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Leading a Revolt in Mozart Country

Music: Salzburg Festival director Gerard Mortier stirred things up again--and ticket sales hit a record.

September 03, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

SALZBURG, Austria — The Salzburg Festival ended Sunday, with the last performances of its nine major opera productions, four plays and countless orchestral and chamber music concerts, recitals and new music events. It is the world's most prestigious music festival, and it is presented in a jewel-box Baroque town at the foot of the Alps.

But the next day Gerard Mortier, the director of the Salzburg Festival since 1992, was on a plane to a place he really loves. In a typically provocative gesture, Mortier flees Salzburg every year the day after his festival ends and heads for California.

"There is an open-minded attitude [there]," he confessed in a meeting shortly before the festival's end. "And nobody knows me."

A great many people, of course, recognize this controversial 53-year-old Belgian in Europe. His picture is common in the press every summer, since every summer he seems to go a step further in revolutionizing a festival long regarded as the guardian of musical tradition in the very center of Mozart country.

"I like to change things," he cheerfully announced. And change things he has. Avant-garde operatic productions and new music are the new calling card of Salzburg. Moreover, Californians are now a common sight at the festival. Peter Sellars and Esa-Pekka Salonen are symbolic of the new Salzburg. Composers Terry Riley and John Adams, the Kronos Quartet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have all had a role in it as well.

In fact, Mortier displays an unpretentiousness that immediately stands out in a world of proper Austrian formality. At a meeting in his office he was wearing jeans, and he offered coffee, joking that since Nestle is a sponsor, he had a lot of it. The day was warm; the window was open; and horse hoofs clattered on cobblestones below (carriages are popular with tourists), emphasizing how little some things had changed since Mozart was born here.

But Mortier talked only of the future, not the past, of new operas and music theater works he was commissioning, of new symphonies, of ferrying the festival into the 21st century.

Which is not to say that he has undone all tradition in Salzburg. The hidebound (if excellent) Vienna Philharmonic remains in residence each summer, and it still plays Schubert and Schumann and Mahler under the likes of Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa and Bernard Haitink. But it is not, for Mortier, the sacred cow it long has been in Salzburg.

"You know, for me," he said, "nothing is holy, the way the orchestra is to the Viennese. It is my feeling that all the 19th century musical institutions have to rethink their commitment for the future."

No one better represents this future for Mortier than Sellars, whom he calls "a great mentor." Sellars this year was responsible for three Salzburg events. He directed a penetrating new production of Gyorgy Ligeti's modern opera "Le Grand Macabre," which Salonen conducted; he created a theatrical version of a Bach cantata for Dawn Upshaw; and he read John Cage's 1949 "Lecture on Nothing."

Mortier even went so far as to make Sellars something of a festival poster boy, sending out a mailer with a photograph of Sellars (taken by Betty Freeman, the Beverly Hills arts patron and close friend and supporter of Mortier) seated in his L.A. backyard, smiling the same smile as his nearby white cat. The caption (in German) read, "Peter Sellars invites you to the high points of the Salzburg Festival." Inside was a ticket order form for the Ligeti, for Robert Wilson's stunning realization of Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" and other selected events (including a couple of Vienna Philharmonic programs).

"Peter has been with me since my first year here," Mortier said. "Peter doesn't really like it in Salzburg. He thinks it's racist, and, of course, he's right. But it is only interesting for me to be here if I can have the artists I adore--Bob Wilson, Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka and [conductor] Sylvain Cambreling--around me."

Actually, Mortier needs his circle and his allies. His revolution hasn't happened without resistance--from the Viennese press, old-guard patrons, local businesses all horrified by some of the experimental and avant-garde "high points" in the brochure. The attacks can even turn personal.

"They are always writing about me as 'the Belgian,' as if a Belgian is something you must be careful of," Mortier complained. His first summer here, a sign appeared under a statue of Mozart in the center of town that read "Belgian go home."

It is not hard to understand why. Not only does Mortier foist the late 20th century upon Mozart's birthplace, but he foists it upon Mozart as well. This summer's "Magic Flute," directed by German artist Achim Freyer, transformed all the characters into clowns in a cosmic circus.

And then there was "The Abduction From the Seraglio," in which a Palestinian director, Francois Abou Salem, relocated the Turkish comedy to today's very unfunny Middle East and ended it with whirling dervishes.

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