“The point of the Mozart festival is not to celebrate Mozart,” says David Whitehill, executive director of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. It sounds, at first, like a strange statement to make about Asheville Amadeus, which returns for its second year — and a longer run — Friday, March 10, to Sunday, March 19.
“Mozart is just an entry point,” Whitehill says. “It’s inspired by Mozart. Mozart loved art and he loved wine and he loved sopranos and he loved theater.” Fittingly, Asheville Amadeus incorporates all of these elements, from comedy and singalongs to theatrical productions (Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, performed at N.C. Stage Company, doesn’t nod to the Austrian composer at all — but it is the story of a socialite and coloratura soprano who couldn’t hold pitch). Santé Wine Bar & Tap Room hosts an Austrian wine flight night; chamber music organization Pan Harmonia leads “Walk with Wolfgang,” a progressive concert; and Diana Wortham Theatre stages (among other shows) The Other Mozart.
That production, staring Sylvia Milo as Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart — the sister of Wolfgang Amadeus — was featured in The New York Times and garnered innovative theater awards. Milo performs from within a sculptural, 18-foot dress. “If music and theater are not your thing but fashion is, you should see this,” Whitehill says.
“For the first festival, I went around like a traveling salesman,” the symphony director says of his outreach to partner organizations for the inaugural Asheville Amadeus in 2015. The idea was that local companies could either mount a show that fit with their typical programming, or they could use the context of the festival to incubate and experiment. This year, says Whitehill, “I had many more presenters call me before I could even pick up the phone.”
The star of this year’s Asheville Amadeus is violinist Midori. Born in Osaka, Japan, she began studying music as a child and made her debut at a New Year’s Eve concert of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra when she was 11. “I started to play the violin because I used to listen to my mother playing her violin, and I wanted to play it myself,” she tells Xpress. Among a long list of accolades, Midori is a Grammy winner, a United Nations Messenger of Peace and a recipient of the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award.
There are undeniable parallels between Midori’s trajectory and that of child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born in Salzburg in 1756. The pianist famously created his first musical compositions by age 5 and wrote his first symphony at 8. Concert tours of Europe followed before he was 10. But despite early fame (and early death — the musician expired from an unknown illness at 35) Mozart fared better than many of today’s child stars. His work — religious music, dances and operas — ranged from somber to playful and are still extolled more than 200 years later. As Whitehill notes, the composer was the rock star of his day and, thanks to the release of a box set in 2016, “Mozart even outsold Beyoncé last year.”
Along with her own recording work (recent releases include Bach’s complete solo sonatas and partitas and The Art of Midori, a 10-disc set) and performances, Midori’s foundation, Orchestra Residencies Program, sees her spending weeklong stints with U.S.-based youth music programs. “I have always been eager to work with the community regardless of being a
musician or not,” she says, though this endeavor is decidedly music-related. The Asheville Symphony applied for a grant from that foundation and was selected from about 40 applicants.
So, during her Asheville visit, Midori will spend significant time with the Asheville Symphony Youth Orchestra. “I hope the young people will enjoy the residency and that they will take from it whatever they can take,” she says. “There are many activities being planned that bring young people together in the context of music and those that will attract attention to the important work being done by the youth orchestras.” The residency culminates in a public performance of Verdi’s “Overture to Nabucco,” “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Opus 26, and Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins (during which youth orchestra musicians will solo beside Midori).
There will be 200 student musician onstage — including members of MusicWorks!, an outreach program for school-age children in an underserved community of West Asheville — plus 30 or more adult symphony musicians. The Girl Scouts of Asheville will host a milk-and-cookies reception following the concert. “This will be the largest youth orchestra this community has ever mounted, the largest audience that has ever come to a youth orchestra, and the largest cookie reception that Asheville has probably ever seen,” Whitehill says with a laugh.
Old score, new tricks
Former Ashevillean Secret Agent 23 Skidoo tends to bring ice cream vendors rather than a cookie sales team to his shows. The now-California-based kid-hop artist, who just won a Grammy for his album, Infinity Plus One, knows plenty about producing the kind of music that appeals to young ears. He had approached Whitehill about collaborating with the Asheville Symphony “because just the sounds and the richness and the production possibilities are awesome from a producer’s standpoint,” Skidoo says. “The idea of an entire orchestra is about as good as it gets.”
His original idea was to score some of his existing material, but Whitehill came back with the proposal that Skidoo could create a theme song for Asheville Amadeus (think the 1985 song “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco). Skidoo agreed even though he wasn’t very familiar with the 18th-century composer. “But that’s how I work,” he jokes. “I bite off more that I can chew, then grow more teeth.”
Skidoo wanted to create something that combines the worlds of hip-hop and the symphony, and that idea first jelled when he realized he could use a string section to sound like record scratching. Skidoo brought Asheville-based musician and DJ Marley Carroll in to do live scratching. “I decided to [approach] it as if we had all of Mozart’s works on record and we were chopping them up with beat machines to make a hip-hop beat out of it, like sampling,” he says.
The next piece was the “Mozartistic” idea, which became the first track on the resulting five-track EP of the same title. “What really clicked for me was when [Mozart] was 7, 8, 9 years old, he was on tour throughout Europe,” Skidoo says. “Every place he would go, all the older piano players … would challenge him to a battle and [Mozart] just waxed everyone. …I was like, ‘OK, now this is a hip-hop song.”
The battle-rapper theme is paired with the idea that, prodigy or not, everyone can take inspiration from Mozart’s story. “You never know what you are capable of unless you try and are disciplined,” says Skidoo. “Not everyone is a prodigy, but if you were and you didn’t try, you’d never know.”
The track’s hook is a triumphant challenge: “Who is the Mozartistic? I am the Mozartistic!”
Local singer-songwriter Indigo DeSouza adds vocals, and Orion Weiss, who was mentored by Grammy-winning classical pianist Emmanuel Ax (the inaugural Asheville Amadeus’ featured artist), performed Mozart’s “Turkish March.” That work is sampled and woven into the fist-pumping, dance-inducing “Mozartistic.”
Skidoo, who is already thinking about future classical and symphonic collaborations, will perform the Mozartistic songs during a Sunday, March 19, kids show at The Orange Peel. (See mountainx.com for more on Skidoo’s Grammy win, future projects and local performance details.)
A triumphant return
Asheville Amadeus provides opportunities for the symphony and partnering organizations to stretch imaginations and creative muscle. But it’s not a fringe endeavor. The inaugural festival was a huge success. “Almost three-fourths of [attendees] engaged in other activities while in Asheville for the festival,” says Whitehill. Those visitors dined in area restaurants, shopped, visited breweries and spas, and stayed overnight in hotels and B&Bs — so the event was a boon for the city as well as for the symphony. “On average, [attendees] spent $269 on Asheville Amadeus tickets and festival-related activities.”
Whitehill continues, “Given that those outside of Asheville Symphony’s patron base tend to be less familiar with classical music (and therefore less attracted by even big-name soloists), the overall design and positioning of the festival as a communitywide event with many access points … ultimately led to the success of Asheville Amadeus not only for the symphony but all the partners involved.”
While this year’s event doesn’t strictly follow the model of its predecessor, some popular initiatives will return. The speciality beer is one idea that, according to Whitehill, other symphonies around the country are seeking to replicate. And the 30-foot extension of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium stage, which brings the musicians closer to the audience and allows for up to 124 seats onstage, is also being reprised for the finale concert.
This kind of out-of-the box thinking has benefited the symphony in a number of ways. First, says Whitehill, the audience for the classical concerts is diversifying. And after the symphony’s collaboration with local musicians for last year’s album, The Symphony Sessions, “I see more people from Echo Mountain [Recording] — the staff and those who recorded there [for the album] coming to the symphony,” Whitehill says.
Plus, Asheville Amadeus is being shared by exploreasheville.com, the website of the local Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, leading to calls and bookings for the festival from visitors around the country. If the Asheville Symphony Orchestra used to be an island unto itself, as the executive director thought of it when he first came to town, now, “we’re not doing the same thing year after year. We’re learning, we’re doing something new,” he says.
The symphony’s budget has grown significantly — from just under $1 million four years ago to nearly $1.7 million this year, placing it in the top 12 or 13 percent of U.S. symphonies. The future looks bright. Pianist Inon Barnatan, the New York Philharmonic’s first artist-in-association, just performed with the local symphony for its “Music from Fantasia” program. Ax “chose us,” says Whitehill. “And Midori’s coming. You don’t have to go anywhere else.”
The possibilities do seem limitless. In fact, Whitehill muses, “Would it be too far-fetched to think one day we could have a rock-theme to this festival? Probably not.”
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