Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Amadeus

On the 30th anniversary of its premiere, Amadeus has reached a new threshold. It no longer has to justify itself to the academician or the purist. It has surpassed the argument, having succeeded in procuring more Mozart admirers than music professionals dare imagine. When Mozart is mentioned in the everyday, Amadeus follows shortly in conversation. It has helped eradicate the elitist stigma associated with the classical genre. New reviews of the film are published regularly and social media platforms are full of new viewers who are on a quest to discover the man beyond the proscenium. It is a known component of music education curricula. And in regards to the fans themselves, well, few films enjoy such a brand of loyalty. In 2014, Amadeus truly lives on its own terms and no longer needs permission to be what it is, in Peter Shaffer's words, "...a fantasia based on fact."

On June 11, 2013, Milos Forman was honored with the Golden Mozart Medal, the highest distinction awarded by the Mozarteum, for the film's contribution to Mozart's legacy. The film didn't require this particular recognition to have achieved emancipation, but the reconciliation between Hollywood and the governing institution of Mozart heritage indeed set the precedent on the eve of its 30th anniversary.
Matthias Schulz, Executive Manager and Artistic Director, released this statement: "The conversations during our meeting with Milos Forman last week showed once again what enormous efforts and what seriousness went into the making of this film and that above all music had a major role to play. This honor was long overdue."

In the years leading up to the film's recognition by the Mozarteum, the most compelling work of vindication by academia was written by Robert Marshall. Film as Musicology: Amadeus was published in 1997 by The Musical Quarterly. "Furthermore, and now comes the really good part since people were baffled and could not get enough of the movie, or Mozart, or his music, they turned to the members of this profession for answers and guidance. More significantly, by far, in the wake of Amadeus, enrollments in college music courses nationwide, especially courses about WAM himself, saw unprecedented increases. That movie, then, had become our most potent ally. I would submit that it became the most potent ally of everyone engaged in the enterprise of cultivating and promulgating classical music performers, scholars and teachers. So, two thumbs up here for Amadeus!"

Matthias Schulz presents Milos Forman with the Golden Mozart Medal. June 11, 2013. Image: ClassicalSource.com.

Amadeus is indeed magical in the way that it can turn an unacquainted or casual listener into a dedicated Mozartian. When my teacher played the film for my 5th grade music class, it ignited an inquisitiveness that would play a role in driving my passion, and per Robert Marshall, I know I'm not alone. If we could gather every individual who has ever undertaken at least one pursuit (amateur or professional) based on inspiration from the film, be it in music, literature or another discipline, I think the quantity would truly astound. Amadeus is unique from other films in its ability to sustain audiences through inspiring their ongoing engagement with its subject. No other film compares in this regard.

As the 30th anniversary year began in January 2014, I contacted the Saul Zaentz Company to request permission to organize a screening of Amadeus to benefit Friends of Bertramka, a group of dedicated scholars and enthusiasts working to save and restore the endangered Mozart landmark in Prague. Given Prague's significance to Milos Forman as his native city and to the film in providing its overall 18th Century aesthetic through its preserved period architecture, I thought it would be an ideal homage. The Estates Theatre, which was beautifully utilized in the film's opera scenes, and Bertramka, are two of the most significant Mozart landmarks still in existence today. My inquiry received a response directly from Paul Zaentz, Saul's nephew, who kindly offered his support for the screening. I discussed the possibilities with the organization and different venues, but had to forgo plans due to timing and availability.

Nonetheless, I still wanted to move forward with a shared social experience to celebrate the film, so I decided to create a worldwide watch party on September 6th, the 30th anniversary of its Westwood premiere. Given that Amadeus experienced great losses in its Academy award-winning creative team in 2014 with Producer Saul Zaentz, Make-Up Artist Dick Smith, and most recently, Art Director Karl Cerny on September 5th, the celebration would be bittersweet, but one that charged us to celebrate even more for the memory of these remarkable individuals who enriched our lives through film.

To mark the occasion, I invited fans to submit a photo capturing their watch party experience and the resulting pictorial is appropriately playful and artful! Fans gathered with family and friends, celebrating with their favorite confections, costumes and characters. The watch party even inspired Greta Di Raimondo (Italy) to create an original drawing of Mozart and Ela Rusinek-Szmigiel (Poland) to organize a lovely outdoor screening event for 50 guests near the Oder River. These individuals represent what is so special and enduring about Amadeus and the artist behind the title who continues to elevate and alleviate our world through his music and his story.


Sherry Davis (That's me, attempting to channel the film's ominous cover art!). USA.
Greta Di Raimondo. Original Artwork. Italy.

Anna Leticia Domenico Maso. Brazil. 

Ariela Haro von Mogel. USA.

Laura Helena Rautiainen. Finland.

Sheryl Davis. USA.

Ela Rusinek-Szmigiel. Poland.

Lynette Erwin. USA.

Karl Haro von Mogel. USA.

Sandy Alzubi. USA.

Monday, September 01, 2014

A Mozartian in the Meadows

Castleton View Road in Castleton, Virginia. Photo by Sherry Davis.
The news of Maestro Lorin Maazel's passing in July brought forth a colossal wave of accolades and tributes from the world of classical music as well as mainstream media, with the majority reiterating his legendary status. I decided to wait until the storm subsided to take up my pen and write about the man who's art and generosity I came to experience one beautiful spring in rural Virginia. It is my hope that providing a personal account of his beloved Castleton will bring awareness and patronage to this special place and to the man beyond the podium, who was just as passionate about the cultivation of young artists and the human spirit as he was about being a conductor and musician. Although Castleton was the Maestro's private home and family retreat away from the world stage, he opened its doors in dedication to art and benevolence. And how fortunate are those of us who have had the opportunity to take up this temporary residence in resonating permanence.

An excerpt from my February 19th blog entry: I was just notified last week of my acceptance as an apprentice for the Chateauville Foundation and their Castleton Residency production of The Beggar's Opera. How exciting it was to receive the news! It's going to be an incredible journey living and working with so many brilliant directors, artists and singers. The Beggar's Opera (1728) and other ballad operas fathered the German Singspiel, a genre that Mozart would master, so I'm looking forward to studying this connection in greater detail. According to The Complete Book of Light Opera, ballad opera was considered to be an eighteenth-century protest against the Italian conquest of the London operatic scene. In drawing a parallel, it can be argued that the Singspiel was Mozart’s protest against the Italian presence in Vienna. I'll be departing for Castleton this weekend and will be there until the end of March. I'll write as time permits!

Fair Haven House was my home away from home in Castleton. Photo by Sherry Davis.
One of my friends had purchased tickets for us to see Alfred Brendel with The Cleveland Orchestra on his farewell tour on March 2nd, a concert I had to forgo due to the apprenticeship, but I could hardly call it a sacrifice! The adventure I was about to undertake would be unprecedented. The Castleton experience hearkens to centuries past, all the while filling a void in contemporary artist development. Castleton represents a return to simplicity, to nature, where art can thrive and incubate outside of the highly complex environments in which we typically live. "It really is the way it used to be. We went to live with the teacher," an artist explains in this inspiring video. In functioning like the theater family of yesteryear, it is indeed a rarity, a gem, in our industry today.

There were several houses on the property (Castleton Meadows) where artists lived happily alongside the workings of a Virginia farm, a world-class theater and the Maestro's Civil War-era manor house. I resided in Fair Haven with other female participants who included singers, stage directors and costume designers. We were accommodated generously. There was no television (purposely, I'm sure!), but alas, there was a keyboard! Some nights were spent singing together and gathering around the piano. As in Mozart's 18th Century, the keyboard was once again right at the center of the social conversation. On any given day, I would often hear singing throughout the house. English soprano Sarah Gabriel enjoyed warming up with Mozart's Solfeggi from K. 393, vocal exercises most likely written for his wife Constanze to prepare her for performing the Mass in C Minor (K. 427).

My roommate, Sarah, allowed me to borrow her score of Mozart's Solfeggi, K. 393. Photo by Sherry Davis.
When I saw Maestro Maazel for the first time, he was walking into the theater house to join everyone for breakfast. His manner was welcoming, unassuming and casual. He wore jeans from time to time which lent to the rustic charm. He treated us all like a family, with warmth and sincerity. I recall him coming into breakfast one morning and saying, quite comically, "Yes, those eggs are ours. We have 14 hens and they lay 14 eggs a day." His sense of humor was always at the ready and he often had everyone around him in stitches with laughter!

Although the Maestro was in Castleton for a good part of the residency, he also had obligations to fulfill as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. On February 26th, he took the orchestra to perform in an historic concert in Pyongyang, North Korea, which was broadcast on Korean state television and also aired internationally. In the Maestro's words: "I have always believed that the arts, per se, and their exponents, artists, have a broader role to play in the public arena. But it must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan, and free of issue-specific agendas. It is a role of the highest possible order; bringing peoples and their cultures together on common ground, where the roots of peaceful interchange can imperceptibly but irrevocably take hold." His philosophy permeated throughout the residency. Castleton was abuzz with news of the successful campaign. And as I recall, there was much excitement surrounding the Maestro's appearance on The Colbert Report!

On opening night, the theater house was especially adorned with natural elegance. Photo by Sherry Davis.
Meanwhile, as a Production Management Apprentice on the farm, I worked with Executive Director Douglas Beck and Project Coordinator Ronit Schlam who were normally based in the Maestro's New York office. One minute I was sitting on stage as a model for lighting designer Rie Ono and the next minute I was running into the neighboring town of Culpeper for prop materials! I wore many hats and I loved every minute of it. The experience gave me an understanding of the operations of performance that I would not have otherwise encountered. My responsibilities included assisting with the set, arranging travel and housing, creating the opera program and managing payment schedules for personnel. And in between, there were visits with farm animals (Omar the camel was a favorite!), walks, trampoline sessions, trips to the bowling alley in the theater house, a golf cart ride, a ping-pong match and a bit of tennis here and there. I was even witness to the birth of baby piglets!

After weeks of rehearsals and preparations, opening night was soon upon us. I took on box office duties, distributed programs and ushered guests. When everything was in place, I took my seat in the front row. In the orchestra pit in front of me, Maestro Maazel was conducting the Keio University Orchestra of Japan. The intimate theater space gave way to many memorable moments in the performance in which the singers and Maestro flirted playfully with the audience in both dialogue and action with cast members venturing beyond the stage to carry the story forward. This would not have otherwise been possible in a larger venue (again, very 18th Century!). For example, when Macheath said "I must have women," the Maestro replied from the pit, "I know the feeling!" My diary recollects the scene: It was a riot, especially as this dialogue followed Macheath's aria Lilies and Roses in which the Maestro gave such a dreamy look and the crowd roared with laughter. 

Maestro Maazel takes a bow with our cast of The Beggar's Opera. Photo by Castleton Festival.
When I heard the news of the Maestro's passing, I reached out to my Castleton friends and sent my condolences to the Maazel family through their son Orson. He will be greatly missed by the countless lives he touched, including mine, through his kindness, generosity and masterful musicianship. The Maestro so lovingly dedicated himself to his Eden, Castleton Meadows, to enrich lives through art, nature and community. There is no worthier or nobler pursuit and I know that his work will only strengthen through the continued efforts of his family. I strongly encourage opera professionals and audiences alike to consider the Castleton Festival as a premiere opportunity to engage in the highest level of performing art.

I'd like to close my commemorative sentiments with a 2013 quote from Maestro Maazel accompanied by his 1966 performance of Mozart's violin concerto K. 216 with the Vienna Philharmonic.

"Every performing musician has a very personal view of Mozart, who is a universal voice. And each one of us, whether you're a spectator or a musician, finds a truth within himself or herself revealed by the extraordinary clarity of his music."

Thank you, Maestro.