Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival has been a summer fixture for more than four decades. Mozart's music is still at its core, but in recent years, the programming has broadened to include contemporary work. Now the festival has even added a composer-in-residence. Jeff Lunden has the story of how a Finnish composer with an oratorio about a French philosopher sung by an American soprano is shaking up the Mozart Festival.

(Soundbite of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto)

JEFF LUNDEN: Don't worry, audiences can still hear Mozart's clarinet concerto at Mostly Mozart this summer. But if they'd like, they can also hear this.

(Soundbite of "La Passion de Simone")

LUNDEN: Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's "La Passion de Simone," an oratorio for soprano, chorus and orchestra, which explores the life and work of 20th-century French philosopher Simone Weil. Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's vice president for programming, thinks having Saariaho's work mashed up right next to Mozart gives each a sense of resonance.

Ms. JANE MOSS (Vice President for Programming, Lincoln Center): It establishes their works in a continuum of time, as well, that it is not the case that there was all this little, pretty music three centuries ago and then there's contemporary - that there is a continuum and that they are all related.

LUNDEN: "La Passion de Simone" is definitely related to Mozart. It premiered in Vienna in 2006 as part of a festival of new work in honor of the composer's 250th birthday. It's kind of a requiem for Simone Weil, a controversial figure who led an ascetic, lonely, but politically committed life. Her philosophical tracts were published posthumously, after she starved herself to death at age 34 in solidarity with prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Kaija Saariaho says Weil and her struggles made for fascinating subject material.

Ms. KAIJA SAARIAHO (Finnish Composer-In-Residence, Mostly Mozart Festival): She was trying so hard to solve some of the problems of our existence. She tried so hard to live up what she was expecting human beings, how they should live. And the life was so impossibly complicated for her, that all this - it just touched me very much.

(Soundbite of "La Passion de Simone")

SIMON: That's soprano Pia Freund from the premier production in Vienna. At Mostly Mozart, American soprano Dawn Upshaw will be the soloist who functions as a narrator, describing moments from Simone Weil's life and questioning her human failings. Upshaw says she's struggled to make sense of Weil's philosophy, which is quoted extensively in voiceovers.

(Soundbite of "La Passion de Simone" voiceover)

LUNDEN: This quote translates to: "Nothing that exists is absolutely worthy of love, so we must love what does not exist."

Ms. DAWN UPSHAW (Soloist, Mostly Mozart Festival): The ideas are really extreme in their denial of the life, really, that we're accustomed, especially today, to living. I find a lot of them very difficult to grasp.

LUNDEN: In a work so dense, director Peter Sellars has kept the staging simple. The set consists of a desk, a chair, a door and a couple of books. Dawn Upshaw and a dancer, Michael Schumacher, are the only people onstage.

(Soundbite of "La Passion de Simone")

LUNDEN: Sellars says Saariaho paints a vivid picture of Weil in sound. A committed Marxist, the philosopher worked for a time on the assembly line in a Renault factory, something she found soul deadening.

Mr. PETER SELLARS (Director, "La Passion de Simone"): Kaija takes you into a factory just with the breath of the chorus and this percussion. So you hear the percussion, all these metallic sounds, and you hear the breath of exhaustion. It's actually human beings. And it's human beings being turned into machines. And it's a stunning moment of kind of musical clarity.

(Soundbite of "La Passion de Simone")

LUNDEN: Simone Weil has a crisis of faith after working in the factory and Kaija Saariaho illustrates this with just a solo oboe and the singer.

Ms. SAARIAHO: Oboe sounds very lonely, and I just wanted to have this very contrasting moment and melodic moment after this noisy passage.

(Soundbite of "La Passion de Simone")

LUNDEN: Director Peter Sellars admits that "La Passion de Simone" is a challenging work about a difficult human being whose ideas are profoundly complex, which is why he loves it.

Mr. SELLARS: And in a world where the most serious things in the history of humanity are confronting us, and we're facing them with a culture that is relentlessly not serious, what is so beautiful and moving and such a privilege to be able to be at Lincoln Center with Dawn Upshaw is to say, for 80 minutes, could we get serious?

LUNDEN: "La Passion de Simone" makes its New York premiere at Mostly Mozart this Wednesday evening. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of "La Passion de Simone")

SIMON: And to hear more from the creators of "La Passion de Simone" - no relation - and to hear Dawn Upshaw singing one of - oh, I'm going to have problems with this - Kaija Saariaho's songs, you can go to our Web site, This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I think I can manage to pronounce that. I'm Scott Simon.

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