By Cathy Fuller
The violin and viola once owned by Mozart himself speak through the composer's music during the Boston Early Music Festival, thanks to the Salzburg Mozarteum.
To hear the performances, click on "Listen" above, and watch a video excerpt below.
Mozart never made it to America: getting seasick crossing the English Channel put an end to any of his seafaring fantasies. But America was frequently on Mozart's mind. In fact, his closest collaborator, librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, actually immigrated to these shores and became the first professor of Italian at Columbia University in New York.
Mozart's music has made it here, of course – it's woven into the lives of practically everyone. And that's a big part of why there were so many goosebumps when an excited audience in Boston was suddenly in the presence of two of the instruments that Mozart had placed firmly under his chin, in private and in concert, uncountable times.
Only a few days earlier, an Austrian had made his way through security with a violin case and boarded a plane in Salzburg. Another Austrian boarded a different plane with a viola case. And that marked the first time that two priceless possessions of Mozart had gone transatlantic. What a thrill that they were headed for the room up the hall from us at Classical New England. The Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation was reaching out to the wider world, and the two instruments were never, ever out of the sight of at least one member of the entourage who came along for events presented by the Boston Early Music Festival.
Ulrich Leisinger and Gabriele Ramsauer of the Mozarteum Foundation painted a vivid picture of Mozart the performer – playful, proud, very short (just five feet!) and ultimately favoring the viola over the violin. I watched Daniel Stepner taking advantage of every minute that he had with the violin, trying to unlock the secret of making it speak. It's no turbo-charged Stradivarius – it has a bright but intimate sound that will complain if it's leaned on too heavily. Dan had to learn its ins and outs in a matter of hours. The marvel is that the violin has remained almost entirely intact – just as Mozart knew it. And that's because everyone who owned it knew that it had been Mozart's. The viola is a beauty, too, although it has seen a number of alterations over the years.
I squinted at the instruments during the performance, trying to imagine them in Mozart's candlelit rooms. I fantasized about their warm color getting a glint of sunshine through a Paris window during a rehearsal for the premiere of one of the violin concertos. I wondered if Mozart improvised cadenzas on that violin.
I asked Leisinger if we had any way of knowing what Mozart's actual voice sounded like. He said that we only know that when he sang he was a tenor. So his speaking voice was probably high. That's something we'll never be able to hear. But it was so good to hear the voices that came from his instruments. And because Mozart really is so deeply woven into us, virtually everyone took a moment at the reception to have their photo taken holding Mozart's violin. Having played so much Mozart at the piano over the years, I felt so deeply happy and privileged to touch these things that meant so much to him.
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