January 30, 2009 / 12:53 PM / 9 years ago

Mozart Week music fest reborn in his birthplace

SALZBURG, Austria (Reuters Life!) - If the percussion, tam-tams and gongs did not give the game away, all was revealed when conductor Pierre Boulez strode onstage.

The appearance of the man who has been the Greek chorus of modern music for decades is a potent symbol of how Mozart's birthplace city of Salzburg has embraced contemporary classical music in a big, bold way.

And the audiences, who have descended on this picturesque town in the foothills of the Alps, appear to be loving it.

A concert on Thursday night in the main hall of the Mozarteum, a venue three years ago for the 250th celebration of Mozart's birth in a house across the River Salzach, pulled no punches.

First up was "Akso," a piece for chamber orchestra by the 100-year-old dean of American modernists, Elliott Carter, a specialist, as one commentator put it, in "non-measured time."

Next came "Verzeichnete Spur" (Wandering Trail) by Carter's junior by 60-plus years, 38-year-old German Matthias Pintscher who, in addition to the percussion, had electronic mixing and a double bass with clothes pins damping the strings.

Last, but not least, Boulez, who once suggested blowing up opera houses because they were outmoded, conducted his own carefully constructed "Derive 2" for 11 instruments. It showed his flair for blending one instrument into another to create an amalgam of sound that is sheer ear candy.

And did those veteran Mozart lovers Salzburg is famous for get up en masse and walk out?

No. They stayed and they cheered, calling Boulez back four times to accept their accolades.

"We like the classical but, oh sure, we have fairly Catholic tastes," said Douglas Wright, an engineer from Toronto, Canada, who, with his wife Zella, had attended another Pintscher concert earlier in the week.

It was another occasion for Stephan Pauly, the 36-year-old artistic director of the Mozart Foundation, which runs the annual Mozart Week program coinciding with Mozart's birth on January 27, 1756, to breathe a deep sigh of relief.

"I am so happy...to see the attention and curiosity of the audience," said Pauly, who made the decision three years ago to manhandle the 50-year-old festival into the 21st century.

It was a big gamble, to throw Boulez, Pintscher and Carter, and next year the Hungarian minimalist Gyorgy Kurtag, at audiences fed on diets of Mozart, Haydn and the occasional Beethoven.

There is still plenty of Mozart on the menu, along with Haydn this year in order to explore relationships between those two titans of the 18th century, but the real novelty is Mozart Week's modernist glow.

"The people who come to listen to Mozart should listen to newer, great music -- whether they like it or not it is very important to know," world-renowned pianist and Mozart specialist Mitsuko Uchida, this year's artist in residence, told Reuters.

Uchida, who made her reputation playing Mozart sonatas, had gone over to the "dark side" too, offering in one recital a mix of Boulez and Kurtag alongside Mozart and Bach.

"In Mozart's time many people thought his music was too complicated, let alone Beethoven's music... Even today when you play (Beethoven's) 'Grosse Fugue' without telling them what it is, people would say, 'Achh this is ugly music'," Uchida said.

Pauly said he thought that after Mozart's birthday year in 2006 the festival had reached a turning point.

"We used the year 2007 because the Mozart year ended at the end of 2006 with December 5, the day of his death, and there were all those articles in the press. And then it's January again and you have a Mozart Woche (week) and who can stand that?

"Nobody. So we decided this is the time to start a new thing and this is what we did."

He said the festival took a bit of a hit in attendance in 2007, but he said bookings were surprisingly strong for 2008 and again for this year.

What the future holds in store, with the economic crisis in full swing, no one can say but Pauly was confident he has hit on a winning formula -- mix the new and the old and everyone wins.

"I am not saying we are on a turnaround," he said, "but we are on a good way."

Reporting by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato

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