by Roderick Conway Morris

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Academy for Young Musicians Hopes to Settle in Venice

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 9 July 1997


Born at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Mozart Foundation's aims were to revitalize the Continent's chamber music traditions and to give a chance to young musicians to broaden their horizons and launch their careers without subjecting themselves to the blood sport of international competitions.

The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia appeared to be an opportunity for the foundation to establish itself permanently in Prague, but the original prospect of a home in the restored theater where Mozart premiered 'Don Giovanni' in 1787 eventually came to nothing, and a subsequent proposal for the foundation to settle in Hungary at Eszterhaza, where Haydn lived and worked, also turned out to be a fairy castle in the air.

The foundation, however, stuck it out in Eastern Europe by adopting a peripatetic lifestyle, spending two years in Czechoslovakia and three in Poland, and holding successful festivals every Christmas in Budapest, Easter in Krakow and June in Prague. Over the past 18 months the young musicians have toured the devastated cities of the former Yugoslavia. The foundation has now announced that it is to seek a permanent base in Venice, and to herald this change in direction, it has just staged its first Mostra Mozart (Mozart Show), a four-day festival billed to become an annual event here.

The brainchild of Alain Coblence, a 49-year-old American-born international lawyer of French parentage with a passion for chamber music, the foundation was inspired by his realization that the lively state of chamber music in the New World and its relative weakness in Continental Europe was primarily the result of the Holocaust and World War II, which had forced so many leading musicians to flee.

'So it became my dream to replant these roots of the great central European chamber music tradition by bringing back the great masters who had emigrated and reuniting them with the younger generations of European musicians,' Coblence said.

A first attempt to hold a summer school at Nimes, France, in 1986 coincided with a record-breaking heat wave, and was 'a total disaster,' Coblence said, as the great masters, several of whom were in their 70s and 80s, fled once again to America in search of air-conditioning.

Meanwhile, Coblence came to think that a summer school was not in any case adequate to his purposes, 'because what I really wanted to do was to bring back not just the music, but the culture surrounding it. And by then I'd become aware that young musicians were being trained like circus horses, with so much emphasis on virtuosity and technique that they no longer had time to read, to visit museums, to go to the theater and achieve a wide enough culture to understand the context and the meaning of what they were playing.'

The upshot was the Mozart Foundation's Academy, where musicians over 22, who have finished their formal studies, can spend up to a year playing with invited masters, learning about other art forms, and talking to invited 'humanities professors,' who have so far included writers, film directors, architects, historians and diplomats, and nonmusicians from many other fields.

All of the roughly 60 students are fully supported by scholarships, the foundation's $1.5 million yearly budget being raised from grants, from bodies such as the European Union and donations from corporate sponsors and private donors.

A guiding principal of the foundation's ethos remains its creator's opposition to competitions. 'I felt very strongly that they are destructive, cruel and absurd, and that it was time to find another way of discovering new talent,' Coblence said. 'And I rather naively thought that I could in fact mobilize the Western critics, agents and concert producers to come to Prague, Krakow and Budapest to listen to these rising new talents. But it didn't quite work out that way. And, though we've had a huge success and thousands of people have come to our festivals, I can't say I've managed to get the presence of the musical professionals I'd hoped for.'


AS well as seeing Venice as a place that should lure the leading lights of the international music world for an annual talent-spotting visit, Coblence said that he had also been influenced in his choice by looking toward the next century.

'Although the foundation has played its modest role in reviving chamber music and promoting dialogue within Eastern Europe,' he said, 'I've come to believe that the challenge now lies in building bridges with the South, with the Near and Middle East, for which Venice, with its unique position and history, would be the ideal place.'

The projected move to Venice, which could take place as early as the fall of 1998, has been the occasion of the further opening up of the Mozart Foundation's activities, with an invitation to other institutions around the world to propose their most promising young musicians to take part in the Mostra Mozart. Thus, of the 25 or so musicians appearing this year, only a third had previously been to the academy.

Four main evening concerts were held in the ballroom of Ca' Rezzonico, the city's Museum of the 18th Century, on the Grand Canal, with additional late-afternoon 'beach' recitals in the Sala Visconti at the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido. The evening performances revolved around geographical areas, the first featuring Armenian songs and works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Lutoslawski; the second, on July 4, New World pieces by Copland, Corigliano and Tower (rounded out with Mozart's Clarinet Quintet); the third, French works by Debussy, Chausson and Roussel; and the last, music from India.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023