Still, one wondrous exception breaks the no warm-weather music in Manhattan rule. The Mostly Mozart Festival holds forth, in numerous shapes, forms, sizes and guises at various Lincoln Center locales, from July 27 to August 24.
Music Director Louis Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. Photo: Richard Termine
The history of this cultural enterprise harks back to 1966, shortly after the completion of the Lincoln Center campus. Founded by the impresarios Jay K. Hoffman and William Lockwood, the initially modest series was called Midsummer Serenades. The philosophy behind the venture suggested a need for concerts less prim and, significantly, less costly than those offered during the regular winter season. The advent of air-conditioning was, of course, an added incentive.
The Mostly Mozart Orchestra was formally created in 1973, and in 1982, the American conductor Gerard Schwarz became resident music-director, a position he held with distinction until 2001. Today, the focus of Mostly Mozart has become somewhat diffuse. The schedule spans fifty events, embracing conventional symphonic ensembles, period instrument ventures, chamber endeavors, dance presentations, modern experiments, operatic excursions, lectures, films, recitals and late-night serenades. This summer the festivities stress an exploration of the creative relationship between Beethoven and Mozart. Nevertheless, the repertory stretches far beyond these masters.
Jane Moss, artistic director of Mostly Mozart, remains the planning force behind the scenes. As far as the public is concerned, however, the prime protagonist remains Louis Langrée, who took over as music director in 2003. Eschewing white – or even black – tie, he sports a casual silky shirt and exudes good cheer. Few would pretend that his Mostly Mozart Orchestra, essentially a pickup group that performs only at festival time, is the most polished ensemble of its kind. Rehearsals must be limited. It hardly matters. Enthusiasm and obvious dedication to the cause tend to compensate for rough edges.
Langrée. Photo: Benoit Linero
Born in Mulhouse, France, in 1961, and essentially self-taught, Langrée enjoyed a substantial conducting career in Europe before making his U.S. debut at the Spoleto USA festival in 1991. Appointed Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2006, the peripatetic maestro still calls Paris home. In addition to heavy intercontinental commitments, he recently became music director of the Cincinnati Symphony.
Avery Fisher Hall serves as the central showcase for Mostly Mozart. The house, capacity 2,738, is hardly ideal for chamber-concert intimacies, and the acoustics are (in)famously imperfect. The disadvantages are somehow minimized, however, for Mostly Mozart.
Festival authorities have found an ingenious way to make the big hall seem almost small. They move the stage platform forward into the auditorium, thus bringing the players into close contact with the audience. In this configuration, rows of seats are set up at either side of playing area and, yes, behind it as well. Patrons who chose rear-wall seating actually can face the conductor in action, a rare sight. Those out front get the customary rear view of the man waving the stick. Most significant, perhaps, the sound is clearer and more immediate with the orchestra stationed near the middle of the house.
The 2013 festivities begin democratically on July 27 with a free concert, Langrée conducting Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Beethoven’s Seventh. The formal opening follows on July 30 with more, mostly different, Mozart and Beethoven, showcasing a pair of stellar soloists: the mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. For a grand festival finale on August 23 and 24, Langrée surveys Mozart’s three last symphonies.
The Emerson String Quartet. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Among the prominent artists making festival debuts are the conductor Gianandrea Noseda, the pianist Francesco Piementosi and members of the Calder Quartet. Returning virtuosos include the pianist Emanuel Ax, the violinists Joshua Bell and Vadim Repin and the Emerson Quartet (introducing a new cellist, Paul Watkins).
A scene from Le nozze di Figaro. Photo: Gordoneszter
An unusual operatic venture finds the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer overseeing the nuptials of Mozart’s beloved Figaro on August 11 at the Rose Theater. This version, already celebrated in Hungary, promises surprises, with, according to advance publicity, “costumes floating in from above the stage action, as actors slide them on and off as needed for each scene.”
International Contemporary Ensemble. Photo: Armen Elliott
Music of the present, maybe of the future, and far from Mozart and Beethoven in any case, is entrusted to the daring International Contemporary Ensemble, a.k.a. ICE. In a ten-part series devoted to New York-based composers, the collective explores multi-flavored novelties including a chamber opera. The honorees include such established pioneers as David Lang, Matthias Pintscher, Pauline Oliveros and George Lewis plus a potentially challenging group of less familiar forces.
The results may be uplifting for some, unsettling for others. Either way, they are unlikely to be boring. Whether dealing with the old or the new, the tried or even the untrue, Mostly Mozart thrives on taking chances.
Pulitzer Prize winner Martin Bernheimer covers music in New York for the Financial Times. His last piece in Promenade was on the Met’s 2013 spring season.