Tuesday, January 24, 2006 | Editor’s Note: Voice of San Diego is embarking on a new effort to cover the arts in San Diego and give theater patrons the opportunity to provide their own reviews of shows. Read audience reviews.

A jazz musician once suggested to me the difference between two musical giants, Mozart and Bach. When Bach was writing, he was giving us a language so that we could talk to God. When Mozart was writing – if he looked out his window, God was out there mowing the lawn.

The idea of God serving Mozart illustrates the reverence that musicians and music lovers still have for the composer, more than two centuries after his birth.

Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman said that Mozart would have been mystified by this kind of awe. Mozart, he said, “represents the naiveté of the child, open to everything; he will try anything.” Stoltzman is just one of the artists appearing in San Diego to celebrate the 250th birthday of the composer who was born on Jan. 27, 1756. Forever young, the prolific “Wolfie” died when he was just 35. Just as in other cities around the world, music organizations here are programming Mozart’s music. La Jolla Music Society is presenting Stoltzman’s concert on Jan. 29 in North Park’s Birch Theater, and the Mainly Mozart Festival is coordinating information about dozens of performances throughout the year.

To pick out just one event is difficult, yet Stoltzman’s appearance suits music lovers who view Mozart not as an unapproachable genius but a fun-loving boy wonder who gave us great gigs. Stoltzman brings a special sensibility to Mozart. With 50 releases and two Grammys, Stoltzman ranges over the musical landscape, playing jazz, new music and world music. He has performed and recorded not only with orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony but also with jazz pianists Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and his own son, Peter John Stoltzman.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Mozart as a jazz musician. Stoltzman said that the composer definitely improvised when he performed, which was most of the time. Mozart was an impresario, organizing performances to market his new music. Indeed, well into the 19th century, improvisation was expected from a featured instrumentalist.

Also, said Stoltzman, Mozart’s scores look like the music is pouring right out of his fingertips. “Just look at the slants of the notes, at an angle, which gives you the feeling he’s going to the next note, the next note. He’s not pondering, wondering what to do next,” said Stoltzman, speaking by phone from Massachusetts where he lives.

Mozart’s music is best in chamber situations, just a small group of musicians, much like jazz in a club or small theater. The joy – and the challenge – of playing chamber music is working the details. “You can adjust in a nanosecond to someone’s inflection,” Stoltzman said. Looks, expressions and winks fly among the players. The spontaneity is also great for audience, which in chamber music venues can see the communication.

The heart of the Birch concert is the clarinet quintet, which is beloved by artists. Stoltzman noted that Pablo Casals wanted the quintet’s slow movement played at his funeral, a surprise given that Casals was a cellist. Choreographer Twyla Tharp also wrote a dance using the music. Moviegoers heard parts of the quintet in “Amadeus”- where Salieri ( F. Murray Abraham) realizes Mozart’s genius – and “Out of Africa,” when Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) shows Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) what happens when he puts a phonograph out in the bush playing a recording of the quintet: In no time, it attracts a group of monkeys.

Stoltzman estimated he has played the quintet more than 400 times, and he clearly has not tired of it. “When you hear this level of music-making you realize that [Mozart] is able to take what in other composers’ hands would be just banal and make it almost a spiritual experience.” The serene second movement has the Renaissance simplicity of a single voice singing a Latin text. “The line of the clarinet makes you feel like you’re present at something that is inevitable,” Stoltzman said. “If you open yourself up to this music, when you come to the end of it as a listener, you know you’ve passed through a period of time that you can treasure.”

In the final movement of the quintet, the listener can hear the greatest example of Mozart’s “sense of being in the flow the way a jazz musician is in the flow of constantly rethinking the music,” said Stoltzman. “It is a set of variations, and you can easily imagine a simple tune, like a jazz tune – just 8 or 12 bars, maybe in blues – repeated in different instruments.”

Stoltzman explains that the scores have few directions to the players; in the quintet’s second movement, the only dynamic marking is piano, which is Italian for soft and gentle. So it’s up to the players to decide on the volume and the tempo to fit the melody. That freedom is part of the challenge and the satisfaction both the professional and the home players get from Mozart’s music.

Mozart wrote the quintet for one of his pals, Anton Stadler, a fellow Freemason who was the principal clarinetist of the court orchestra in Vienna; Stadler also frequently tapped the composer for “loans.” About 20 composers have written pieces for Stoltzman, and, he said, “I feel a bond with this man who hung out with Mozart in the 1700s. Their friendship evolved into a music that transcends their lives. Stadler had the same love of life that Mozart had.”

Most recently, Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote his first Clarinet Concerto as a commission for Stoltzman and the National Symphony Orchestra. “You just feel part of a continuity of fraternity or friendship between performer and creator of a piece of music,” Stoltzman said. (The concerto with Stoltzman and the Helsinki Philharmonic is available on an Ondine recording released last fall.)

Mozart composed for and played regularly not only with Stadler but also with his friends in home performances. Franz Joseph Haydn, who is credited with inventing the string quartet, and Mozart were part of a composers’ quartet, in which Haydn played first violin and Mozart the viola. Mozart probably wrote the Clarinet Trio in E-flat Major (“Kegelstadt”), which is also on the Birch program, for the Jacquin family, whom he frequently visited for dinner, games and music-making. Also on the program, the Duo for Violin and Viola is “very short but very intense,” Stoltzman said. The two musicians are at it every moment to pull off the whole work – melody, harmony and rhythm. (Stoltzman has some experience with this kind of collaboration, because he used to play clarinet duets with Benny Goodman at Goodman’s apartment in New York.)

Stoltzman will perform with selected friends for “a bi-coastal meeting of minds over Mozart.” Coming with him from Boston are a really close friend, his wife Lucy, and Jeff Thayer, violins; Scott St. John, viola; and David Deveau, piano. From Southern California is cellist Stephen Erdody, who performs with the Angeles Quartet; the group’s recording of Haydn Quartets took a 2002 Grammy for best chamber music performance. Erdody plays a duet with Yo-Yo Ma in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

At 250 years old, Mozart is still relevant for millions of listeners around the world. We seem to need his music more than ever before. As Stoltzman put it, “It comes from a place that we’re too busy to tap.”

Review It Yourself

Everyone’s a critic. We asked audience members at Sunday’s concert to send us an e-mail with their thoughts. Read audience reviews:

A Nice Evening

I was given a card asking for my review of a Mozart concert Sunday at the new North Park Theater. It was very fine, with magnificent clarinet playing. A musically satisfying evening all together. It was my first visit to the new venue and sight and sound were excellent. The decor is charming, although we were a bit confused about the lobby configuration, with levels.

-Noel Osment, La Jolla

Did you see this event? Give Voice your two cents. E-mail us at molly.bettiga@voiceofsandiego.org

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