make it to a recent Chicago Symphony Orechestra concert that included Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, Augusta Read Thomas’s Astral Canticle, the Kindertotenlieder, and the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, but it sounds like it would have been an excellent program—it even included a piece of new music, for crying out loud! In 250 years, when Mozart turns 500, let’s not go crazy. Just program one piece of his on your concerts, and don’t leave out the composers, now infants, who will be reaching their own 250th birthdays.

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6 thoughts on “Get With The Program

  1. mdwcomposer

    Colin – a little sideways to your primary topic (Mozart), but it brought this thought I’d like to throw out on the single-composer concert topic: do you (or any of the composers reading this) think an entire concert of your own music would be effective?

    My own answer would be: probably not. Even though I love my music a great deal, I’m pretty sure an all-Winges program would elicit what you felt about the all-Brahms program, at least for a lot of the audience.

    Although I do think a longer single work is perceived differently – I’ve been completely absorbed the times I’ve heard the Brahms Requiem .

    — Mark Winges

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  2. Colin Holter

    Mark- Good question. Personally, I don’t think that an all-Holter program would be effective; at any rate, it certainly wouldn’t be pleasant.

    That said, from a career standpoint, an all-Holter program implies that there are players interested enough in my music to put together an evening full of it. If the offer came up, I’d accept in a heartbeat. After I make my first million, I may change my mind. . .

    Reply
  3. Kyle Gann

    It seems to me that the rational thing to do with Mozart is to start making the same distinctions between his great and ho-hum works we make with other historical composers. His late piano concerti are among the greatest works ever written – I’ll listen to them anytime. But his piano sonatas, written for his students, are sometimes alarmingly weak, his violin concerti (composed by age 18) are forgettable, and out of his 41 symphonies, fewer than a dozen are of more than musicological interest. We have enough sense not to trot out Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives and Wellington’s Victory every decade just because they’re by Beethoven, but there’s a perceived uniformity to Mozart’s output that is specious when you examine it. Mozart criticism needs to become more discriminating.

    On the other hand, an all-Gann concert would blow your mind. I’m not saying anyone would be left at the end of it, but it would blow your mind.

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  4. SVF

    I also went off on Mozart on my blog in the heat of the 250 frenzy…

    It was fun… but a little unfair, I admit. I did get a whole lot of comments (and personal attacks) though… that was fun too… for awhile…

    You can relive the memories here, if you’re in the mood…

    Why Mozart?

    Another great CSO program on 6/13/06 pairs Mozart’s 22nd and 27th piano concertos with Webern’s only symphony and only concerto. It’s sold out (Webern continues to guarantee stellar box office…!)

    Reply
  5. kmanlove

    I do think that an all Gann concert would blow people’s minds, but I really think that a six-hour, non-stop Manlove, Gann, and Holter concert would change the world. People wouldn’t even know the name ‘Mozart’ after an event like this.

    After hearing those Piano Sonatas repeated over and over again in the theory class I teach, I must agree: a lot of them are a mess. I guess we should put up with an all-Mozart concert once a year for his birthday, though I’d prefer Chucky Cheese. To sum up, an all-Mozart concert sure beats an all-Mendelssohn concert. An all-_______ concert isn’t a program, and as soon as people realize what it means to program, then we might see some interesting ones.

    Reply

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