Artist Profile: The Mozartists

An interview with Ian Page

David Porter-Thomas
Exit Live


We are delighted that Classical Opera and The Mozartists are going to publish a series of recordings on the platform entitled ‘Re-live on Exit Live’. Exit Live is a new music platform for all genres enabling artists to sell recordings of the concert to the audience after the concert as well as to those around the world that could not attend. A few months ago we sat down with Ian Page, the director, and discussed the possibility of uploading a series of historical recordings to give the audience the possibility of enjoying ‘live’ performances even though all concerts were cancelled due to Covid 19. It was decided that the company would publish one recording a month for the rest of the year in order to celebrate the wonderful music making and to provide some revenue for the artists who are now staring at empty diaries.

1. When did you start the company and why?

I started the company in 1997, although for the first few years it was often a case of scrambling money together for one or two projects and then starting again from scratch. I’d gradually felt that Mozart was becoming my musical centre of gravity, and yet of his 20+ operas no more than six or seven were in the core repertoire of the world’s opera houses. I increasingly felt drawn to his early operas, not just for their own musical and dramatic merits (which are considerable, even in his first opera, written at the age of 11!), and I felt there should be a company that does for Mozart what The Royal Shakespeare Company does for Shakespeare. So when we first started out we were predominantly an opera company (our original name was The Classical Opera Company), although one of our big things has always been placing pieces in context, so we have always put on supporting concerts and other events around our opera productions.

Another big influence was the period-instrument movement, which had already been going for a generation when we started out, and I found that with the type of instruments that Mozart and his contemporaries were writing for the music leapt off the page and made a lot more sense — paradoxically, it seemed to me that it made the pieces more modern. It’s not just a question of the instruments. A huge amount of written records and instructions survive from Mozart’s time of how the music should be performed, what various markings in scores really meant and what singers, players and audiences of the day would have expected and understood about the music. It sounds quite basic, but it’s amazing how far people had got from these central tenets. I still get a thrill when we scrape away the veneer of a great masterpiece — it’s like scraping an old painting or building and realising that the original colours were so much more vibrant and rich!

«I think the Exit Live platform is a wonderful concept and I am very happy to be a part of it . I’m going to be telling my followers all about it!»
— Ann Hallenberg

2. When did The Mozartists begin?

The Classical Opera Company was a functional name, and we certainly did what it said on the tin, but it was also a bit dry and ‘worthy’ so I’d never loved it; I’d just never come up with anything better. We’d already shortened the name to Classical Opera, and then a few years ago a leading consultant who’d generously offered to help us reported that promoters abroad were struggling with the name — to them it implied staged opera productions of a scale we couldn’t come close to being able to afford, while we were wanting to sell bijou concert programmes. Furthermore, she suggested that we weren’t really an opera company any more. It seems silly in retrospect, but at the time this came as quite a shock, although when I looked back at our past few season brochures I realised that she was right. We were still doing operas, but predominantly in concert performances, and concert programmes and recordings were by now more central to our mission. At roughly the same time, a leading agent in Berlin told us that he’d be very interested in representing us internationally but that we’d need to change our name to something that better summarised our work.

And so The Mozartists were born! I’d actually come up with the name a few years previously, more as a joke than a genuine proposal at the time. Initially it provoked quite a varied and extreme reaction — like Marmite, people either loved it or hated it — but we liked the fact that it immediately encapsulates what we do, and that it feels both definitive and playful. To begin with it really bothered me that not everyone liked it, but when I told this to one of our trustees, he said, “Yes, but Mozart would have loved it!”. That made my mind up, and we launched The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall in September 2017. At the moment both names are co-existing, so we’re Classical Opera when we put on an opera and The Mozartists for our concerts and recordings, but this is just a transition phase — we needed audiences to know that we were still the same group and hadn’t disappeared off the face of the planet — and soon I think we’ll drop the name Classical Opera altogether.

3. Are you primarily a repertoire-led company?

Five years ago we embarked on a project called MOZART 250, in which we follow the chronological trajectory of Mozart’s life, music and influences, effectively in real time 250 years later, so we plan to perform almost all of his important works, and many neglected ones, on the 250th anniversary of their composition or first performance. This is a 27-year project which will culminate in 2041, the 250th anniversary of The Magic Flute, the Requiem and indeed Mozart’s death, so I think it’s fair to say that Mozart will always remain central to our repertoire! It’s important that we find an equal balance, though, between our MOZART 250 events and our other events. So far our repertoire has ranged from Handel and Pergolesi to Beethoven and Schubert, and I’d love us to explore later repertoire too if the opportunities ever arise.

When we first started out, I definitely thought of us as a repertoire-led company, with a clear (if rather niche!) brief to perform the music of Mozart, but from the start we also had a very strong commitment to nurturing outstanding young singers, and a third important strand was the way we engaged with our audiences and shared our journey with them. It’s interesting to see how, over the course of twenty years, the order of priority of these objectives has reversed, and now I’d like to think that our interaction with our audiences is now our strongest raison-d’ȇtre, regardless of what music we’re performing.

4. What do you enjoy most about music making and why is it so different and special in front of an audience?

For me, making music with colleagues is one of the ultimate acts of friendship and camaraderie. I love the process of rehearsal, and always try to make sure we allocate enough time — for me the best performances are the ones where we’ve explored so many different ways of shaping a particular phrase or delivering a particular line that we’ve asked literally hundreds of well-aimed questions. If we’ve been through that process it almost doesn’t matter what answers we come up with; the work will have its own depth and integrity. But the pay-back for all that work is to put the results in front of a live audience, and the energy and reactions of the audience will minutely affect the spontaneity and dynamic of the performance in a myriad of different ways.

Listening to a concert, a recital or an opera performance isn’t a passive act. Sometimes, understandably, people will recline in their seats in an attitude that seems to say, “Come on, I’ve paid my money: now entertain me, inspire me, transport me!”. Such an expectation is entirely fair enough, but for me a performance is much more special if the audience is more actively engaging with the music, mentally on the front foot rather than the back foot, partaking of the performance rather than merely receiving it. As performers, of course, we have no right to demand or expect such a level of engagement from our audience — it needs to be earned — but when it does happen the performance has a thrill, a connection and a value in purely human terms that not even the most perfectly executed studio recording can match.

5. Do you record a lot of your performances?

Yes, we record most of our performances for archival, promotional and educational use. We quite often perform rare and neglected repertoire, and it’s hard to convince people to come if they have no reference point for what the music will sound like. I think the Exit Live model is a superb one — and a real godsend in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic. There seems to be a general assumption that artists should step forward and offer their work for free, but I don’t see any signs of chefs offering free meals for an indefinite period of time, or of brain surgeons offering three free operations a week. Our musicians have suddenly been deprived of their ability to earn a living, and while the proceeds from paid downloads won’t come remotely close to compensating them for the loss of income from even one single concert, it is at least a gesture of support and gratitude.

6. How do you prepare for your performances and recordings?

Usually at any given time I will have five or six projects on the go. The next concert, for example, might be two weeks away, while a venue needs a detailed breakdown, timings and soloists for a concert 18 months away, while I also need to spend a couple of days in a library to whittle down a shortlist of possible pieces for a new programme that might take three years to come to fruition. We do a lot of themed programmes, and these in particular take a huge amount of research and preparation. A chronological survey of Gluck operas; for example, required me to go through all of Gluck’s operas, make a shortlist of highlights from each one before then choosing how many singers and what voice types we needed, and finally teasing out a chronological sequence that had equal amounts for each singer, required similar orchestration and had plenty of contrast from one piece to the next.

Once the programming and casting has been done, the main bulk of the preparation is done in solitude in the weeks leading up to the start of rehearsals. As conductor I need to stay a step ahead of everyone else, so if I ever get nervous it tends to be before the first rehearsal rather than before the concert. The plus side of this is that if rehearsals have gone particularly well then the concert, where everyone else might be getting nervous, feels for me almost like a post-performance party! Some people find studio recordings really difficult, but I love them. I always try to treat them as live performances to an audience, with the added benefit that if something goes wrong or could have been better we get to do it again. And again… and again…!

7. The audience loves the combination of detailed programme notes and readings during the performance. How did you come up with the concept?

I always write my own programme notes; it’s another level on which to communicate with the audience and to give them as much information as I think might be useful to enhance their enjoyment of the music. I try my best to assume intelligence but not necessarily knowledge or experience. It’s crucial not to be condescending or exclusive, but it’s also important to be welcoming and enthusiastic without dumbing down or apologising.

I think the readings idea also stems from how we try to connect with our audiences. For me, everything comes back to story-telling and taking our audience on a journey. With an opera the story-telling is already there in the text and staging, although the orchestra also plays a huge role in communicating the emotional temperature and subtext of the plot. But the idea of story-telling equally applies to all our other programming, both within a specific concert or across a whole season (or, in the case of MOZART 250, across 27 years!!).
For our very first concert, in 1997, we had the wonderful actor Michael Maloney reading brief anecdotes about Mozart’s life and times, and it really helped to bring the music to three-dimensional life. We’ve used this formula several times since, and we’ve also done programmes where we’ve interspersed 18th century music with poems from a wide range of eras, from the 16th century to the present day. It’s fascinating how prefacing a piece of music with a particular poem can completely affect the way we experience the music.

8. The Covid pandemic has led to all concerts being cancelled. How are you and your musicians surviving?

I can’t pretend that it isn’t extremely tough. It’s not just the sudden loss of income for many months on end, although this alone is hard enough. But we’ve also been deprived of what we’ve all chosen to devote our lives to, a choice that has involved sacrifices, uncertainty, exposure to failure and criticism, and literally thousands of hours of practice and study for every one of us. It would be surprising if we hadn’t all felt our own sense of identity threatened over the past two or three months, and we will probably all have had more downs than ups during the course of lockdown as we contemplate our suddenly emptied diaries.

But this is also an opportunity to slow down, to take stock and re-evaluate; to read books we always meant to get round to, to catch up on films we missed, to learn a new language or two, and to question whether work and money can ever mean as much as friendship and love. And more than anything, we need to keep hold of our positivity, our kindness and our hope.

9. How many recordings are going to feature in your RE-LIVE series on Exit Live? Can you mention a few?

We are planning to release one recording a month between May and the end of the year, so eight in total, beginning with the Ann Hallenberg concert from Wigmore Hall. If we’re still not allowed to give concerts by the beginning of next year, there are further recordings that we might release. It’s a great way for us to stay connected with our followers while we’re unable to give concerts, and also potentially to reach new audiences all over the globe.

We need to get clearance and signed contracts from each and every performer before we can confirm any release, but I’m increasingly hopeful that this will be a formality. So far everyone has been fully supportive and positive about this initiative. I’m hoping that future releases will incorporate complete Mozart operas, including La clemenza di Tito and the original Prague version of Don Giovanni, and more of our themed concerts from Wigmore Hall, including a fun New Year’s Eve Concert where we performed a 5-minute version of The Marriage of Figaro.

10. What is your favourite track on the Ann Hallenberg recording and why?

Purely as a piece of music, I would choose the opening movement of the Kraus Symphony in C minor, particularly because it’s so neglected and rarely performed, but as a memory of the whole concert I would have to choose the Gluck aria that began the programme. Usually it take an audience quarter of an hour or so to warm up into a concert, but I’ll never forget the whoops of appreciation that immediately greeted Ann’s amazing singing.