The now middle-aged Mostly Mozart Festival, an integral part of the ever mounting, and at times interlacing, cultural cycles initiated by Lincoln Center, continues to expand and rejuvenate its communal presence. Exploring the impacts of varied programs and settings in different social contexts, the festival creates diverse concert experiences, with broader accessibility and intimate immersion in music its goals.
Keeping with tradition, today’s Mostly Mozart avoids fixating on preconceived definitions or micromanaging its contextual relevance. It’s a continuous balancing act between established repertoire and innovation.
Instead, there is Mozart – programs densely packed with featured works across his vast opus of instrumental, choral and operatic works, performed by the festival’s own Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under its artistic director Louis Langrée, with famed soloists and guest ensembles – and then there is everything else.
Over the years the festival has extended its realm from early Baroque to new commissions – 50 presented here by International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the dynamic ensemble in residence – with one premiere each year, perhaps to make up for times when contemporary music had no place at Lincoln Center. Many of ICE’s micro-concerts, dispersed throughout the campus and the duration of the festival, set out to engage new audiences with free, public appearances.
The festival’s muse transcends genres freely without limiting each experience to a rigid context, casting a vote of confidence for each of its artistic productions and impressive artists. With programs buzzing with fluid formats, its curator, Lincoln Center’s Vice President of programming Jane Moss, often succeeds in engaging with Mozart as trendsetter of an ever-evolving brand.
Under the title “Mozart Forever,” an exhibit at the Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center accompanied the Mostly Mozart festival’s 50th anniversary, running the length of its five week-long season from July 22 through August 27. Showcasing highlights from the festival’s history, the exhibit attests to its huge popularity and early knack for free-spirited ambience – always without neckties – since its inaugural inception in 1966 as “Midsummer Serenades: A Mozart Festival” by Lincoln Center’s William W.Lockwood Jr. The festival was coined “Mostly Mozart” in 1970.
The goal was to fill the summertime vacancy, attracting new audiences to classical music with concerts held in informal atmospheres, and offering high entertainment value at ticket prices as low as $3.
“Air-conditioning had been the ultimate game changer, making concerts during the summer season possible for the first time,” explains Gerard Schwarz, the orchestra’s first director, now director emeritus. “Here was a chance to fill the Philharmonic Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, while its musicians went on tour, performed in parks or took their personal vacation time off.”
Harking back to the festival’s initial success, Schwarz added: “Mozart’s symphonic works were not performed much at the time, partially due to the fact that every great guest orchestra that came to town wanted to show off their full orchestra, not required in Mozart. The same was true for season programs of the New York Philharmonic – instead of using only 35-40 players in a Mozart program, they wanted to engage all of their 80-90 players, sometimes even 100 or more in a great Mahler 5th Symphony. So here was a great chance to dive into these neglected works.”
Since 1968, works by Haydn (hence the term “mostly”) and then by Handel, Schubert and Beethoven were added to the repertoire to attract more accomplished soloists and visiting guest conductors to the festival. Some of its differing forms of presentation, including popular midnight concerts and pre-concert recitals, were in place early on in the festival’s history. But despite varying presentations and additions, the festival’s repertoire maintained a focus on the wide range of Mozart’s vocal and instrumental oeuvre.
Entering the Lincoln Center arena as Vice President of programming in 1992, and now Ehrenkranz Artistic Director, Jane Moss relieved Lockwood, the festival’s original founding director, bringing new aspirations along. “She always had an extraordinary vision,” says Schwarz, who had been brought in as the festival orchestra’s first full-time Artistic Director in 1982. For 20 years his mission was to craft for the orchestra a consistent musical point of view. Established in 1973, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra consisted mainly of freelance musicians from the New York Chamber Orchestra.
“The musical goal at the time had been to enjoy traditional masterpieces on a high artistic level, not to challenge the status quo,” says Schwarz. “That was what I was hired for, and what’s wrong with a really great performance of a traditional masterpiece? At the time, no one looked for avant-garde, but we did want to expand beyond performing all Mozart concerti and symphonies into performing works by composers who influenced Mozart, like Johann Christian Bach (son of Johann Sebastian), who wrote the first concerti that Mozart orchestrated, and in turn, show works by artists who had been influenced by his work, like Tchaikovsky in his first concerto.”
Under Schwarz’s orchestral leadership, the festival expanded its name recognition and added to its long list of prominent performers, including, according to Schwarz, “Zukerman, Perlman, Mintz, Starker, Bronfman, Ax, Watts, Emerson String Quartet, Joshua Bell, and Cecilia Bartoli,” who “had her debut” at Mostly Mozart. The orchestra’s performance schedule also broadened beyond the summer festival, growing to include visiting tours around the United States and abroad.
In Salzburg, the epicenter of everything Mozart, the answer to the quest for contemporary programs required a separate response to the traditional festival spectacle: its contemporary music festival “Dialogues,” initiated in 2006. New Yorkers, by contrast, consistent with the city’s diverse canon, enjoy their Mozart fare in a conglomerate of sundry collectives, old and new. Today, contemporary music does not faze New York’s traditional classical music loyalists; it has been accepted as part of our broad artistic curriculum, begrudgingly by some, but by others with open arms, among them fervent critics and the festival’s curator, Jane Moss.
Schwarz, who has worked on Mostly Mozart with Moss for 10 years, describes Moss’s aspirations: “Replacing Lockwood at Mostly Mozart, Moss had a very broad vision and was more interested in cutting-edge new music. She originally had made the case for a new platform, ‘The Lincoln Center Festival,’ at Avery Fisher Hall (renamed in 1976) for its upcoming renovation in 1993.” Instead of executing her vision at the reign of the new festival, though, it was famed critic and arts administrator John Rockwell who took on the new festival’s leadership until 1998, followed by its former executive director Niguel Redden, who built the Lincoln Center Festival into a showcase of diverse performances of international theater, circus, and music, with artists and productions from more than 50 countries.
Moss, besides curating further themed initiatives like the White Light Festival, which made use of Lincoln Center’s entire complex, and other seasonal and recurring programs like Lincoln Center Outdoors, was left to revitalize Mostly Mozart, steering it towards a new and bolder brand. Following Schwarz as the orchestra’s director was Louis Langrée, who has now served as the Renée and Robert Belfer Music Director for 14 seasons.
During the festival’s free public conversation at the David Rubinstein Atrium, “Meet the Musicians of the Mozart Festival Orchestra,” audiences had an interesting opportunity to familiarize themselves with the vision of the festival’s impresario and the orchestra’s tirelessly cheery and engaging leader: “It is here, at Mostly Mozart, so many people have experienced classical music for the first time,” says Langrée, thoughtful in his charming French accent. “That’s a lot of responsibility, and at the same time a great source of delight. One never gets to perform so much of Mozart’s works at once during the concert season calendar, and it allows one to go deeper here and to discover new layers.
“At the same time Mozart was such a central figure of Western music; his great imagination that transcended through all musical genres made him an inspiration for the next generations.”
Moss took those thoughts a step further, claiming, with no resistance, Mozart as the innovator: an ideal fulcrum for exploring new musical horizons. “Mozart was a contemporary composer in his time. He would definitely want us to be looking at the new.”
Coming to Lincoln Center from the world of theater, Moss composed a particular coalition of genres, platforms and scenery with dramatic inclinations, each informing the others. She is not afraid to label productions more for their entertainment value than for highbrow artistic purpose; the arias-potpourri of Mostly Mozart’s opening night gala including selections from Mozart’s operas and entitled “The Illuminated Heart” is a good example.
With its great collective of performers and clever incorporation of screened images onto the stage, the gala was an introductory forum into famed Mozart melodies that was welcoming and highly entertaining if abbreviated, hardly allowing for the full, dramatic expansion of any complete version; two examples of Mozart’s fully-staged works, however, were shown during the festival’s season.
For many soloists who have made their debuts at Mostly Mozart, the festival is known as a springboard for international careers. This season’s free orchestral opening performance at Damrosch Park featured Simone Porter performing Mozart’s serene Violin Concerto No. 3.
In response to the premise that we are spoiled with star appearances but often unenthused by the anonymity of the great halls, one of Mostly Mozart’s most popular series, the intimate “A Little Night Music,” has lately taken on a sexy magnetism, attracting mostly young and charismatic individual performers to appear at Lincoln Center’s own Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. After having performed Mozart’s clarinet concerto at David Geffen Hall, exciting European clarinet star Martin Fröst, flown in with stellar piano accompanist Roland Pöntinen directly from the Verbier Festival, played for enthralled audiences who were seated cabaret-style, his alluring sounds and lithe, pied piper-like gesticulations entertaining the audience members as they sipped their wine.
Also at the Penthouse, profound Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, renowned recently as “artist-in-association” with the New York Philharmonic, made use of the attentive if short-spanned concentration of this late night session, presenting his thoughtful “New Suite,” a selection of short pieces ranging from Handel, Bach, Rameau and Couperin to Ravel, Thomas Adès, Ligeti and Barber, played through in a continuous flow during one sitting.
The New York Philharmonic recently featured Barnatan, among other artists, in a trendy concert presentation at an intimate downtown venue. Moss’s use of Lincoln Center’s Penthouse as a cool, elegant alternative is a notable, perhaps ingenious tactic for bringing the personal staging and downtown vibe of these salon-style shows home.
At the other end of the spectrum, astounding by its sheer size, stands the display of populist egalitarianism in the premiere of David Lang’s “the public domain” for 1,000 voices, performed by an amateur chorus picked from all of New York City’s boroughs. Unlike New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini, who penned a gleaming review of the momentous choral performance, while watching from the balcony above the imposing gathering I failed to pick up on the intensity of this work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. In fact I could hardly hear the choral group’s many murmuring voices emerging through the hazy and steaming hot plaza.
I did, however, find the piece’s context fascinating. According to Lang: “All the texts are internet search engine auto-completions of the sentence ‘One thing we all have is our…’ which gave me a list of sometimes very personal statements, from people all around the world. I didn’t use all of them. I took out those that referred to specific people, that insulted or praised a person or group, that said anything – good or bad – about a particular religion or nationality or gender, that endorsed or disparaged a particular commercial product or activity, that were pornographic. My interest was to make a text that would seem in some way universal, a list of attributes we might all agree on, that could feel in some way universal.”
The well-organized spectacle, under the direction of choreographer Annie B. Parson and conductor Simon Halsey, is worth mentioning, as it filled the entire Josie Robertson Plaza in stands around the fountain. The atmosphere was dominated by the emotional excitement of its partaking members and viewers alike. It reminded me of the citywide Make Music events such as Make Music New York, promoting the inclusive spirit inherent in all music making and embodying a sentiment we all seem to crave, a desire to bridge our differences with our common humanity in these volatile times of social and political ambiguity and isolation.
Mostly Mozart’s increasingly open-ended curatorial vision and shifting dimensions have raised the bar of its narrative, with the new and old illuminating each other’s perspectives. Programming for multiple tastes also makes the festival easily approachable, and there is something playful about its outstretched musical and physical territorial reach. This year’s events took place in 11 different locations within Lincoln Center’s campus, with some of the events grouped to allow for sequential visits and provide an immersive effect through interrelating spatial and sonic experiences.
Lincoln Center’s setting for the festival’s smaller orchestral lineup at David Geffen Hall was altered in the 2005 season to include a temporary thrust stage over its first 11 rows, giving it a more intimate presence and making it possible for audiences to surround the orchestra. Additionally, while resembling a design feature that may be found at an airport lounge, an added ceiling structure helps to maintain the warmth of the sound, and also provides additional lighting for a softer glow during performances.
For the first time, Lincoln Center’s Public Library, under its prolific artistic producer Evan Leslie, collaborated with the festival on three occasions, coming up with fun ways to enlighten audiences. An entertaining and free Pub Quiz of “Mostly Mozart Trivia” was held at the David Rubinstein Atrium in collaboration with ICE, effortlessly engaging audiences in entertaining and educational activity.
Leslie also hosted an interview with pianist Emanuel Ax at the library. A beloved New York musical figure and a festival fixture for many years, Ax shared excerpts of his favorite playlist ranging from opera to jazz, all drawn from a collection of the library’s treasure trove of recordings. The musical interludes were spiced up with personal anecdotes from Ax’s extensive performance career. One of the musical qualities most revered by the pianist, “the directness in music making,” came through in his own refined performance at David Geffen Hall with the eminent Emerson String Quartet of works by Purcell, Schubert and Dvořák.
The festival’s own orchestral ensemble was featured in various collectives during the season, most convincingly in smaller ensembles, but also in a truly tremendous configuration under the baton of Louis Langrée, performing the lively Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D-minor in a remarkable collaboration with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes at Alice Tully Hall. Andsnes’s collaboration in Webern’s arrangement of Bach’s “Ricarcar” with a trio of musicians from the orchestra was remarkable.
The generally energetic and stylistically convincing performance of the full orchestra, however, varied. In one performance at David Geffen Hall under the baton of guest conductor Matthew Halls, the orchestra’s coherence and tempi, despite joining forces with the velvety singing tone of violinist Joshua Bell, were less successful.
My personal, selective listening perspective of the season’s vast catalog came to an end with “Mozart Dances” at the David B. Koch Theater. The reprise of a 2007 New York performance of the work, presenting a brilliant fusion of classical and modern dance by choreographer Mark Morris set to three Mozart pieces, had everything one could wish for: expressivity, sarcasm, eccentrics and genuine character; but most of all, the performance showed a requisite sensitivity for the underlying musical structures in Mozart, structures not easy to translate into dance.
In a public discussion between the music director and choreographer, it became obvious how the ideal rhythmic interpretation and fluctuations in tempo vary between the contexts of a music ensemble and a dance troupe. Morris used abrupt angles and ornamentations to draw a swift, often humorous aesthetic vernacular from his dancers’ bodies. He often juxtaposed graceful classical ballet movement with anti-classical positions, like en croix demi-pliés, or matched elongated grand battements with abrupt exits in which the performers stomped off the stage. The dancers’ caprice and playfulness was wholly reflected in the music, yet there was also a tangible intimacy to the score which remained inherent in the dance. Langrée adapted the execution of the score in complete coherence with the choreography with radiant support from pianist Garrick Ohlsson in both concerti (No. 11 in F major, K. 413 and No. 27 in B-flat-minor, K. 595), but especially impressive in unison with pianist Inon Barnatan in the majestic Sonata in D major, K. 448 for two pianos, performed in between the concerti.
Over its 50 years, the Mostly Mozart Festival has built a large following, enjoyed an international reputation and presented A-list performers, all while tending to the shifting expectations of trendy New Yorkers. Under Moss and its current music director Louis Langrée, it genially circumvents the self-imposed restriction of its catchy name. One may insist on the purity of Mozart and balk at the increasing blurring of the festival’s programmatic lines, but one may also argue that Lincoln Center’s curators’ separate visions and means inspire a flow of different, invigorating productions that ultimately benefit audiences by presenting a broad range of work. It’s no secret that the festival’s growth into an internationally renowned urban cultural summit derives from its ability to keep its traditional integrity while freely allowing for conceptual expansion.