Ageless Melodies: A2SO’s 21st Annual Mozart Birthday Bash


If the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra’s annual Mozart Birthday Bash concert was a person, he could legally, for the first time, buy an alcoholic beverage this year to celebrate.

So let’s collectively raise a toast this local cultural tradition, born shortly before conductor Arie Lipsky first took over A2SO’s podium in 2000.

“It seems like Mozart is almost everybody’s favorite composer," Lipsky said, "so we just decided to celebrate him every year."

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria on January 27, 1756 -- that's 261 years ago, but who’s counting? -- and because he wrote more than 600 works in his too-short life (he died in 1791 at age 35), A2SO’s annual showcase never has to worry about repeating itself.

In fact, this year, the first work in this year’s program is Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4, “Mozartiana,” wherein Tchaikovsky built original orchestrations around four piano pieces by Mozart.

“Mozart was also Tchaikovsky’s favorite composer, and he dedicated the piece to Mozart,” Lipsky said. “One of the movements goes a little romantic, but that’s OK. He was a Russian romantic. We forgive him for that.”

Three out of the piece’s four movements are, according to Lipsky, “note by note transcriptions of pieces Mozart wrote for piano, with Tchaikovsky orchestrating it. By the sheer act of orchestration, the music is made richer. In the orchestra, the nature of orchestral instruments is that you’re able to sustain notes, unlike the piano, so the music becomes more evocative, and there are more colors to hear.”

The second piece in this year’s program, Piano Concerto No. 21, is sometimes called “Elvira Madigan,” because it was famously associated with a 1967 Swedish movie of that name, which told the scandalous, dramatic tale of a Danish tightrope walker and trick rider.

“In the second movement, the piano sings a beautiful aria that was used extensively in the movie,” Lipsky said. “Some say that everything Mozart wrote was an opera, and there’s some truth to that. … Even the piano, which is by definition a more percussive instrument, is singing the entire time.”

Special guest performer Alon Goldstein will be featured on piano during A2SO’s presentation of Concerto No. 21. “He has a wonderful Mozart touch, and there’s such grace about his playing,” said Lipsky. “I think the audience will really enjoy that.”

Finally, A2SO will wrap up this year’s birthday celebration with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39.

“This was one of the last three symphonies that Mozart composed,” said Lipsky. “It was written three years before his untimely death, and as far as we know, he never wrote it for a special event, and the public never heard them. He wrote them for his legacy, for the generations to come. And as with many of his pieces, you look at his original scores, and he does not even alter one note. It’s as if they’re dictated to him by God.”

Lipsky also noted that Symphony No. 39 played a role in ushering in the Romantic period, in which artworks grew more emotional and expressive.

“It’s quite a tour de force for the orchestra,” said Lipsky. “Everyone’s quite busy throughout, doing very different things … and he jumps from a dramatic and tense moment to a gracious and sweet moment of relaxation. Which is what makes Mozart so great. But it also shows off his amazing compositional technique. He could pick three or four notes and make a ten-minute movement out of those three notes. Very few composers were able to do that. … It’s like watching a juggler with one ball. If he’s really good, after a while, it feels like he has five or six, because he’s juggling all over -- up, down, behind his body, underneath. You begin to wonder if anyone else can do something like that, and the answer is obviously ‘no.’”

Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra’s Mozart Birthday Bash happens Saturday, January 14 at 8 p.m. at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor. Tickets cost $15-$67, available at or 734-994-4801.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.