Present Music celebrates Mozart’s modern successors

Kirstin Roble, Contributing writer

Milwaukee’s Present Music ensemble helps kick off another year of fine arts, with a season-opening concert that will bring together the largest ensemble Present Music has ever hosted. It’ll also be bringing together the company’s love for chamber music’s classical roots and its passion for contemporary works.

Deceptively titled Mozart?!, this concert features only one work by the legendary classical composer. But marketing director Erin Woehlke says that’s intentional, as artistic director Kevin Stalheim is hoping to depict the parallels between Wolfgang Amadeus and 20th-century composers Luciano Berio and John Adams. Woehlke says, “There’s more connections between the three men than it would seem on the initial surface and we plan to showcase those similarities.”

Berio and Adams have explicitly cited Mozart as an influence, with Adams going so far to say that it was learning about the Austrian composer that inspired him to start composing as a young child. One of the two Adams works included on the concert, Grand Pianola Music, bears some notable similarities to the concert’s single Mozart work, his Gran Partita, including the shared initial starting key of E flat major. 

Adams also has commented that his Grand Pianola was “subconscious music,” in which the listener was hearing a blur of sounds. “This is much like what one would hear crossing through a music school with the different styles played simultaneously. Mozart is among those referenced in this sonic blur,” explains Woehlke.

As a composer, Berio sought to encourage the virtuosity of performance, much like Mozart did in his vocal and instrumental works. Berio’s compositions of this sort are evident in a series of pieces, Sequenzas, which he composed as solo, virtuosic works. This particular concert will feature “Sequenza VIII,” a solo piece for violin. 

This concert will be Present Music’s biggest yet, featuring 23 musicians and three vocalists. “Usually we perform with a smaller group, but this is much different,” Woehlke says. “This larger-scale event sets the scene for a season that will indeed be larger than life in many aspects.”

Among the other five Present Music concerts this season are the Oct. 24 Carnival concert, featuring 2015 Grammy winner Cory Smythe, and the March 20 Equinox: Light and Dark, another combination of classical and contemporary works by composers including Antonio Vivaldi, Andrew Normon, Judd Greenstein and Robert Honstein.

Mozart?! brings together three great men — a minimalist, an experimentalist and a master — all for one night only. “Regardless of your music taste, this is the concert for you,” Woehlke says. “This event proves that classical music is not old or outdated, but is alive and thriving in new music. It’s incredibly exciting, and a reminder of the power of music to transcend time.”

ON STAGE

Present Music’s Mozart?! concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 5 at the Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd., Milwaukee. Tickets are $35, $25 or $15, with half-price discounts for students at presentmusic.org.