Birmingham Town Hall hosts on Saturday what are probably the city premieres of three of Mozart’s earliest works, two certainly composed when this Bart Simpson of music was 11, the other written no later than the age of 12.
The conductor Ian Page has created Classical Opera, with the aim of bringing to life the context in which Mozart created his music, performing and recording all 21 of the composer’s operas.
A combination of period-instrument orchestral ensembles and young singers is bringing the project to life, originally in London, but increasingly spreading outside the metropolis and out into Europe.
Ian tells me about his enthusiasm for the idea.
“I began exploring Mozart’s early works primarily to see what they told us about his mature masterpieces, but I soon became passionate about them in their own right. It’s always wonderful to see and hear the audience’s appreciation and enthusiasm for this repertoire. People genuinely seem to forget pretty quickly that the music was written by a child and just enjoy the music on its own terms.”
Saturday’s programme includes the dramatic cantata Grabmusik (almost a proto-Dream of Gerontius, with its conversation between a soul on the point of death and its guardian angel) and the opera Apollo et Hyacinthus (sung in the original Latin, with surtitles here).
The evening begins with the Lambach Symphony, parts of which were probably composed in London in 1766 when Mozart was 10, other parts written in collaboration with Daddy Leopold when the Mozarts stayed at the Benedictine monastery in Lambach on their return home to Salzburg from Vienna two years later.
“Works like Grabmusik and Apollo et Hyacinthus do reveal an incredibly accomplished technical ability,” says Ian, “but there is also a palpable sense of fun and energy, and the colours are all quite extreme and primary, as you’d expect from an 11-year-old with lots to say. Mozart had clearly had a musical education that was second to none.
“What’s most extraordinary about these two works in particular, though, is their emotional depth, and their dramatic understanding and sensitivity. That’s something that can’t be taught.
“The other thing we’ve found is that these early works are a wonderful way of introducing children to classical music. You can tell kids till you’re blue in the face that The Magic Flute and the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony are masterpieces, but if you tell them that the music they’re about to hear was written when Mozart was the same age as them then they suddenly engage on a completely different level.
“Despite being written by arguably the most famous composer in history these works are very rarely performed. We’ve done them several times now so they’re very much in our blood, and we do find that we like them better and better the more we perform them, which is often the best barometer of a work’s quality.
“Of course the lazy argument is that if a piece hasn’t been performed for a long time then there’s usually a good reason for that, but sometimes that just isn’t the case. When we first performed Grabmusik people didn’t really seem to know what to make of it, whereas when we performed it at the start of this year the critics were saying ‘This is an amazing piece. How come we didn’t know about it?’”.
Birmingham Town Hall was built not many decades after Mozart’s death, and Mendelssohn performed there on several occasions. Will Ian be feeling the resonances?
“Absolutely! It’s always more exciting to be performing in historical venues with excellent acoustics, and I’m sure the history and magnificence of Birmingham Town Hall will inspire us to give of our best. At the start of this season we gave some concerts in Eisenstadt, Austria, in the concert hall that was built for Haydn and in which he premiered many of his works, and these links and resonances with history can feel very special.
“In terms of Birmingham’s more recent musical history, there’s another reason why I’m so excited that we are making our Birmingham debut. When I was a student I was hugely influenced by the way Simon Rattle built a community of concert-goers and earned their trust to the extent that by the end of his tenure at the CBSO he could sell out a programme of difficult contemporary music or works that no one had ever heard before.
“This has been a tremendous influence on my own career, and I devote a huge amount of time and attention to building programmes that I think people will enjoy and feel fed by. Because of this I’m particularly thrilled that Richard Hawley (artistic adviser at Town Hall
Symphony Hall) has approached Classical Opera about an ongoing partnership with Birmingham Town Hall rather than a one-off performance.
“Music has the power to transform lives in so many ways and on so many levels, and I hope that we will be able to build a trust and friendship with Birmingham audiences that will create genuine value and enjoyment. And Mozart’s first opera feels as good a place to start as any!”
- Ian Page conducts Classical Opera in early Mozart at Birmingham Town Hall on Saturday (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.