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Music This year’s Mozart Festival brings light in trying times

Malcolm Cook, featuring guest conductor Matthew Halls and pianist Benedetto Lupo. Toronto Symphony Orchestra Mozart Festival.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra Mozart Festival

The West has been busy trying to remind itself of the spirit of the Enlightenment in the aftermath of the horrid events last week in Paris, attempting from a very great distance to see clearly into the collective mind that created the values of the world we live in, or wished we lived in. We can sample one of the leading spirits of that age over the next few days in our city – not a philosopher, nor caricaturist, but a composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's annual Mozart Festival is in full swing at Roy Thomson Hall. The second concert of three is tonight, a program of Mozart and his contemporaries; Mozart's unfinished Mass in C Minor will be highlighted next week.

When we strip away all the conventions of the 19th century that made Mozart into a musical cake ornament, a confectioner's delight of sweetness and light, we discover a composer of irony, humour, even desperation. A composer who was criticized in his time not for being too graceful, but for being too dissonant, too wild, too revolutionary. Mozart reminds us that, for those who were there as the Enlightenment dawned between the American and French revolutions, the times were perilous and frightening. One world view, however illegitimate it seemed to some, was giving way to another, unclear and untested view, and the cultural, political and social world of the time shuddered in anticipation.

This Mozart – the scatological, ironic, rebellious Mozart – makes his appearance on our concert stages less often than one would like these days, much to our loss, part of a collective misunderstanding of the values of the Enlightenment as they apply to the musical universe. The balanced, symmetrical, controlled elements of his classical style, which were more a portrait of the social realities of his time than a reflection of pure musical mathematics, are nonetheless overpowering today. In his day, it was Mozart's deviation from this balance and symmetry that was striking to his contemporaries. To us, it's the opposite – we are delighted by his grace, his lightness, not always hearing the undercurrent of pain in the music.

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The TSO is trying to get things right. Conductor Matthew Halls and pianist Benedetto Lupo did manage to let the depth of Mozart's despair float toward us on Wednesday night in a sublime middle movement of the A Major Concerto, K. 488. And Les Violons du Roy's Bernard Labadie, who curated this three-concert series for the TSO, has included a fair bit of sly Mozartean humour in his programming, especially in tonight's concert, which includes a performance of Mozart's A Musical Joke, as well as a work by Peter Schickele, PDQ Bach.

A Musical Joke is Mozart's send-up of every bad composer and compositional technique he knew of. Instrumentalists play in the wrong key, figures are repeated ad infinitum, the music goes nowhere, stops, then continues going nowhere. It's hilarious. But interestingly, make of it as you will, A Musical Joke is the first piece Mozart entered in his compositional catalogue after the death of his father, Leopold. A coincidence? A manic, confused portrait of his dad(who wasn't a very good composer – a couple of his works are on the program Saturday night)? A strangled, subconscious last act of rebellion against a suffocating presence? Or a meaningless trifle? Who knows? Probably all of the above.

And the religious music that is so much a part of Mozart's output, such as next week's Mass in C Minor? Conventional wisdom sees it as the duty an oppressed composer owed to his Archbishop patron, nothing more. But Mozart remained a believing, if not practising, Catholic all his life. One of the meanest remarks in his letters to his father concerns Voltaire's atheism. The famous final Requiem, for all its confused origins, remains one of Mozart's last words on any subject.

No matter how he is perceived and reperceived, Mozart remains a central figure in cultural history. But his figure keeps shifting, in an ever-turning kaleidoscope. The TSO may have created its Mozart Festival to provide us with a ray of eternal sunshine in a dreary January. But the master of ambiguity and the musical double entendre always provides more than you bargained for. He is the ultimate musical chameleon, reminding us that the Enlightenment world in which he lived was a complex place, full of contradiction, joy and beauty.

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