Peter Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in 2009. (TSO)

January, when the snowbirds are away and the rest of Canadians would rather not leave the house, can be a tough month for a symphony orchestra.

But the Mozart Festival started six years ago at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has become a bright spot of the season, filling seats and becoming one of the TSO's most popular programs.

TSO music director Peter Oundjian credits Mozart with bringing a sense "wonderful joy" to both audiences and musicians at this time of year.

"It's not difficult to keep Mozart fresh," he said in an interview with CBC News on Wednesday. "It's a kind of natural ingrained reaction to Mozart's extraordinary music. His music is so direct and so pure and so full of all the manifestations of life's experience, that it's just really inspiring."

This year's Mozart Festival, marks the 254th birthday of the composer on Jan. 27, concentrates on his piano concerti, including Piano Concerto No. 21 to be performed by American pianist Jonathan Biss, beginning Wednesday.

The program also features an appearance by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, with NACO conductor Pinchas Zukerman to play Violin Concerto No. 5 and a guest appearance by British conductor Jane Glover, a renowned interpreter of Mozart.

This year also marks the introduction of Beyond the Score, a program created by the Chicago Symphony that provides the historical context for Mozart's Piano Concerto 27.

The multimedia event features Oundjian as the narrator, Ignat Solzhenitsyn on piano and as leader of the orchestra — in keeping with Mozart's time when there would have been no separate conductor — and Canadian actor Paul Gross to dramatize the action behind each segment of the music.

"It's a kind of dramatic effect to try to get ourselves into the imagination of Mozart and into the feeling of that time," Oundjian said.


Actor Paul Gross, shown in August 2009, is to dramatize a series of characters from Mozart's life. (Dan Steinberg/Associated Press)

The first half of the program features Oundjian telling the stories behind Mozart's music, while Gross acts out characters such as an historian commenting on Mozart's father Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus himself.

The TSO plays the full concerto, uninterrupted, in the second half of the program.

Glover will be conducting the TSO for the second time — she had the baton for a program of Handel's Messiah a few years ago.

The London-based scholar and musician has conducted every piece in Mozart's repertoire and is author of the biography Mozart's Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music.

"It's not just that's glorious to listen to, but he hits the emotional and the intellectual and the spiritual, and the sensual, all the time," Glover said of Mozart's enduring appeal.

"You look at his operas — although some of the stories are very tough, there is fantastic heart behind them. He was a man who loved people and was very much interested in the human predicament of which he saw a huge amount first hand."

Her program features TSO artists Teng Li on Viola and Anne Akiko Myers on violin, as well as British pianist Imogen Cooper, who Glover works with frequently. 

The Mozart@254 Festival:

  • Jan. 13, 14, 17: Symphony No. 25, Horn concert No. 2, Piano Concerto No. 21, TSO conducted by Oundjian with pianist Jonathan Biss, Neil Deland on horn and soprano Shannon Mercer.
  • Jan. 16: Clarinet Concerto, Violin Concerto No. 5, NAC Orchestra conducted by Zukerman with baritone Russell Braun, Kimball Sykes on clarinet, Linda Bouchard and the Hubbard Street Dance Co.
  • Jan. 20, 21: Symphony No. 32, Piano Concerto No. 25, Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, TSO conducted by Jane Glover with Cooper on piano, Li on viola and Myers on violin.
  • Jan. 23, 24: Beyond the Score, Piano Concerto 27.

In 2011, the TSO has yet more fun for Mozart lovers — renowned Canadian violinist James Ehnes playing five violin concerti in a single evening.