Asheville Amadeus festival celebrates the famed composer and many female artists

MUCH MORE THAN MOZART: This year’s Asheville Amadeus festival isn’t only about the music of its namesake composer. Native guitarist Warren Haynes (top right) performs with the symphony, and celebrated pianist Garrick Ohlsson (bottom left) performs a piece by American composer Amy Beach. Meanwhile, country musician Rissi Palmer (top left) and engineer Susan Rogers (bottom right) will speak on the Women Get the Job Done panel. Photos, clockwise from top left, courtesy of Palmer; by Jacob Blickenstaff; courtesy of Rogers; and by Dario Acosta

Austrian-born musician and composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived and worked 2 1/2 centuries ago, penning 41 symphonies in his all-too-brief 35 years. To this day, his work remains a major part of the classical repertoire. “Mozart is like Shakespeare in literature — he’s just there, and he’s one of the very most important,” says renowned classical pianist Garrick Ohlsson. “What can we learn from any of the great creators? No. 1, the sheer pleasure of listening. No. 2, the human qualities.”

He continues, “Mozart could write anything. He could write the deepest, most religious music, he could write the most bawdy music, he could write tragic music, he could write love music, which is completely convincing. In the fourth act of ‘[The Marriage of] Figaro,’ he writes an aria for a minor servant who is distressed over the loss of a hairpin, and somehow it works well. It shows his human range and genius.”

Ohlsson will perform as part of this year’s Asheville Amadeus, a 10-day festival (Friday, March 15, to Sunday, March 24) produced by the Asheville Symphony and “inspired by the things we believe Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would have loved,” according to the symphony’s website.

Among the celebration’s offerings are the Asheville Community Band’s Mozart, Mountains & Mickey Mouse concert (see sidebar for more family-friendly offerings); the Asheville Amadeus Finale Concert, featuring Mozart’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and Piano Concerto No. 2.; and — so popular that a second show was added to the schedule after the first one quickly sold out — Warren Haynes Presents Dreams & Songs, A Symphonic Experience. That production sees the Asheville native (and member of such outfits as The Allman Brothers Band, The Dead and Gov’t Mule) take the stage with bassist Oteil Burbridge, keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Jeff Sipe “for a symphonic take on his classic, career-spanning material,” according to the Asheville Symphony website.

“Think about how many people weren’t raised on classical music,” says Jessica Tomasin, who is producing the free Women Get the Job Done panel discussion — looking at the roles of female trailblazers in the music industry — as part of Asheville Amadeus. “If it’s not something you’ve experienced … you might not think it’s something for you. [But] Warren Haynes fans might think, ‘Warren Haynes and the symphony?’ [and then] you think about how much music has string and horn arrangements. … We hear it all the time in commercials and movies.”

Haynes’ role in the local festival illustrates that the rock and classical genres are not so far apart. Then again, there’s plenty on the Asheville Amadeus roster that isn’t Mozart-related. For example, there’s the Ballet Conservatory of Asheville’s performance of Ballet with Bach and Rach; LaZoom is rolling out a local music history tour with busker pianist Andrew Fletcher; and Burial Beer Co. will release The Righteous and Barbaric Souls Imperial Stout, because what Asheville fete would be complete without a commemorative brew?

Ohlsson’s performance with the Takács Quartet (a world-famous string ensemble with whom the pianist has performed off and on for 30 years) is also absent of Amadeus. Instead, their offerings include works by Franz Joseph Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn as well as a piano quintet by the American composer Amy Beach. “In the search for good music … there are five really major pieces for piano and string quartet, and then there are others of varying quality and excellence,” Ohlsson explains. In the search for a composition to accompany an Edward Elgar quintet that he and the Takács Quartet will be recording together this spring, the instrumentalists came across Beach’s work.

“She was a distinguished musician, but her husband didn’t like the idea of her traipsing around, being onstage. He wanted a proper wife,” Ohlsson says of Beach. Still, it’s not Beach’s rarity status as a 19th-century woman composer that attracted Ohlsson: “I’ve been asked, ‘Is this a recognition of women and creativity?’ And I say, ‘No, it’s the recognition of a good piece,’ which I think is the more important part.”

The Women Get the Job Done panel also acknowledges women’s contributions to art. Tomasin and David Whitehill, the Asheville Symphony’s executive director, had been talking about a women-focused event. Tomasin had met Susan Rogers — audio engineer for Prince, among others — at a recording summit and wanted to bring her to Asheville. “She’s a great speaker and a champion of women,” Tomasin says. The panel was built around Rogers and includes other innovators such as Rissi Palmer, the first African-American woman to chart a country song since 1987.

“And then,” says Tomasin, “we wanted to put a show together, too, that’s a tribute to women in music.”

So local vocalist Marisa Blake was tasked with creating the Women Who Move the Needle concert, which will follow the panel at Ambrose West. The lineup Blake enlisted — herself included — is bassist/vocalist Kayla McKinney, guitarist/vocalist Nicole Nicolopolous, drummer Eliza Hill, keyboardist/vocalist Rachel Waterhouse, Katie Richter on trumpet, Brooke German on cello, and vocalists Tasnim Setayesh, Ashli Bales, Coco Eva Solange and April Bennett. “Each vocalist has chosen a couple of tunes to sing,” Blake explains, such as songs by Annie Lennox, Mercedes Sosa, Etta James, Sade, Sharon Jones, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and more.

“Even though this list is great, others keep coming to mind,” Blake says. “I think that everyone singing chose songs and artists that were true to their own individual style. … I love how it shows how each of these women inspired the person who is covering them.”

Even if, say, a Lady Gaga cover isn’t a direct descendant of the Mozart musical lineage, it’s not hard to believe the composer — not only famous for his symphonic, operatic and choral music, but infamous for his love of dancing, theater, bawdy humor and women’s voices — would have approved.

WHAT: Asheville Amadeus
WHERE: Various locations. See full schedule and purchase tickets at ashevillesymphony.org/asheville-amadeus
WHEN: Friday, March 15, to Sunday, March 24

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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