Plays Well With Others: Mozart Makes New Friends

For years, the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center seemed an idea whose time had gone. The event was launched in 1966 as a scheme to keep the new performing-arts center in business during the summer (it was originally called “Midsummer Serenades: A Mozart Festival”). Under the increasingly lackluster leadership of its music director, Gerard Schwarz, the entirely indoor series of concerts offered, at best, a pleasant way to while away a summer evening. Just about the only excitement came from Mozart lovers fulminating that the festival was doing their hero a disservice, turning his exalted music into easy listening and performing so much of it that he was becoming a bore.

But these days, under the leadership of Louis Langrée, a dynamic Frenchman who recently replaced Mr. Schwarz as music director and is now in the middle of his third season (the festival runs until Aug. 27), Mostly Mozart seems an idea whose time has returned.

It helps that Avery Fisher Hall has been reconfigured into something resembling an intimate concert space: The playing area has been extended 30 feet into the auditorium; seating areas have been created behind and alongside the musicians; and, overhead, a lighting and acoustical canopy has been installed that looks like it’s been borrowed from the set of Star Trek. The new arrangement, which is sadly only temporary (it won’t accommodate a group as large as the resident New York Philharmonic), has reduced the hall’s capacity by nearly 400 seats, producing the happy effect of packed houses.

Although this summer’s festival has been loosely organized to explore Mozart’s residencies or musical influence in Paris, Prague, London, Italy and Russia, there’s no whiff of the lecture hall such as one finds at Bard College, where Leon Botstein’s Summerscape contextualizes a single composer to exhaustion. (This summer’s specimen is Aaron Copland.) At Mostly Mozart, the prevailing spirit is genial virtuosity; the music does the enlightening, not an instructor.

The pianist Emanuel Ax is the genial virtuoso par excellence, and when he walked onstage during the second program to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat—despite reports that he’d recently fractured a rib—he was greeted as though he’d just come home from Iraq. Mr. Ax is one of the world’s most natural musicians, and he gave no sign of physical discomfort in a performance that was wonderfully alive to the work’s quicksilver shifts between mischief and loftiness, and adventurous in the boundary-pushing cadenzas, composed by the pianist himself.

A lithe, energetic figure on the podium, Mr. Langrée matched Mr. Ax in vivacity, and in the “rounder” acoustics provided by the new thrust stage, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, a band of top-notch New York freelancers, sounded like double their actual strength. Spirited performances of Haydn’s Overture to his opera L’isola Disabitata; a Mozart concert aria, “Ah, lo previdi,” sung by the robust young British soprano Emma Bell; and Mozart’s Haffner Symphony banished any memories of the festival as an anodyne echo of the August doldrums.

A scintillating program brought Mozart back to Paris more than 100 years after his last visit there in 1778. The composer was not especially fond of the City of Light. As he wrote his father: “The French … manners border on rudeness and they are detestably self-conceited.” But Mozart would undoubtedly have warmed to his French host, Maurice Ravel, whose “Mother Goose Suite” outdid his own Flute and Harp Concerto in C Major for shimmering, childlike pathos. In the former piece, Mr. Langrée sustained just the right level of fastidious panache; in the latter, the irrepressible flute soloist James Galway and a stunning young Welsh harpist, Catrin Finch, wallowed in the score’s ingratiating confections.

As the father of the modern piano concerto, Mozart would have marveled at how Ravel stretched the form so zestfully in his Piano Concerto in G Major, whose slow movement exposes the piano soloist (here, the elegant Jean-Yves Thibaudet) to a degree unthinkable to the older master of “naked” melody. And I can only imagine the delight Mozart would have taken in hearing Ravel, the most modest of French composers, rebuke his critics with this remark: “Don’t they realize I’m artificial by nature?”

In recent years, Mostly Mozart has become one of the city’s most important venues for American debuts by distinguished soloists and groups from abroad, many of them “early music” specialists. The Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is no stranger to New York, but this was her first appearance with the festival. She devoted herself to J.S. Bach—Mozart’s most formidable ancestor, whose wizardry with counterpoint he studied with great profit.

Ms. Hewitt’s Bach, which has been extensively recorded on the Hyperion label, couldn’t be more different from that of her compatriot, Glenn Gould: His Bach was a force of nature, an eruption of life that lifted you out of your seat; her Bach is an exercise in good taste and imperturbable skill that leaves one coolly impressed. (I wasn’t so taken with her taste in gowns: a slinky item in electric turquoise.)

There was much to admire in Ms. Hewitt’s unemphatic approach to Bach’s F Minor and D Minor keyboard concertos: the pearliness with which she projected the multiplicity of voices on her Fazioli instrument; the rock-steady pulse; the honesty of the architecture. Bach can be heard by players in infinite ways, and this was unquestionably her Bach. But it was all a bit bloodless, missing the sense of passion in these exhilarating works described by the first great modern Bach keyboard specialist, Wanda Landowska. For Bach, she observed, musical counterpoint was a “language so natural that it is with ‘note against note’ that [he] sings the love of God or merely love.”

I heard more sheer joy in the playing of Ms. Hewitt’s supporting band, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, led by Richard Tognetti. This highly touted group of l7 string players (also making its Mostly Mozart debut) followed the concertos with Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, in a lushly orchestrated version by Mr. Tognetti that stripped the knottiness out of it.

As for Mozart, he appeared only briefly as the opening act—a Bach-inspired Adagio and Fugue, which the Australians performed with appealing vigor. But his great spirit, at once assimilative and innovative, hovered.

Under Louis Langrée, the programs have branched out to a point where the festival might be renamed “Mozart and Everyone Else.” And why not? Mozart represents the culmination of classical music as it had developed before him—and he also anticipated the Age of Romanticism in the unprecedented intensity with which he expressed human emotion. No composer is as congenial with the composers of all times and all places. Jane Moss, who’s guided programming at Lincoln Center for years, spoke to me with pride about the turnaround of Mostly Mozart. “The more we looked into Mozart,” she said, “the more we realized that he was the pivotal figure in Western music—the gatekeeper between the past and the future. He has such a strong presence that I’ve even thought of programming an entire festival without any Mozart at all. From the standpoint of the audience, I don’t think I could get away with it. But Mozart could.”

Plays Well With Others:  Mozart Makes New Friends