For the second straight year Music Niagara Festival is celebrating the anniversary of one of classical music’s greatest composers.
Following on the heels of the 2020 recognition of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, the current season will acknowledge the accomplishments of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria.
“It’s a fortunate convergence of dates,” according to founder and artistic director Atis Bankas. “They were born 15 years apart,” he points out, going on to explain that Beethoven was heavily influenced by Mozart. “There wouldn’t be Beethoven if it wasn’t for Haydn and Mozart, or Bach for that matter. It’s an evolution. No other composers before them made the soil so fruitful, though the road was paved by others and their different attempts.”
The fact that Beethoven was born in December, while Mozart’s birthday is in January, means the non-profit organization can move seamlessly from celebrating one composer to the other.
“With Beethoven, it was the end of the year, so it was a whole celebration before the birthday,” says Bankas. “As soon as the calendar year turned, we began to celebrate Mozart at 265.”
On Wednesday, Jan. 27, Music Niagara Festival premiered a short program via their website and YouTube channel as an introduction to the theme for this year’s online At Home Series. Originally planned as a much larger event to be recorded at Mount Carmel in Niagara Falls, gears were shifted at the last minute.
“It was supposed to take place (Jan. 14) as a full concert, but because of the state of emergency protocols we couldn’t do it,” laments Bankas. “We managed to record just the day before (the state of emergency) was announced, without doing anything illegal, and we’ll do the show at the monastery once it is lifted.”
The recording features Bankas and Tanya Charles-Iveniuk on violin, with Caitlin Boyle (viola), Elina Kelebeev (piano) and Jonathan Tortolano (cello). The program runs through the first movements of Mozart’s piano concerto no. 23 and his piano quartet in G minor. As well, Mozart’s Adagio is performed as a stand-alone piece.
Bankas describes the group of musicians as a combination of “old friends and new friends, musically speaking. Tanya Charles used to be my student at the Glenn Gould School, so we go back a long time. She’s a wonderful person and a very, very fine musician. Caitlin Boyle was a member of the Cecilia String Quartet, and came to play for Music Niagara about five years ago. She has a lot of experience.”
“The older member of the group is Jonathan,” he continues, “a long-time collaborator, and our pianist (Kelebeev) has a great feel for Mozart, a high calibre of professionalism and musicianship.”
Digging deeper into the importance of the composer, Bankas talks of him in almost superhuman terms. “Mozart’s genius supersedes human capabilities,” he raves. “It would take many more years to copy the music of Mozart than it took him to write it. He made no errors and no revisions, one of the very few in history, he just put it right on paper and it was perfect. That doesn’t happen in a thousand years.”
To Bankas, the music of both Beethoven and Mozart mines the very core of human nature, touching people now in the same way it did in the composer’s own times.
“The emotions of people, it doesn’t matter where they come from, don’t change, really,” he states. “Technology changes, fashions change, but we react the same way (today) because the human emotions are the same. When you compare Beethoven and Mozart, they are touching us in different ways, but they touch our emotions.”
Looking ahead to the rest of 2021, Bankas expects that most of the Music Niagara Festival program will continue to be performed online. “It’s hard to predict,” says Bankas. “I would love to have live concerts with some kind of capacity. However, we know the numbers, and we experienced the first wave, and we know the vaccinations will take place later rather than sooner. So it’s very safe to assume that it won’t happen until fall or winter.”
Music Niagara will take the lessons learned through almost 10 months of running the 2020 festival through a pandemic. “We’re not starting from scratch,” Bankas reminds The Local. “We are proud that we succeeded to continue our activities, with the help of the board and our benefactors and great donors. We had a great feeling of support in the community, and that is evident from the incredible number of people who were tuning in. That gives us all kinds of ideas to think about a future of incorporating that experience even when live concerts return.”
Bankas promises that the 2021 program, like last year’s, will be full of events that combine Mozart’s compositions with other forms of art. “The spoken word, and theatre, is definitely something that is very popular here,” he says of Niagara-on-the-Lake. “It reaches people and gives a greater understanding of the composer, the work, his life, etcetera. We fully intend to continue to combine spoken word and music to expose the history and process of the composer’s mind.”
The full Music Niagara Festival 2021 At Home Series will be released soon via their website. While waiting, the preview of Mozart’s 265th anniversary celebration is available at musicniagara.org or through the Music Niagara YouTube channel.