Mostly Mozart Festival (1): An Impressive Opening Concert

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart Festival (1), Richard Goode (Piano), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée, (Conductor),  Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 29.7.2014 (SSM)

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra (with acoustical pods) Photo by: Jennifer Taylor
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra (with acoustical pods)
Photo by: Jennifer Taylor

Overture to Don Giovanni, K.527 (1787)
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K.488 (1786)
Symphony No. 41 in C major, K.551 (“Jupiter”) (1788)

As it inches its way towards the half-century mark, the Mostly Mozart Festival has had its share of ups and downs. Much of the credit for the ups must be given to music director and conductor Louis Langrée. Now in his twelfth season as head of the Festival, he has just signed a contract that extends his stay until at least 2017. He continues to imbue his concerts with an enthusiasm that charms his audience and, most surprisingly, in just the kind of works that confound one’s expectations. You might exclaim, “Not another program made up of Mozart’s Greatest Hits,” but no. ”War horses” they may be, but the reins are tightly held and correctly used to get the most out of these old mares.

If a conductor and orchestra have been playing mostly Mozart together for the past dozen years, the audience should expect to get high-caliber performances. And they were not disappointed with this concert, the formal opening night of the Festival. Technically, this would be the third event in the series: the first, an outdoor performance of a commissioned work by John Luther Adams; and the second, a free concert in Avery Fisher Hall of music by Mozart, Gluck and Berlioz.

The overture to Don Giovanni set the tone for the works that followed. As in past seasons, Langrée used a smallish orchestra with modern instruments and never pushed the musicians to produce sounds that would not be considered “Mozartean.” The strings played with limited vibrato, the winds and brass held back from overly resounding, and the hall itself was made more intimate by the yearly addition of acoustic pods above the musician’s heads. The overture was taken at a moderate pace that vividly brought out the sudden sforzandos and fortes that alternate with the quieter measures. This was a performance made more effective by its restraint than by any emotional release. Langrée understands that the opera that follows has at its core the psychological issue of repression versus letting go.

Richard Goode is one of the few pianists these days who can be considered a specialist in Mozart. He comes to Mozart’s music with an unhurried calmness that gives it room to breathe. In the concerto performed here, the piano was less like a solo instrument and more like a member of the orchestra. This resulted in music that was unusually well-balanced. Much of Goode’s attention when not on the keyboard was directed to the conductor, as any good instrumentalist’s would be. If only this performance had been in a smaller venue such as Alice Tully’s Starr Theater or Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, the intimacy that was potentially there would have been more clearly felt. Langrée and the winds in particular gave the first movement an almost bucolic ambience that was more than appropriate for a cool summer evening.

The concluding work, Mozart’s 41st symphony, stylishly and lovingly performed, displayed the virtuosic talents of the instrumentalists. The orchestra seemed to grow in size as it progressed to its powerful conclusion.

The only decision I question was the choice of tempo. With the second movement Adagio taken more like an Andante, the contrast with a very different third-movement Minuet was lost. The same could not be said of the tempos in the third and forth movements. The more rigid structure of the third movement gave way to a barely controlled whirlwind, complex in design and Baroque in its use of counterpoint.

It was a promising opening night that hopefully will be replicated as the Festival continues.

Stan Metzger

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