How do you program a Mozart festival in such an important anniversary year?
Each year is different, but a festival has to be festive! This year the entire world is celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. It's extraordinary to imagine one of today's artists being celebrated in this way 250 years from now. It proves that Mozart's music is timeless and he speaks to contemporary audiences. So [festival artistic director] Jane Moss and I thought we should commission a piece from a living composer to make his music even more relevant. Mozart's music was very contemporary at the time, so we should continue this way of creation.
You often work with period-instrument groups. How does that affect your style when you conduct modern ensembles?
I was recently studying Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor again. In the climax of the slow movement, he wrote for the horns an F-sharp, but in Mozart's time F-sharp didn't exist — to produce this sound you had to put your hand in the opening of the horn, which made a strange noise. It wasn't a beautiful sound, but Mozart wasn't trying to be beautiful. He wanted to be extreme, to sound almost like a scream.
Period instruments help us to remember that notes that are easy to get now were very hard in his time, and he chose those notes for a reason. The balance between brass and strings was also different, as the period instruments use gut strings, which sound more velvety.
But I don't want to be isolated in one way. Each way has its beauty and I want to do both.
What's your favorite Mozart piece?
I love Idomeneo, a musical and theatrical masterpiece, which we're doing at the festival. Figaro and Don Giovanni are also favorites.
The Magic Flute is not a piece I would love to do. There are so many aspects to it, I wouldn't know which to emphasize; if you favor one aspect you miss the other. I hear it from time to time but for the moment I prefer to leave it to others to conduct. I only want to conduct pieces I profoundly love; only then does one have the energy to share it with the musicians.
But my list is always changing! I conducted Beethoven's Ninth for the first time last month. It's so profound that I don't think a conductor should even think about doing it before age 45.
What is the significance of ZaÇde?
This opera shows that Mozart was not a guy in an ivory tower composing nice tunes. ZaÇde was written by a 23-year-old who wanted to change the world. It's a fabulous piece; it must have taken amazing courage for such a young man to break the rules and to be so extreme in musical expression and in the political message.
To quote Peter Sellars, when you are 40 you accept the world as it is, but at 23 you rebel against injustices. The opera speaks about slavery and the relationship between Muslims and Christians, but also about the hope of peace. So it's still very relevant. Towards the end of his life Mozart became interested in the Freemasons and what they were fighting for: human rights, anti-slavery, etc.
Many of this year's concerts balance Mozart with contemporary works. How did you go about programming them?
We wanted a balance throughout the festival, between sacred and secular and staged and instrumental music. We asked some of the performers to pick a contemporary piece, but of course it must have a link with Mozart. So in some concerts there is an hommage to Mozart, for example. We also wanted a balance between established and fledgling performers and period- and modern-instrument groups. ZaÇde will be performed by Concerto K‹ln. There is no one way of performing Mozart. You are never finished digging and learning.
Describe your relationship with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra.
We have our own identity of sound and style despite the fact we only meet for five weeks a year. They are very eager to experiment, which is quite rare with an orchestra. Often when you ask a group of musicians to change, they say 'why?'.
When I first conducted them [the Festival Orchestra] in Mozart's G minor symphony, they had their way of playing it. I asked them to play it faster, and we had a geometrical fight between two and three beats. They love to experiment, which I am grateful for.