Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the prolific, brilliant and endlessly fascinating Austrian composer who died in 1791 at the age of 35, bequeathed the world more than 600 works in a huge array of genres.
He also left behind a huge volume of correspondence – hundreds of letters between him and his family.
These compositions – both music and literary – are being brought together at UKARIA, near Mount Barker, this weekend in the latest in a string of collaborations between pianist Simon Tedeschi and actor John Bell.
Bell, whose career includes founding the Bell Shakespeare Company, which carries on without him, and a huge span of theatre, film and directing work, first worked with Tedeschi on a similar project, bringing Tennyson’s epic poem Enoch Arden to life with solo piano works from Richard Strauss and Robert Schumann.
The 41-year-old pianist, who has been in the public eye since he emerged as a brilliant child performer, and the 81-year-old actor, one of the most significant figures in Australian theatre over the past 50 years, have since forged a dynamic partnership combining beautiful spoken words with piano music.
Since Enoch Arden, they’ve conceptualised Words and Music, a show melding backstage stories and poetry with music from Mozart to Gershwin; Bright Star, pairing the Romantic poetry of Keats with the compositions of Schubert; and Echoes of the Jazz Age, with tunes from the rip-roaring ’20s underpinned by an essay of the same name by F Scott Fitzgerald, along with other pieces of writing of the era.
Their newest concept, With Love, Amadeus, will premiere at UKARIA Cultural Centre on Sunday, in a show which has sold out, like so many at the beautiful concert hall.
Bell told InReview that the pairing with Tedeschi – the pianist made the first approach – is natural for him, with his career including the direction of five operas and some musical theatre.
“I just enjoy being on stage with musicians; being in close quarters as they play is a great privilege,” he says.
Mozart is a favoured composer of his.
“There aren’t any dud works – everything is at the top of their genre,” Bell says. “It’s very hard to have favourites – they are all so different.”
Tedeschi has selected a broad array of works to accompany the wide emotional sweep contained in the genius’s correspondence, including, Bell says, some pieces that will be less familiar to many in the audience.
As for the words, they paint a more complex picture than that of the scatological imp sometimes portrayed in popular culture.
“The letters are not meant for publication but are uncensored, so they’re more real – which I find fascinating,” Bell says.
“They do show the jokester, the scamp, but also some of his outrage at various patrons because they underpaid him or wouldn’t pay him. He writes about the Philistines of Salzburg, even though the city is now at the heart of Mozart mania.
“We offer little glimpses rather than anything too academic. We also take some out to chat about Mozart – about why he’s so popular [for example].”
Don’t expect Bell to don a powdered wig and perform as Mozart.
“I don’t try to do that. I just try to capture the feeling of them, without any attempt as characterisation.”
The actor has never performed in playwright Peter Shaffer’s famous play Amadeus – a fictional account of Mozart and fellow composer Salieri, which was made into an influential 1984 film of the same name which picked up eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. And Bell feels the film painted a rather unbalanced image of Mozart – an idea that his incredible works were simply a gift, given to a jokester, rather than the result of concentrated and costly effort.
You sense that the two performers – the concert pianist, who has moulded a career in many genres, and the actor, probably our finest exponent of Shakespeare – might have strong views on the costs and labour of creating beautiful art.
“I think the film is pretty lopsided, frankly: you don’t see much of the gravitas,” Bell says. “There’s a great deal more to Mozart – he was a very serious and hard-working artist. There’s a myth that he didn’t have to work hard, that his work was streamed directly from heaven. There’s undoubtedly a quality of genius there, but we don’t see what goes into it.”
Bell loves the anecdote about artist Pablo Picasso, in which he is approached by an admirer in Paris and asked for a quick sketch. He draws on a napkin for a few minutes, hands it over and asks for 20,000 francs. The admirer, taken aback, asks: “How long did it take you to do that?”
“He said: ’40 years’.”
Bell himself has been at his craft for 60.
Simon Tedeschi and John Bell perform With Love, Amadeus at UKARIA on Sunday, June 26. Check the UKARIA website for updates on the cultural centre’s program.
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