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Making the Most of Mozart

Two conductors ruminate on the genius and his work.



Style: What makes Mozart a great composer?

Mark Russell Smith: Within the classical framework, he had the same limitation that every composer of his period had. But what he was able to express given the confinement of classical forms was amazing. His music has humanity and creates great emotion.

Dan Saunders: Many of his operas have the human touch. He makes people care about his characters because they can relate to them. The themes of greed, love and jealousy are things everyone can relate to.

What is your favorite Mozart composition?

Smith: Wow. I'd have to say the piano concerti, the Jupiter Symphony and the G minor symphony. It's really hard to pick just one.

Saunders: "The Marriage of Figaro." It's universally thought of as one of opera's greatest hits. The music and the words are perfectly married. When Mozart met Da Ponte [the librettist], it was a marriage of music and text. The story is ageless, and people can actually relate to the characters. Nothing had been written like this before.

In your opinion, was Mozart a genius? What makes him so?

Smith: Genius like Mozart has only appeared on earth two-three times. Da Vinci, Michelangelo. Minds like that. Directly from God. Their quickness, skill, perfection … Mozart composed in his head before he wrote anything down. It was written down like he was taking dictation or something.

Saunders: Oh my gosh, yes. He was outside the box from the word go. The music flew out of him like a gift from God. Unlike Beethoven's scores, Mozart's don't have a scratch-out mark on them.

Any special memories performing Mozart's music?

Smith: Symphony 39 is a piece I conducted as a student at Curtis [Institute of Music in Philadelphia]. I chose to do Mozart on purpose. I knew how hard it is to do well.

Saunders: It was "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Met with James Levine conducting and me at the harpsichord. It was like being in heaven, even though I was scared out of my mind because I hadn't played much harpsichord in public.

Mark, any thoughts about the Mozart series you'd like to share?

What music can do is take people somewhere else. The music of Mozart does that better than anyone else, whether you've heard it once or 100 times. The way it's written will move you whether you've studied it in depth or not at all. Music has power, and we just hope we don't get in the way of letting Mozart's magic happen.

Dan, any other thoughts about "The Marriage of Figaro" you'd like to share?

It's a tremendous cast. I'm really excited about it. Jane Redding [as Susanna] is going to be great. Plus, Mozart had everything on the line for "Marriage of Figaro," but it's anti-nobility and he gets away with it. It's not PC at all. S

The Richmond Symphony's Mozart-related events begin with the Mozart Festival Series concerts on Jan. 13 at 8 p.m. at Bon Air Baptist Church and Jan. 15 at 3 p.m. at Randolph-Macon College and continue throughout the spring. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 788-1212.The Virginia Opera performs "The Marriage of Figaro" Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 26 at 2:30 p.m. at the Landmark Theater. Tickets are $20-$85 and can be purchased through Ticketmaster.

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