Lincoln Center—New York City’s primary performing arts venue—has been reinventing itself over the past several years, culminating in the happy facelift designed by the hot architects of the moment, Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Of the programming renovations, none must be as dramatic as the annual summer Mostly Mozart festival, which has spawned numerous imitators across the country. I can’t remember how many years ago it was since I last attended a Mostly Mozart concert, but trust me when I say, the current iteration is not your grandfather’s festival (it was established in 1966). I attended one concert and a related program: the experience was fresh, contemporary, vibrant, relevant…and very 18th century.
From a chic new graphic look and the emphatic inclusion of contemporary music to the application of a festival theme and the concert hall setting, it is a brand new ball game compared to the musically excellent but fairly staid experience of yesteryear. Most importantly, the orchestra has a new sound. That is to say, it sounded old. There are relatively few period orchestras in the United States, and they are all baroque bands, dedicated to the music and styles of the 17th and early 18th centuries. However, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra is now billed as the “only orchestra in the U.S. dedicated to the music of the Classical period,” that is to say, late 18th– and early 19th centuries. While Europe has such groups as the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, which features music by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, I am delighted—and enlightened—to know that New York’s Mostly Mozart festival orchestra is the real deal here on our shores. They were—in my estimation—the stars of the show at the concert last week; well they, and a meteorically rising conducting talent.
I attended the program at which young Canadian conductor (and Philadelphia Orchestra music director-designee) Yannick Nézet-Séguin presided over performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Second Symphony in D major and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass (heard the 3rd August 2012). Nézet-Séguin launched athletically into the Beethoven, conducting without a score. The orchestra responded ferociously. While I immediately noted that the orchestra was small in size, their sound was so robust that it took me quite a few minutes to realize they were playing in period fashion. The string section played without vibrato, producing a clean, aching arc of sound and there was little if any use of rubato, expressive liberty-taking with the tempo. This emphasized the young Beethoven as heir to Haydn and Mozart’s orchestra; the tempos were accordingly brisk. With a pleasurable start, I realized that the performance sounded as fresh as I would have imagined one in Beethoven’s day. This is the joy of period performance, where one has moments which connect you as directly as possible to the composer’s day—musical time travel, in other words.
It is easy to take for granted the “early” Beethoven—this second symphony composed in 1802 preceding his first “great” symphonic masterwork, the Third or Eroica Symphony. However, the beauty of this crisp period performance revealed to the audience its vitality—no student work this. The dramatic adagio opening of the first movement was performed with deliberation but yet sprightly, running immediately into the exciting fast section. It was plain to see how Nézet-Séguin connected, indeed seduced the players, demanding a driven, exciting performance from them. The third and fourth movements were beautifully rendered, especially with the conductor observing distinct dynamics—plateaus of sound, from fortissimo down to pianissimo—perfectly controlled and executed while keeping the momentum going. This technique reminded us, connected us, from the young Beethoven to his earlier 18th-century predecessors.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s Missa in angustiis (Mass in a difficult time), written in 1798, was later given the title “Lord Nelson Mass” after the great British admiral’s visit to Haydn’s patron, Prince Esterházy’s, Hungarian estate in 1800. There he presumably heard the mass setting originally composed for the name day of the prince’s wife and liked it. It is one of the prolific Haydn’s best known masses, and while it couldn’t have been composed in celebration of Nelson’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile almost two months before its first performance, the Latin title doubtless must then refer to some personal difficulties of the composer. Nevertheless, in its intense drama, its military-like bearing in orchestration, and its place in Haydn’s career, it participates in the zeitgeist of the last gasp of the 18th century and the dawn of a new, modern age. For this and sheer musical reasons, it is often performed. The performance here was excellent, if somehow not as electrifying as the Beethoven. The soloists were uniformly good—German soprano Christiane Karg a lovely soprano, who however sang without any period flavoring. Tenor Toby Spence, while not featured as extensively, happily did apply a more plangent, vibrato-less style to his singing. The generally excellent performance was only marred by two issues for me. In the beginning, a slight imbalance of volume between the orchestra and chorus (perhaps the Concert Chorale of New York should have mirrored the orchestra with reduced forces). Also, I found the chorus’ pronunciation of the Latin text of the mass annoying, indeed distracting. Rather than the more typical Italianate pronunciation, the chorus used a sharper consonant; in attempting to produce a “cleaner” sound, it had the opposite effect. Nevertheless the chorus shone throughout, especially the men in the haunting accompaniment “Miserere nobis” to bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams well sung aria “Qui tollis.” Nézet-Séguin led a charming, yet urgent, performance echoing the gracious, elegant music.
The Mostly Mozart Festival’s theme this season was birds as originators of song—one of course thinks of Mozart’s own Papageno (the Bird-man) from his last opera, the Magic Flute. So it was entirely appropriate and resulted in some wonderful resonances. As I entered Avery Fisher Concert Hall, ambient bird sounds played in the foyer. The concert hall, by the way, has been brilliantly reconfigured into a more intimate setting, the top balcony closed off, and the stage extended well out into the hall (a tradition for the past seven seasons). Above an acoustical system with disks was rigged with candle-like hanging light fixtures casting a warm glow. The sound and ambience was immediate and engaging, imperative for a period orchestra performance. The bird theme was carried into the contemporary music programming and in fact to the marvelous and eerie sound installation by internationally acclaimed artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The Murder of Crows, co-sponsored with the Park Avenue Armory, is in part inspired by Mozart and Beethoven’s contemporary Francisco Goya (til the 9th September; to be reviewed). This wide-ranging yet spot-on programming is another example of the vital re-invention of a beloved institution, the Mostly Mozart Festival.