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.