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Mozart gets mysterious in choral concert in Greenwich

March 13, 2018

GREENWICH — Even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had parents to please.

The composer wrote Great Mass in C Minor for a debut in his hometown, where his father Leopold hoped he would return and make music for the church. But Mozart’s heartstrings pulled him elsewhere — to opera, to symphony — and so the Great Mass became somewhat of a swan song as he bade farewell to sacred music until his life’s eclipse.

The piece featured his new wife, Constanze, as a soprano in its Salzburg premiere. But it also functioned as a way to honor Leopold, to appease him in the face of a changing career path.

“It sort of seems like he wrote this Mass as his last homage to the sacred music that he was familiar with,” said Paul F. Mueller, Greenwich Choral Society’s music director and conductor.

At 4 p.m. Saturday, the Greenwich Choral Society will bring Mozart’s haunting score to life at Greenwich High School’s Performing Arts Center, on a bill dubbed “Mystical Mozart.” The matinée will also include shorter offerings by Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughn-Williams and Arvo Pärt that connect to the mystical theme in a more general sense.

For the 100-member choir, the concert represents a landmark occasion: Its first full performance in the new PAC.

“It’s a little bit of an experiment, a little bit of mystery,” said Mueller.

Traditionally, the group has performed at Christ Church for its holiday shows, but has otherwise had no steady home. Greenwich offers few major performing arts stages, and the choristers were forced to other towns and cities to find a hall that could accommodate their needs.

“We ended up kind of being an itinerant organization,” Mueller said.

Now, with GHS’ new state-of-the-art concert hall, the choral society has hope for a more permanent local placement.

“The hall is just beautiful, and there’s ample space on the stage,” Mueller said. “We don’t have to feel like we’re crammed in.”

For their first major concert at GHS, members of the music selection committee advocated for the Great Mass, which they had performed decades before and still held dearly. Mueller said the recommendation worked well as a strong, dramatic piece to introduce them to the new performing arts center.

On top of the parental intrigue cloaked inside the piece, there are also interesting musical moments that lend insights into Mozart’s personal and professional spheres. For one, “Et incarnatus est” — a section performed by Constanze — has been extolled for its transcendence by the likes of Pope Francis. It is the only movement in the entire piece where flute factors, and Mueller hypothesized that Mozart organized it to play to his wife’s strengths.

“I think there’s kind of a musical conversation going on there,” Mueller said.

Hints of Mozart’s future are also nestled inside the score, which Mueller dubbed slightly operatic.

“It’s a little bit of a foretaste of what’s to come,” he added.

Interestingly, Mozart didn’t finish the Great Mass, Mueller said. He never wrote a last movement, and another section is only sketched out, with no flesh to fill its bare bones. And so depending on the arrangement, choirs interpret the music in different lights.

“There’s a lot of peculiar historical mystery around the piece,” Mueller said. “It’s still a great piece.”

And why is that?

Mueller exclaimed, “It’s Mozart!”