In June 1791, with just six months to live, and yet busy as ever, Mozart wrote his wife a letter describing his feelings of despair, using words that seem oddly appropriate to the anxieties of our own time.
"I can't explain to you how I feel," he wrote. "It is a certain emptiness that pains me, a longing that is never satisfied, consequently never ceases, that persists and persists, indeed increases from day to day."
The last year of Mozart's life has often been described as a long preparation for death. But during that time, he wrote two operas, a piano concerto, a Masonic cantata, a large number of dances and short pieces, a clarinet concerto, two quintets and most of the Requiem. There was no time to mope. He had commissions to fulfill.
The WolfGang, a local six-member chamber ensemble that plays Baroque and Classical repertoire on period instruments, gave a concert Monday night in Ferguson Hall on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota titled "Music from Mozart's Last Year" as part of the three-week Twin Cities Early Music Festival.
This proved to be a rewarding idea. The program mixed rarities with familiar pieces such as the overtures to "The Magic Flute" and "La Clemenza di Tito," in arrangements for chamber ensemble that made them seem almost new. The group's flutist, Paul Jacobson, wrote the clever "Tito" transcription, which, surprisingly, seemed to have almost more dramatic punch than the original version for orchestra.
Two of the novelties were short pieces that Mozart wrote for glass harmonica — tuned glass bowls that are played by one's fingers from above. (Benjamin Franklin gets credit for inventing the first "musical glasses.") Mozart composed two of these works for Marianne Kirchgessner, who, despite her blindness, became a virtuoso on the instrument.
This is simple but ethereal music, rather in the style of "The Magic Flute." Gail Olszewski played the pieces on a fortepiano, deftly conveying their grace and charm. In the Adagio and Rondo, Mozart's last piece of chamber music, Olszewski was joined most capably by Jacobson, oboist Stanley King, violist Jennifer Kalika and cellist Laura Handler. The group's sixth member, violinist Mary Sorlie, contributed the adroitly played filigree in a Divertimento by Florian Leopold Gassmann that was performed right before intermission.
The WolfGang's players are more experienced than are many of their colleagues in keeping their often unwieldy instruments playing on pitch. (The group was formed in 1996.) Their opening number, "The Magic Flute," wandered occasionally into troubled tonal waters. Pitch and balance improved soon thereafter.
Michael Anthony is a longtime Minneapolis music critic.