Alexander's Feast, Barbican, London

How to get a Handel on Mozart
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Some of us have always known that Mozart was good for the health. It took the scientists a little longer to "prove" that mothers giving birth and young babies would all feel much better and be much more intelligent if a daily dose of Mozart (or at least a regular one) was administered. So it is perhaps surprising that it has taken London so long to jump on the Mozart festival band-wagon.

The Barbican's Mostly Mozart festival is almost a direct copy of its American original. The Lincoln Center's annual Mostly Mozart began in 1966, but it has taken the arrival of Robert van Leer, fresh from that New York venue, to initiate a similar scheme, which began only last year. For the Barbican, it's cunning planning in many ways. How to fill the summer months is always a challenge; how to attract new audiences for classical music the perennial challenge. But if last year's audience figures are to be believed, the Barbican's Mostly Mozart festival is a howling success: an astonishing 60 per cent of the audience was new to the Barbican.

So what's the secret? Yes, it's youth and accessibility, but "Y&A" well planned. Young artists in one-off concerts of classical music rarely sell out 2,000-seat venues unless they are excessively talented or excessively hyped. But Mostly Mozart provides the perfect umbrella: a more-or-less resident orchestra with a vast number of Mozart recordings under its belt - the Academy of St Martin in the Fields - with the highest calibre young artists - Paul Lewis, Julia Fischer, Magdalena Kozena, Jonathan Lemalu, Chloë Hanslip - in Mozart with a dash of near- ish contemporaries that will never frighten a pony, let alone a horse.

And the weekly pattern is clear: Thursday, Friday and Saturday night concerts (mostly with not one but two concerto spots); opera (Garsington's La Finta giardiniera and Salieri's provocative Prima la Musica pui la Parole with Mozart's The Impresario); films (including Basil Dean's marvellous 1936 bio-pic Whom the Gods Love); talks (with David Mellor); free foyer events; plus a Family Festival weekend for children over the age of seven (featuring a make-your-own Magic Flute).

The festival dubs itself a "celebration of the world's most popular composer". Doesn't that sound like a commercial radio station's advertising tag? Well, yes indeed, for collaborating in the search for new converts to Mozart is "the world's most popular classical music station", Classic FM. It's a neat mesh: Classic FM features the artists, music and events on its airwaves, while the Barbican benefits from free publicity. But credibility is at stake: the Barbican must not allow hype to overtake reality. And, so far, the 60 per cent "new take" has happened without calling upon Bond or Opera Babes.

Opening the "MM" festival with Mozart's take on Handel's Alexander's Feast, a "scarcely Mozart" event, might be regarded as chutzpah even in the hands of such a Handelian-Mozart conductor as Jane Glover. But so rarely performed a work, let alone this version, is perhaps a marker that the Barbican's festival is more than a chocolate-box event. And so it proved. Handel's work is uneven - Mozart brought it up to date by scoring it for a classical, ie "contemporary" orchestra - but there are some marvellous moments, in particular for soprano solo. Each time the young Canadian singer Gillian Keith opened her mouth, the music seemed to soar to another plane. What a lovely voice: fresh, so well focused and awesomely tuned. Mark Padmore, too, was thrilling in his challenging recitatives and arias, while Stephan Loges came into his own in the second half. Glover shaped and paced most sensitively, never allowing the music to sag - or the audience to interrupt the flow with applause. Underpinning the whole were the crack voices of The Sixteen, here augmented to 26. Projections of the performers on screens on either side of the auditorium were expertly handled, unobtrusively showing how music is made. A total triumph.

Mostly Mozart continues to 2 August (0845 1207550)