Who would have thought back in 1966, the inaugural year of the Mostly Mozart Festival, that one of the hottest tickets in 2009 would be music by a composer born and bred not in Austria or Germany—like Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven—but here in United States. I refer of course to John Adams, who is still very much among the living; several of his works will be spotlighted in this year’s events. And Adams will be on hand to conduct those performances and participate in pre-concert discussions as well.
On August 13 comes the New York premiere of Adams’ opera A Flowering Tree at Frederick P. Rose Hall, directed by Peter Sellars, who has collaborated with Adams previously, perhaps most notably as the librettist of the opera Doctor Atomic. Adams and Sellars have written the Flowering Tree together; it’s based on a south Indian folktale about a woman who turns into a tree, but is also described as being inspired partly by Mozart’s Magic Flute. It looks to be a pretty all-star affair, with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Schola Cantorum of Venezuela, and singers who have performed frequently in Adams works, including three singers from the Flowering Tree world premiere in Vienna in 2006: soprano Jessica Rivera, tenor Russell Thomas, and baritone Eric Owens. At Alice Tully Hall on August 17 a program of some of Adams’ best-known works will be performed by the superb new-music group International Contemporary Ensemble: Gnarly Buttons for clarinet and orchestra (with Michael Collins), Son of Chamber Symphony, and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The latter work has been described by musicians as “athletic” and “crazy difficult.” It’s less than five minutes in length—kind of a 100-meter dash in classical-music terms. In the liner notes to his 2008 EMI recording on which Short Ride appears, Adams quips, “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?” That piece can spin out of control breathtakingly fast, and that’s the dizzy feeling you get listening to it, with its steady beat that feels off kilter as it repeatedly gets jabbed by aggressive brass and wind interjections. You can hear samples of some of the Adams music that will be performed at Mostly Mozart here.
Yes, a lot has changed since the first Mostly Mozart in 1966. Back then, it hadn’t become permanent or official and was called Mid-Summer Serenades—A Mozart Festival; it was the first indoor music festival in the United States. The first concert took place at Philharmonic Hall, later renamed Avery Fisher Hall and the repertoire was all Mozart, nothing but Mozart, as was the next year’s festival, in 1967. In 1968 festival expanded to include works of Haydn. It wasn’t until 1972 that a work by a composer not from the Classical period was performed (two J.S. Bach cantatas). After that focus expanded fairly quickly to include a broad base of standard, but dead-as-usual Western composers. The first year of a work by a living composer was 1983, when Peter Schickele’s new work based on Mozart themes was performed. There have been sprinklings of music by living composers since then, but it seems fair to say that even for a festival that has evolved over the years, 2009’s programming of so much new music is unusual.
There are other, vaster differences between New York in 1966 and New York in 2009. Most of them I can’t document since I wasn’t around in 1966 to compare directly. But I’d wager that people attending Mostly Mozart more than forty years ago may have been those weary, hot city folks sweating out a typical New York summer, looking for the overarching beauty of the melodies in a Mozart symphony or string quartet, and the inner calm and peace of mind that his music can foster—and maybe an air-conditioned respite as well. (AC not standard back then.) I know when I head up to hear these John Adams pieces, I will not be looking to chill out and relax, but for some excitement and stimulation.
Photo of John Adams by Margaretta Mitchell.