Roger Wiesmeyer, Founder of Mozart in Nashville, during a performance for the 2017 Mozart birthday celebration. Photo by Sally Bebawy Phot...

Music City: A Mozart Birthday Celebration

Roger Wiesmeyer, Founder of Mozart in Nashville, during a performance for the 2017 Mozart birthday celebration. Photo by Sally Bebawy Photography.

On the occasion of Mozart’s 263rd birthday this weekend (January 27, 1756), I’d like to celebrate by recognizing an inspiring and underrepresented effort to present his music. Mozart in Nashville just held their 17th annual Mozart birthday celebration concerts in Music City and it was their most successful to date. 

Listen: Live in Studio C: Mozart in Nashville (Nashville Public Radio, Jan 18, 2019)
Read: 17th Annual Mozart's Birthday Concerts (Off The Podium, Jan 11, 2019)
Watch: Musician Q&A with Roger Wiesmeyer (Nashville Symphony, Jan 17, 2017)

The history of music in Nashville dates back to the late 1700s when the settlers celebrated with fiddle tunes after arriving on the shores of the Cumberland River. Nashville is a mid-sized city comparable to Mozart’s adopted home of Vienna with a similar kind of authenticity, creative energy and artist community. It has the intimate environs of Viennese coffee culture and more music jobs per capita than any other city in the United States. I would argue that Nashville is one of the most fitting places for Mozart to be introduced, explored and performed. Read: Why Nashville Is Still America’s Music City. 

Mozart in Nashville was founded by Roger Wiesmeyer, a graduate of the Curtis Institute and current English horn player/Oboist with the Nashville Symphony. It's of particular interest to me to investigate Mozart organizations operating in music heritage cities where classical music may not necessarily be the most popular genre, but where there is great potential to progress, and Nashville is one such place. Learning more about organizations is another way for me to gauge the "current state of Mozart." When I approached Roger about a Q&A, he enthusiastically accepted. Thank you, Roger. I hope we'll have the opportunity to work together in the near future!


Sherry: Congratulations on your 17th annual Mozart birthday celebration! Last weekend, you performed Mozart's works for Glass Armonica/Harmonica, K. 356 and K. 617, along with his Symphony No. 40, K. 550. How have the concerts evolved over the years in terms of repertoire and personnel? As not only the Founder of Mozart in Nashville, but also one of its musicians, what works do you enjoy performing most?

Roger: Actually, I play English horn so my choice of repertoire is extremely limited. The adagio which is a fragment which he turned into the Ave verum corpus has been determined to be for basset horns. As oboist, I've played the quartet of course, K. 370. Also, we've done the serenades and “Gran Partita.” We've performed the music for mechanical clock in transcription for quintet AND piano four hands. About six years ago, I discovered my true artistic motivation was to provide a chance to play his magnificent piano concertos. A friend of mine refers to them as “the caviar of music.” I seem to do one every other year or so. So far, I have gotten to play little A major, G major, c minor and last Bb. I’m eyeing big A major for next year but haven't committed myself. I've played a minor sonata and Bb K. 333. We’ve done Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 and the bassoon concerto as well as three of his songs and “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” I’m sure I’m forgetting good stuff but you get the idea.

Sherry: I recently discovered your organization through our mutual friend Deanna Walker at Vanderbilt University. I noted your emphasis on charity and inclusion. You accept donations to support performance expenses with all additional proceeds benefiting local charities. “Mozart in Nashville is dedicated to bringing classical music to Nashville's most vulnerable citizens, including children, lifelong learners, people with special needs, and incarcerated people.” To me, this immediately set your platform apart from others. While many might acknowledge culture as a unifying force, we mostly find empty words in place of action and exclusivity instead of universality. You actually practice the themes of love, enlightenment and fraternal union found in Mozart's music and biography. And in a genre whose sustainability depends upon eradicating an elitist stigma dating from Mozart's time, well, this means something. Aside from Mozart, who or what was your main source of inspiration for making these two pillars (charity and inclusion) the foundation of Mozart in Nashville?

Roger: My inspirations come from various places. When I lived in the Bay Area, I was fortunate to get to play with a group called Midsummer Mozart which was founded by the great conductor George Cleve. It was such a joyous, true musical experience, I wanted to do something similar when I moved home to Nashville. Pete Seeger is also an inspiration especially when it comes to the third leg of Mozart in Nashville. When he was blacklisted, he made his living playing songs in church basements and union halls all over the country. This is always in the back of my mind when I take the train every summer to points west bringing music I love to house concerts up and down the west coast.

Sherry: How successful have you been in your objective to be an "...organization dedicated to bringing classical music to those who might not otherwise encounter it?" We know from his letters that Mozart found joy in knowing that his music reached everyday citizens beyond the salons of the aristocracy. He had a supreme command of writing music that appealed to both connoisseurs and general audiences. Today, accessibility remains an issue, which your mission statement addresses. Do you find it challenging to strike a balance with outreach and engagement between these two populations? Is your focus more on attracting new, broader and more diverse audiences?

Roger: This last weekend we had our most successful concerts as for as audiences and also money raised. It is still a big deal to have an audience bigger than 125, especially at our non-Mozart birthday concerts (we sponsor four Concerto Orchestra Concerts each season). In terms of programming, I don't aim for a demographic. I find music that I want to inhabit for a while and present it with the aim of saying a little bit about WHY it is special to me. Also, this music really is in the collective unconscious. If you sing the first half of the first phrase of the g minor symphony or “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” my guess is most folks could volley back the right answer. Even if people don't know it's Mozart, he's just that ubiquitous. I try to present it in as unstuffy, down to earth way as possible. 

Roger Wiesmeyer (piano) and Mozart in Nashville musicians give a preview of their annual Mozart birthday celebration at Nashville Public Radio. Photo by Kara McLeland, January 18, 2019.

Sherry: Although Nashville is a thriving community of artists working in various genres, it's still known primarily for country music. Alongside the Nashville Symphony, the Nashville Opera and other institutions, do you feel that your organization has played a role in creating greater awareness of Mozart's music and the classical genre in Music City? One advantage certainly lies within Nashville's own creative community where artistic crossover is sought and nourished. Ie. Country singer Mandy Barnett performed the Nashville Songbook with the Nashville Symphony last year. What do you feel is key in promoting Mozart's music as both an independent and interdependent force in Nashville? 

Roger: Music is about joy, communication of feeling that words fail, sharing something moving and completely intangible. Whenever I meet someone, after establishing good will and a level of mutual trust, I’ll ask "So what do you listen to?" This often happens in a car share as I gave up my own car a few years back. Fortunately, I like all genres of music even if I’m not fluent in them. Whatever they mention, I try to find common ground and at some point, I'll mention I play in the NSO and have a non-profit called Mozart in Nashville. It's really an organic feeling and I do it mostly to share what I love rather than thinking in terms of promoting Mozart. I need and love his legacy more than it needs my help. Cream floats after all...

Sherry: The devastation of historic Music Row, where over 40 historic buildings have been demolished in the last few years, signals a blatant disregard for Nashville's music history. What does this mean for other historical genres like classical music and related organizations like Mozart in Nashville? Last year, I wrote an article about the deterioration of the Villa Bertramka in Prague, a beloved Mozart landmark, from neglect. When music's built heritage is threatened, I believe the entire system of related organizations, performing groups and audiences is threatened. Is Mozart in Nashville active with advocacy and preservation efforts with groups like Historic Nashville? Have any of the historic churches or other venues where you've performed concerts ever been endangered?

Roger: The question about historic preservation is of vital interest to me personally, but doesn't really enter into Mozart in Nashville in any substantial way. Edgehill United Methodist Church, our mother church if you will, is not a particularly old building. However, it is the oldest intentionally integrated church in Nashville. East End United Methodist Church is home to the second oldest continually meeting Boy Scout troop in the U.S. and is a lovely building from around 1910 I believe. West End United Methodist is a grand building and I believe the congregation goes back to the earliest days of Vanderbilt University. Since we are largely volunteer and have a tiny budget, we go where we are welcomed without a fee. Trinity Presbyterian, Saint George's Episcopal, Edgehill United Methodist, East End United Methodist, West End United Methodist are our main venues although we just played at W O Smith Music School for the first time and I hope we can go back.

Sherry: Returning to the lighter fare of the Maestro's birthday, what will you be doing to celebrate since the Mozart in Nashville birthday concerts were last weekend? 

Roger: On the actual day, I'm playing a Mozart concert in Clarksville with a lovely group called The Gateway Chamber Orchestra. Linz Symphony, Strauss Serenade for Winds, and Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana. We repeat it on Monday night in Franklin.