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Thomas Crawford, Aisslinn Nosky, Maureen Murchie, and the American Classical Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall, 14 December 2021

Concert Review (NYC): American Classical Orchestra Plays Mozart at Alice Tully Hall (14 December 2021)

As the American Classical Orchestra’s (ACO) maskless musicians took the stage at Lincoln Center on Tuesday night, I couldn’t help wondering if we had already embarked on the new reality that many have been predicting: one of living with COVID-19 as we live with the flu, tolerating a certain number of hospitalizations and deaths. The title of the all-Mozart program, “Restore,” signified a springing back of cultural life – even as COVID cases are again on the rise. The musicians’ joy at performing live on stage in a well-tuned concert hall again was visible in their body language as well as audible in their sound. But is this really the dawn of a new, adjusted norm? Or just a respite?

I also couldn’t help thinking of how in Mozart’s time, with little understanding of disease, few effective medications and no vaccines, a pandemic like this would be even worse. It’s astounding how people rose above such adversity to create so much undying art. It was some of that creative flowering that an enthusiastic audience heard on Tuesday from the ACO and guest soloists, under the baton of founder and artistic director Thomas Crawford.

The ACO performs on original instruments, the kind used in the composer’s day. That helps makes it easy to put yourself back in an earlier time. Gut strings, old-fashioned-looking horns, a wooden flute – these may not project as far as their modern equivalents, but they make up for it with warmer, earthier timbres. Somehow you feel a deeper connection to the humanity behind those bows and embouchures.

Maestro Crawford further humanizes a genre that too often comes across today as effete by leading the orchestra in friendly and humorous demonstrations of points to note in the pieces we’re about to hear. Did Mozart write “filler” music? Yes, and listen to this beautiful example. Crescendos, a given today, were a novelty in the nascent world of orchestral music 250 years ago – so listen to this 12-bar crescendo that must have knocked the lederhosen off audiences in Mozartian Austria!

With his 21st-century audience loosened up, Crawford left the stage and returned with the evening’s guest soloists, flutist Emi Ferguson and harpist Parker Ramsay. Mozart wrote only one concerto for flute and harp (C Major, K. 299), and while he may never have heard it performed, it’s a crowd-pleaser. Ferguson radiated contagious enthusiasm, her fluent virtuosity spinning as if effortlessly from her old-style wooden flute. Out of his harp Ramsay drew a wide range of expression, from delicacy to decisiveness, with Crawford adeptly following the thoughtful ebbs and flows of the harpist’s tempo in the sublime second movement. The audience cheered wildly between movements, ignoring the modern-day custom of waiting until the end.

Mozart’s youthful Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K. 201, isn’t one of my favorites. But without soloists to draw our focus, the opening “Allegro moderato” firmly demonstrated both the full sound and the great clarity this small orchestra can summon, even with instruments that make more muted sounds overall than their modern equivalents. The “Andante” was sweetly moving; the rousing and bright “Menuetto” gamboled soulfully by with its horn calls; the finale highlighted the scampering flexibility of the violins.

The orchestra saved the deepest music for after intermission, with the famous Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E-Flat Major. Like the flute and harp concerto, this piece is one of a kind. The original-instruments setting further revealed – to my ear, anyway (and granted I hadn’t heard this piece in a while) – Mozart’s advanced thinking, especially in the glorious and tragic Andante as it looks ahead to Beethoven’s proto-Romanticism.

Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and violist Maureen Murchie stepped forward as soloists. Though members of the ensemble, they endowed the performance with star quality that went beyond virtuosity. From their first entrance, I felt I could hear Mozart, who played both instruments, putting his all into the music. But the soloists’ fluid phrasing was their own. Both evinced supple dexterity and melodic feeling. Murchie drew a warm, almost buttery tone from the viola, whose merits are often hidden in the middle voices of ensemble music. The pair’s grace and skill carried through the cadenza, even expressing some high-spirited humor that reeked of Mozartian hijinks.

All the more contrasting seemed the tragic and somber Andante, one of Mozart’s most affecting pieces. The musicians were at their very best here in a transportive performance of balletic delicacy. The same emotional weight carried through to the end, running in tandem with the “Presto” finale’s upbeat spirit. Motifs and harmonies of almost otherworldly beauty seem to float above the physicality of wood and brass.

Whatever our new reality turns out to be, this altogether gratifying evening of Mozart bodes well for a fine season. Visit the American Classical Orchestra online for its upcoming schedule.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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