Ask the average chap on the street to name a composer. Research shows that you'd be wise to bet on two guys: Beethoven and Mozart. Take nothing away from the Bachs, Handels, Haydns and Tchaikovskys. Somehow, though, Ludwig and Wolfgang Amadeus have worked their way into the highest levels of Western consciousness. Beethoven has been the Minnesota Orchestra's bread and butter recently, and this month Osmo Vänskä has decided it's time for a little Mozart. Beginning Wednesday, the orchestra has programmed two weeks' worth of symphonies, chamber music, songs and opera from the delicate Austrian genius.

"I love Beethoven, I love Rachmaninoff; my desert-island composer is probably Tchaikovsky, and yet with Mozart, it's the dessert," said Phil Gainsley, a Minneapolis music aficionado who occasionally gives pre-concert talks at Orchestra Hall. "There's something on a different level with Mozart."

Pianist Lydia Artymiw, who appears on two programs this week, put more vocabulary on the bones of Gainsley's statement. What keeps Mozart eternally fresh is his lyricism, his ability to change moods in an instant and his ear for the voice.

"Mozart is always about melody," Artymiw said. "Beethoven is rhythm, and if you don't have good rhythm, you don't have Beethoven. But Mozart always has beautiful melodies."

On Wednesday and Friday, Artymiw will join her former student Andrew Staupe as the orchestra -- under Vänskä -- will perform the Concerto for Two Pianos. The program includes the Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter") and the Oboe Concerto featuring John Snow.

Staupe studied with Artymiw at the University of Minnesota and has enjoyed considerable success with this orchestra. He won the WAMSO Young Artist competition in 2006. This Mozart concert will be his fourth re-engagement with Minnesota.

Sandwiched between those two concerts, Artymiw will play the Quintet for Piano and Winds Serenade No. 10 in a coffee concert on Thursday. Vänskä will conduct and play the clarinet. It's not the first time they've worked together, Artymiw said, reaching back to a 1981 performance of the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto with the Helsinki Philharmonic. She was the pianist and Vänskä was then the Helsinki's principal clarinet.

"Shortly after he arrived in the Twin Cities [in 2003], Jorja Fleezanis and I were doing a little benefit concert at a private home, and when I was introduced to him, I said, 'We've actually met many years ago,'" she said. "I showed him the program, and he said, 'Who could have imagined that we both would have ended up here?'"

Choral gems

The Saturday night program shows off short choral works by the composer also famed for his operas. Kathy Saltzman Romey has selected a number of pieces for the Minnesota Chorale. Included are the Kyrie in D minor, Ave verum corpus, Misericordias Domini and the Magnificat in C major. They are small pieces, three to seven minutes in length, but Romey said she chose them to illustrate Mozart's genius in what she calls "little forgotten gems that deserve to be performed."

Romey notes that the classical period often is characterized in terms of Haydn, and then Mozart. On the purest terms, that argument is difficult to attack. Mozart, though, advanced the form, Romey said.

"In Misericordias, he actually took a motif by a contemporary and drew on models of his Salzburg predecessors, but it is so beautifully crafted and progressive in terms of the counterpoint," she said. "Every time he deals with the motif, it's slightly different, as if he's trying to show you that he can do so much. I'm just amazed at the craftsmanship."

'The Magic Flute'

Artymiw contends that Mozart was primarily an opera composer -- hence his genius for melody. In the second week of the festival (Jan. 20-23), Vänskä will conduct "The Magic Flute" with the chorale and soloists in a semistaged production. Nili Riemer, a coloratura soprano who is a former resident artist with Minnesota Opera, sings the Queen of the Night, and Raymond Ayers (the celebrant in 2009's Bernstein Mass) is the baritone.

"The Magic Flute" demonstrates how difficult it is to pigeonhole Mozart.

"It was almost a burlesque when he wrote it, not on the level of 'Figaro' or 'Don Giovanni' or 'Cosi Fan Tutte,'" said Gainsley. "But if you delve into it, it is very symbolic about right vs. wrong and dark vs. light."

"Flute" was Mozart's last opera, and the Jupiter was his final symphony. Gainsley finds something worthwhile in the orchestra's decision to program both works in this festival because they present the composer drawing from all his influences and working with a confident maturity.

"He makes it look so simple and yet it's so complicated," Gainsley said. "There is a satisfaction in Mozart that I can't find anywhere else."

He is not alone.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299