Mostly Mozart: Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn
There were bigger stories in New York last week than Tim Tebow taking off his shirt in the rain. There was a bigger story in music than Elton John calling Madonna a washed-up stripper. The "Mostly Mozart Festival" triumphantly returned to Lincoln Center.
The Festival Orchestra is talented, and it’s become better over the 46 years of its existence. Starting with a company of undistinguished pick-up players, it has come to include members of the Met Orchestra, the City Ballet Orchestra, the New York Pops, the American Ballet Theater Orchestra and musicians from any number of the other noted local ensembles.
What has distinguished "Mostly Mozart" this year though is its energy level. I’ve never seen the company play with more fire, and when you consider that the repertory is focused on the best music ever written (not only Mozart but also Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert), you have something at once supremely delicious and utterly thrilling.
This was shown not once but twice last week.
On Tuesday night, the company kicked off the season with an all-Mozart program that included the "Piano Concerto #20" performed by Brazilian keyboard vet Nelson Freire and rising operatic tenor Lawrence Brownlee singing two of the composer’s loveliest opera arias.
Both were treats.
Freire first emerged on the classical music scene with a series of technically dazzling recordings of Brahms and Chopin back in the early 1970’s. Yet as he rarely appeared in the United States, American audiences gradually forgot about him until quite recently, when he begin concertizing here more frequently.
Now in his sixties, Freire no longer plays like a young would-be Vladimir Horowitz. But he showed considerable grace and a solid style that emphasized the gravitas of this most Beethovenian Mozart concerto. (One of only two Mozart piano concertos in the minor key, the D-Minor was a favorite of Beethoven’s -- so much so that he is reputed to have told his pupil Ferdinand Ries that neither of them would ever write anything as good.)
Freire was also superbly backed by the orchestra under conductor and Music Director Louis Langrée, who guided the players with impressive clarity and firmness.
After intermission, Brownlee then sang "Un’ aura amorosa" from "Cosi Fan Tutte" and the concert aria "Misero un sogno." I must confess that I find Brownlee’s speedy elevation somewhat puzzling. While there can be no doubt that he has a pretty voice, it’s far from large and not even terribly emotive. Even so, singing above the reduced dimensions of a Mozart orchestra, he was at his best, and the audience could not be struck by the intoxicating beauty of these arias.
This first set of performances was so good, thus, that the orchestra had effectively challenged itself when it began its final offering of the evening, Mozart’s three-movement "Prague Symphony."
Could they speak in this as powerfully as they had already?
Led by a swift and emphatic Langrée, the orchestra ended the concert with the piece’s full mix of pomp and songfulness.
Then, four nights later, the Festival Orchestra came back with a program of "Beethoven’s Second Symphony" and Haydn’s "Lord Nelson Mass." Here, too, audiences were offered exceptional music making, and it would be hard to say which evening was better.
Saturday’s concert was driven as much as it was led by the intense and acrobatic French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Shifting, dancing and suddenly twisting about with striking grace, Nézet-Séguin channeled a gymnast’s agility with a locomotive’s dynamism, and the orchestra took on his fierce mood. This was useful in conveying the syncopated energy and pace of early Beethoven, but it proved still more beneficial after intermission in a thrilling, full-throated performance of the Haydn Mass.
Among the excellent voices on display one particular standout was bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams, a singer whose large, melting voice demands to be heard more often. Superb, too, was the Concert Chorale of New York in backing the soloists.
The Mostly Mozart Festival is hardly perfect. Yet it may be that the greatest disappointment of the festival’s opening week was sartorial: the players have followed Louis Langree’s lead and replaced dinner jackets with black dress shirts. Perhaps even worse, many members of the audience showed up in hideous print summer shirts one would more likely expect to see among the shuffleboard players on a Carnival Cruise ship.
But how bad can things be if one’s objection to a concert is visual? Although the orchestra’s players are dressing like 1930’s fascists, they are playing with exceptional delicacy and passion.
For those who are staying in town through the coming run of scorching August nights, I cannot strongly enough recommend trying to grab a few of the remaining festival tickets.
"The Mostly Mozart Festival" runs through August 25 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. For info or tickets call 212-721-6500 or visit http://www.mostlymozart.org/.