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Opera Review Print

Rarely Performed Opera by 11-Year-Old Mozart

July 10, 2009 - Asheville, NC:

In the midst of a heady summer season of music festivals in Western North Carolina presented at a high level of proficiency by professional musicians and the best conservatory students, it is good to celebrate also the gift of music in the lives of amateurs. So we look away from the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival, the Appalachian Summer Festival, the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival and the Brevard Music Festival to see what is done by a local pickup group in Asheville known as the Jubilee! Summer Orchestra. The venue was Jubilee!, a contemporary spiritual center that often hosts art exhibits, poetry and a variety of music. The program consisted of three works written by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns when these composers were sixteen years of age or under.

This 36-member chamber orchestra, conducted by Eric Scheider, includes a handful of freelance professionals, several teenage string players, some senior citizens better known as patrons of music, and other amateur musicians. Let’s get the bad news over with quickly: the result was a dreadfully unbalanced orchestra. Five first violins, two seconds, one viola, five celli and one string bass already provide balance problems, and that entire string section certainly couldn’t hold its own against a large brass section. But that is the sort of thing that happens when you open a community orchestra up to anyone with a strong desire to make music.

Apollo et Hyacinthus is an opera written by the eleven-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus exists in several variants. In the version reported in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Gods Apollo and Zephyrus both love the beautiful mortal boy Hyacinthus. Apollo exuberantly throws a discus; Zephyrus (the West Wind) blows the discus off course; the discus strikes and kills Hyacinthus; Apollo then creates the hyacinth flower to forever honor the memory of Hyacinthus. Father Rufinus Widl created a Latin libretto for Mozart. In the process, he bowdlerized the original, making the sexually desired character Melia, the sister of Hyacinthus.

For this performance, the three-act opera had been abridged and transcribed into a 37-minute piece for orchestra accompanied by a silent home video of a group of young people (the Jubilee Youth Theatre) acting out a revised version of the story. In the Jubliee! version, the conflict is a “girl friendship” triangle involving two quite young female Gods and a mortal girl. The discus is replaced by a Frisbee, and the revised story has a light and youthful feel. The arias that Mozart wrote for boy sopranos and boy altos have been transcribed to be instrumental solos by clarinet, flute, and oboe. The audience loved the video and the music. I appreciated the opportunity to hear this rarely performed work, and only wished I had been able to experience it with more inner string voices.

Following intermission, three movements from two youthful symphonies were performed, one from Mendelssohn and two from Saint-Saëns. Felix Mendelssohn wrote his Symphony No. 1 in C minor when he was fifteen. The second movement Andante is in E-flat major. The tempo was too slow, and the light Mendelssohn touch got lost as the piece became ponderous.

This was followed by the second and fourth movements from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, written when the composer was sixteen. The Scherzo (in G major) was played at a relaxed tempo, slower than I would have liked, but the oboe and flute work was quite lovely. The Finale starts in an E-flat march tempo, includes a central fugue and then recapitulates the martial section. Maestro Scheider took the first section at a typical military march pace, but increased to a quick march in the final section. I preferred this faster pace. The Saint-Saëns’ Finale included some of the best playing of the evening, concluding with a spirited brass fanfare and extended cadences. It was an upbeat end to a concert that was enthusiastically received by an audience of well over one hundred people, including toddlers in strollers and others who were there not to criticize small musical blunders but to have a good time. Music has many facets, and joy is one of them. This was a joyful concert.