Classical music too often is more admired than enjoyed, like a cherished toy in its original packaging. Symphonies are scaled for formal presentation in grand halls, but much of the classical repertoire is more compactly scored for smaller groups and more intimate spaces, recital halls and galleries. Both forms break free of their staid habitats Sunday, taking to the streets of Carytown for an innovative, free-range Mozart Festival.
The event is sponsored by Classical Revolution RVA, the local chapter of an international organization of musicians "dedicated to performing high-quality chamber music in nontraditional settings." The group started as the standalone Classical Incarnations, a monthly series of Sunday night gigs at Balliceaux. Organized by Ellen Cockerham, a violinist with the Richmond Symphony, the ever-shifting ensembles first drew exclusively on symphony players, but grew quickly to include freelancers, university students and others. There are more than 120 players who've performed or are waiting to perform, Cockerham says.
The festival unwinds all day, starting at 11 a.m. with a quartet at AlterNatives and followed at noon by "Eine Kleine Brunch Music" at Can Can Brasserie. At 2 p.m., it's children's story time with "The Magic Flute" at Cartwheels and Coffee. For the unhungry or aged, a floating chamber group plays Carytown Bistro at 1 and Plan 9 Records at 2.
You can enjoy adult's story time in the form of a lecture titled "Wolfgang 101" from Virginia Commonwealth University conductor Daniel Myssk, who's at Chop Suey Books at 3. The magnificent Paris, Prague and Jupiter symphonies all somehow cram into Babe's at 4. The Capital Opera presents a greatest hits selection of Mozart arias back at Can Can at 6. And the day ends with a showing of "Amadeus" at the Byrd Theatre at 7:30.
This dazzling 1984 Academy Award-winning film portrays Mozart's genius as a divine gift, mysteriously bestowed on a childish and uncouth lout. While working brilliantly as dramatic narrative, it's almost absurdly unfair to the composer. Mozart was a hardworking musical prodigy and virtuoso pianist who started a far-traveled performing career at the age of 5. He composed more than 600 works, including some of the greatest pieces in Western music, before his death at 35.
"He was endlessly inventive," Cockerham says, "artfully bringing together lots of different kinds of music: Turkish music, Bach, lighter Italian folk songs, hunting music — all kinds of things to keep interest. To his contemporary audience it was as if he was incorporating rock, jazz and hip-hop. To us it just sounds like Mozart."
With Beethoven's protean, tortured intensity cast as the model for heroic genius, the prolific, often lighthearted Mozart became viewed as the opposite — the effortless, God-kissed savant. Just add inane giggling and a drunken fart joke or two and you have the tragically gauche buffoon of "Amadeus."
In reality, for art to seem effortless there's inevitably the mask of long preparation.
"All of us playing in Classical Revolution, even the nonprofessional musicians, have had to practice every day since we were small children," Cockerham says. "You have to do that to play as well as we do. It is becoming popular to ironically pick up an instrument and learn to play it just well enough to form a band. But it is still important to preserve the idea of lifelong dedication to one's craft."
With more than 50 players involved in the festival, centuries of solitary practice will blossom in midwinter Carytown. "It is a unique opportunity to encounter this great music," Cockerham says. "I've been to countless festivals, but none were brought to the people in this way. It's something new that I hope will continue."
At midnight during the afterparty, Mozart turns 258. At least he would have if he, unlike his eternally astounding music, were immortal. S
The Mozart Festival takes place at various locations in Carytown on Jan. 26. Tickets will be on sale at AlterNatives for $4 in advance or at the Byrd for $5 on the day of the event.