City in Summer? Must Be Mozart

July 30, 2014
Surely, it was no coincidence that on Tuesday afternoon, just in time for the opening night concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Avery Fisher Hall that evening, Lincoln Center announced that the French conductor Louis Langrée's contract as the festival's music director had been extended through 2017. The news was not surprising.

Since taking charge in 2002, Mr. Langrée, working closely with Jane Moss, the artistic director of the festival (and of Lincoln Center), did the seemingly impossible by bringing some fresh thinking and desperately needed vitality to what had long been an inert summer ritual. For this 48th festival, as in recent years, the dynamic International Contemporary Ensemble is in residence. In conjunction with the Park Avenue Armory, the ensemble will present three bold programs in the armory's intimate Board of Officers Room. The popular A Little Night Music series continues its late-night, 60-minute programs at the Kaplan Penthouse, offering skyline views and free wine. The eminent Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is playing a Brahms program next Thursday, the same night that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale joins the Mark Morris Dance Group for a ballet version of Handel's "Acis and Galatea" in, appropriately, Mozart's arrangement of the score. In a way, the festival actually opened daringly on Friday evening with the premiere of John Luther Adams's organic outdoor piece "Sila: The Breath of the World," which was written for and performed at Lincoln Center's Hearst Plaza by some 80 game instrumentalists and singers.

Still, in revitalizing the Mostly Mozart Festival, Mr. Langrée and Ms. Moss never suggested that they were abandoning the concept of a summer venture focused on its namesake. Performing Mozart's works is still central to the enterprise. On Tuesday night, Mr. Langrée and the festival orchestra came through with an impressive Mozart program, culminating with a bracing, urgent account of the mighty "Jupiter" Symphony.

As in past summers, Avery Fisher Hall has been reconfigured for the duration of the festival. A temporary platform extends the stage over the first 12 rows of floor seats. Three sections of bleachers to the sides and the back of the orchestra provide ample seating for some 230, and those popular, up-close sections looked full on Tuesday. This arrangement brings the players into closer proximity with the audience and enhances the sound in this acoustically challenged hall.

Mr. Langrée opened with the Overture to "Don Giovanni" in a keenly dramatic performance. He conducted the grim, slow introduction in long-arced, lean-textured phrases. The main fast section was pulsing and incisive, without being driven. In the opera, the Overture trails off and segues into the first scene. Mr. Langrée used the abrupt but effective concert ending that, at the request of Mozart's widow, was written after his death by Johann Anton André.

The distinguished pianist Richard Goode was the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A (K. 488), a work prized for the genial grace of its first movement and the lively spirits of its finale. Mr. Goode's playing had admirable fluidity and elegance, and plenty of sparkle in the finale. The slow movement, however, was the highlight here. The concerto seems to take a sudden turn into the tragic with this Adagio, written in a halting siciliano dance rhythm. Yet, if you push this anguished quality too far, it can throw off the character of the concerto. After all, the middle of the slow movement breaks temporarily into a major-key episode with an almost cheerful tune and a rippling accompaniment. Mr. Goode balanced the elements of sadness and contentment beautifully in his eloquent performance, sensitively supported by the orchestra.

Mr. Langrée drew vigorous, crisp playing from the ensemble in his emphatic account of the opening Allegro of the "Jupiter," the Symphony No. 41 in C, Mozart's last. Mr. Langrée's tempo in the slow movement was on the quicker side, which brought out the tension and tautness of the music. There was charm mixed with cagey playfulness in the Menuetto. And the orchestra was at its best when it mattered most, during the heroic, complex, magnificent finale.

The only disappointment with the new approach to the festival is that the contemporary music offerings are still mostly relegated to subsidiary programs in smaller spaces. A few 20th-century works, among them a Shostakovich concerto and a Schnittke pastiche on Haydn and Mozart, are being plopped into some festival orchestra programs. Why not a piece or two by some of the contemporary composers who are being presented at the armory? Or how about pairing Mozart with Mr. Adams, who got the festival going outdoors?

Still, there is some liveliness to the festival that would have seemed impossible not that long ago. The audience on Tuesday gave Mr. Langrée and the orchestra an enthusiastic ovation.

The New York Times
By Anthony Tommasini