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Vienna returns Mozart's affection

Austria's "City of Music" is getting ready for its curtain call. Starting Jan. 27 and lasting until the final notes are played in December, Vienna will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birth with one of the largest birthday bashes Europe has ever seen.

Visitors can take in hundreds of concerts, plays, exhibits, open-air performances and film screenings, all inspired in one way or another by Mozart. Cultural giants such as the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic will share the stage with international artists like jazz pianist Chick Corea, choreographer Mark Morris, classical pianist Emmanuel Ax and Canadian tenor Michael Schade. In the process, virtually every piece of Mozart's 626-work canon will be played, including rarely-heard works of sacred music and some of his early operas.

When I visited Austria's capital in October, the city was already gearing up for Mozart Year, with buskers and tour guides in powdered wigs and pantaloons out in force in front of St. Stephen's Cathedral. Armed with a map, I decided to trace my own path through Vienna's Graben district, where Mozart lived in as many as 12 different apartments.

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My first stop was at the Mozarthaus, the only one of his Viennese residences to have survived intact (some of the original frescoes still brighten the walls). Plaster dust drifted out of the windows as workmen readied the interior for its gala opening as a museum on Jan. 27. But it was still possible to look up and imagine Mozart sitting in the window, working on his score of The Marriage of Figaro while wondering how on earth he would pay the next month's rent.

A few blocks away, I stood in the courtyard of the Deutschordernhaus, the monastery where Mozart lived while he worked for Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg from 1778 to 1781. It was here that Mozart received the famous "kick in the pants" from the archbishop's head servant as punishment for travelling to Munich for a performance without the archbishop's consent. It was the final straw for Mozart, who was already being fêted like a pop star in the rest of Europe. Only in Austria was he still treated like a servant. In that instant, in that very courtyard, Mozart made his move, resigning his post as court composer and striking out on his own.

Unemployed and homeless, but finally free of his subservient role, Mozart moved into the lodgings of Frau Weber, mother to a musical family of four girls, on nearby Milchgasse street. He rented a room until his romance with her daughter Constanze scandalized the neighbourhood. Undaunted, he moved around the corner - and based the opera he was writing at the time, Abduction from the Seraglio, on his attempts to liberate Constanze from a society he regarded as hypocritical and backward.

From then on, Mozart flourished - perhaps not in a financial sense, but as one of Europe's few truly autonomous artists. Away from his father and the stifling atmosphere of Salzburg, Mozart could pursue freemasonry and revel in the company of other artists who embraced Enlightenment ideals.

It's fitting, then, that Mozart's beloved Vienna is providing some of the most interesting homages in his anniversary year.

After an afternoon spent retracing Mozart's footsteps, I paid a visit to the offices of Peter Marboe, artistic director of Vienna's Mozart Year. In October all was calm, and Marboe was in a reflective mood. "The last thing I wanted for Mozart Year was for young composers to feel that everything would be Mozart, Mozart, Mozart and nothing else," Marboe said. "For me, this is not just a year of celebration and commemoration, but a year of initiative. We wanted to make a statement. In order to do this we also have to break new ground."

To that end, Marboe has commissioned more than 80 new works of art, and brought together one of the most multifaceted artistic gatherings ever assembled. Classical, jazz and pop musicians, dance companies, librettists and composers, filmmakers and visual artists will explore Mozart's work in every corner of Vienna. Along with traditional concerts and recitals, avant-garde outings will spice up the mixture. Bernhard Lang's musical Odio Mozart/I Hate Mozart explores the thoughts and minds of Mozart's detractors. A new full-length opera by Thomas Pernes, Magic Flute 06, places Mozart's characters in new situations set to entirely new music. Those with an appetite for all-things-Mozart will enjoy Wolfgang is Fat and in Good Health, a cookbook that shares the composer's favourite recipes while putting his eating and drinking habits into their cultural and historical context.

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Breaking new ground also means reaching new audiences, and Marboe has organized an ambitious series of more than 600 public concerts in many venues where Mozart is seldom heard. Performances will be held in all of Vienna's 23 districts, along with musical events staged in hospitals, shelters, jails and other institutions. To inspire Vienna's youngest musicians, a colourful bus dubbed the Mozart-Mobile will entice children in every corner of the city to join in the celebrations. And the Zoom Children's Museum will explore Mozart's life as a child by focusing on the kinds of toys he played with, for example, and whether he had to brush his teeth or not.

To anchor the year's events and provide the historical context in which Mozart's genius surfaced, one of the most detailed and comprehensive Mozart exhibits ever mounted will open in March in the opulent Albertina museum. Pritzker Award-winning architect Zaha Habib's design will transport visitors back to the turbulent period in which Mozart worked, offering insights into art, culture, fashion, science and sexuality.

In the final months of the year, Marboe has chosen to hand the reins to American opera and theatre director Peter Sellars, whose festival of new works is perhaps the most anticipated event of the year. Titled New Crowned Hope after the freemason lodge Mozart helped found, it will be a bridge from the Mozart of the Enlightenment Era to the Mozart of the iPod generation, paying tribute to the composer without playing a single note of his music. As Sellars explains: "Mozart was an innovator and a revolutionary - and we must repeat that gesture."

From a Cambodian ballet modelled on The Magic Flute to Iranian Bahman Ghobadi's film The Last Symphony of the Kurds, Sellars' New Crowned Hope will take Mozart's ideas well into the 21st century and far beyond the boundaries of Europe. Mozart the iconoclast and freethinker would surely have approved of that.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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