When I worked for The Cleveland Orchestra, and we were trying to combat the exhaustion of being on tour, we would play the quiz “If you were banished to a deserted island, what music would you take with you?” String players were shocked that I would leave Brahms behind giving priority to Bartόk and Stravinsky. We debated the Russian post-Romantics and the virtues of Mahler vs. Bruckner. But, the one composer on everyone’s list without argument was Mozart. Island life would be rich with the works of Mozart including symphonic works, chamber music, sacred music and masses, operas and operettas, requiems, and virtuoso works for various instruments. But what is most telling about Mozart’s music, and the reason that no man (or woman) would be an island with Wolfie in hand, is that his prolific canon has nuance, emotion, and speaks to the core of what makes us human.
Last weekend I attended a memorial service, or rather a celebration of the life of a prominent person in our community. He was my neighbor, a great patron of the arts, a Harvard graduate, a Julliard trained musician; a true Renaissance man. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was performed and the virtuosity of the work, the wit, and the light but ever-present egotism of the work was a perfect match to the man I knew. It made me smile and remember the spark, that flash of brilliance that truly intelligent individuals exude, sometimes in stark contrast to the dull mediocrity that we too often find ourselves wading through. But what I truly love most about Mozart is his female opera characters. They have wit, intelligence, sensuality, a sense of humor, femininity, autonomy, and power. Without their intervention, the men of Mozart’s operas would simply be two parts libido and one part power-stricken fool.
Perhaps it is my progression toward middle age, but the last time I sat in the theatre with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, I no longer identified with the saucy, effervescent Susanna but rather I had empathy for the abandoned Contessa. During the Contessa’s aria “Dove sono i bei moment” she laments the passing of all the lovely moments and wonders where the sweetness and pleasure have gone. She is wistful for the infatuation of young love, but wizened by promises broken and loyalties betrayed. Mozart’s genius is in his ability to capture the Contessa’s transition from a woman whose power has been her physical beauty and youth to a more mature woman whose power is in her benevolence and intelligence.
So on this election night, give me the deserted island and bring me the breadth of Mozart. Let me be the Despina, Contessa Almavira, Susanna, Donna Anna, Zerlina, the Queen of the Night or any of the other witty women of the Mozart sisterhood. Together we shall send Don Giovanni to hell and back, rehabilitate the philandering Count, assist the quest-seeking Papageno and revive the heartsick Tamino. I will live an island life with all of humanity’s trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows while never regretting the music I left behind. After all, the true effect of Mozart is how his music seduces us into believing that brilliance, genius, and heart have a place in our world, no matter how small that world may be.