"A Little Late-Night Music"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, August 29, 2005.
A decade ago, the Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center’s venerable summertime series, was offering some of the dullest concerts in the Western Hemisphere. I remember a performance of Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D, with Jean-Pierre Rampal as the soloist and Gerard Schwarz conducting the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, which was positively bureaucratic in its self-satisfied mediocrity, as if it were being piped in from a department of motor vehicles in Leonid Brezhnev’s Russia. I briefly considered abandoning music criticism for cat-sitting.
In the mid-nineteen-nineties, with the advent of the multidisciplinary, hipper-than-thou Lincoln Center Festival, many people assumed that the older series would fall by the wayside. Instead, Mostly Mozart has undergone a mildly shocking rejuvenation. The programming now includes period-instrument ensembles, dance (the Mark Morris Dance Group performed its masterpiece “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” last week), even world music (Kayhan Kalhor, the kamancheh virtuoso, appeared last summer). Late-night concerts have been added, and a new stage has been installed at Avery Fisher Hall. The orchestra, which draws on New York’s inexhaustible supply of skilled freelancers, hasn’t changed all that much; half the musicians on the roster were in the group a decade ago. But they’re now playing with a youthful edge, finding threads of novelty in some of the world’s most familiar music.
The guiding spirit of Mostly Mozart 2.0 is Jane Moss, the Vice President for Programming at Lincoln Center, who conceived the idea of remaking the venerable summer festival. Working alongside her is Louis Langrée, who took over from Schwarz as music director in 2002, having made his name at the Glyndebourne Festival. An amiable-looking fellow with tousled hair, Langrée conducts in a collarless white tunic, which makes him look something like a celebrity chef. His style is at once warm and sharp; he is plainly liked by the players, yet he is able to steer them out of the eddies of harmonious routine. He has a neat way of etching the beginnings and ends of phrases, so that Mozart’s heavenly paragraphs don’t devolve into dulcet murmuring. In the first movement of the “Haffner” Symphony, for example, a pattering eighth-note figure at the end of a measure is given a marked articulation, so that it drives into the next bar with a kind of piston action. In the same movement, upward scales in the strings are dramatized with quick, flaring crescendos. All through the scores, decorative details become pulses of energy, flexings of musical muscle. At the same time, Langrée avoids the bad habit of incessantly poking at the music as if it were almost dead.
The theme of this summer’s festival—it ends on August 27th, with the Mass in C Minor—is “Travelling with Mozart.” We follow the composer on various revenue-generating trips to Paris, Prague, and London; we sample music from each country and hear Mozart’s works interpreted by native ensembles and soloists. At times, the attempt to keep the governing theme afloat results in awkward intellectual calisthenics. When the Gabrieli Consort of London, under the direction of Paul McCreesh, played Mozart’s great G-Minor Symphony, the program annotator ventured that the work was somehow English in nature. I’d have guessed we were in Italy; the performance was winningly fleet and graceful, devoid of the Romantic histrionics that conductors sometimes bring to this piece. Mozart was, in fact, music’s perfect cosmopolitan: wherever he went, there he was.
The festival also wants to shake up conventional patterns of programming, in an effort to simulate the wildly varied concerts of Mozart’s time. In the opening weeks, concert and opera arias enlivened the usual procession of overture, concerto, and symphony, and a handsome parade of sopranos delivered them. Renée Fleming, who sang at the opening-night gala, gave evidence of having headlined one gala too many: she rendered a group of Handel arias in an unintelligible, mannered style. The diva-in-chief was followed by a posse of younger women who were determined to make an impression. Emma Bell sang Mozart’s “Ah, lo previdi . . . Ah, t’in-vola agl’occhi miei” with gleaming intonation and a buoyant personality; the aria is a howl of fury, but Bell had fun with it. Sally Matthews gave dramatic heft to “Ch’io mi scordi di te . . . Non temer, amato bene.” And Erin Wall, a young Canadian, sang “Bella mia fiamma . . . Resta, o cara” with grace and fire, showing the sort of righteous rage that would make for a great Donna Anna. I hope someone from the Met was taking notes.
Since Avery Fisher Hall opened, in 1962, various wizards have tried to fix the erratic acoustics and consuming blandness of the place. The prime innovation of this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival has been to put in place a temporary “Mozart stage,” which goes some way toward humanizing the room. If the New York Philharmonic is smart, it will bring back the new arrangement. The musicians now play on a Brazilian bloodwood platform that extends thirty feet into the audience. There is extra seating to the side and in back of the ensemble. The sound isn’t quite voluptuous, but it’s fuller and richer than it was before: an array of overhead baffles helps to bring focus. If you sit in the “courtside” areas, you are practically inside the orchestra. You get to see the body language of the musicians: a congratulatory nudge to a violinist who has finessed a broken string; a sympathetic pat on the knee to an oboist whose reed starts squawking in the summer heat; Langrée’s inviting glances and grateful smiles. You also notice that the triangle is incredibly loud for its size.
The late-night concerts take place in the Kaplan Penthouse, ten floors above Lincoln Center Plaza. A space usually reserved for institutional powwows has been transformed (if you squint a little) into a classical Rainbow Room, with candles on the tables and appropriate beverages. One night, the gifted young pianist Jeremy Denk accompanied Emma Bell in Mozart and Debussy songs, and also played Bach’s Third English Suite. He’s a powerful, intelligent musician, as severe in Bach as he is sensuous in Debussy. He is also a blogger, of all things. (His site, jeremydenk.blogspot.com, contains a soaring description of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”) A few nights later, Jean-Yves Thibaudet rode the elevator up to the Penthouse to give a mini-recital of Satie’s first “Gymnopédie” and Debussy’s Second Book of Préludes. Although Thibaudet’s Debussy is a bit strict and dry for my taste, his musicianship is impeccable, and he has an easy, charming way of talking to the audience. When it came to the encore, he actually took requests: Chopin won over Ravel.
The Mostly Mozart team must have wondered whether people would really venture into the wilds of the Upper West Side at 10:30 P.M. No problem: both late-night concerts that I attended were standing-room-only. And the audience was noticeably younger than the one that showed up at Avery Fisher. Eight o’clock, the inviolable starting time for classical events, is, for a lot of us, an awkward hour; we’d rather be sitting down to dinner, not digesting. Younger people also reportedly shy away from the concerts because they are afraid of violating grandmotherly rules of decorum. The Mostly Mozart late-night series, casually serious in tone, raises the possibility that a large institution can carve out alternative identities, rather than try to please several demographics all at once.
Most concerts in big halls are two-dimensional experiences. The orchestra is so far away that it may as well be a projection on a screen; the sound has depth, but the image is flat. Change the perspective and the music changes, too. Last spring, I happened to sit in Row A, right in front of the orchestra, for a performance of “Tosca” at the Met. I could see the sweat on Aprile Millo’s brow as she calculated each step into diva madness. Zeffirelli’s grandiose sets soared on all sides, Roman grandeur incarnate. One gentleman in the brass section read a New York weekly while he waited for Scarpia’s ominous sonorities to arrive. The man beside me whispered to his neighbor about the time he saw Callas; the prompter muttered the tenor’s lines. I’ve never had more fun at the opera.