I’ve lost track of how many times Mostly Mozart has been dismissed as irrelevant, pronounced dead, and subsequently reinvented, looking and sounding very much the same as it always has. That summer dance has been mostly conducted in the press, but the audience, as far as I can judge, has never argued with an unthreatening policy that offers well-known musicians performing familiar classics in a friendly environment. So the band plays on, as indeed it must given the year-round economics of Lincoln Center and the impossible idea of allowing Avery Fisher Hall to remain empty in August.
This summer’s edition, now under way and the thirty-seventh since 1966, does have its share of novelties, the most prominent being the first fully staged Mozart opera in the festival’s history: Il Re Pastore on August 12, 14, and 16. There is also a new music director, Louis Langrée, in charge of the orchestra and the usual number of “Mostly Mozart” debuts. Beyond that, Lincoln Center’s vice-president for programming, Jane S. Moss, has taken an increasingly active hand in guiding the future of “Mostly Mozart.” Anyone who reads profiles of Moss in the papers these days knows that she is not only a woman who regularly sees visions but also one who likes to make them come true, and it seems unlikely that her voices will leave her content with the gentle artistic tweaking she has done so far.
It’s a shame that the opening-night gala lost mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who became ill and had to cancel at the last moment. It was also too bad for Mozart, since Blythe’s two scheduled arias from La Clemenza di Tito were the only pieces by the composer on the program. The Chinese pianist Lang Lang both rectified the omission and filled in the time by following his performance of Mendelssohn’s First Concerto with a 25-minute encore, Liszt’s bravura fantasy on themes from Don Giovanni. By the time he was through with both scores, anyone who had never before heard him in concert probably had a good idea just why Lang Lang is the hottest young pianist to surface since Yevgeny Kissin. Cute as a button and oozing charisma, this kid has a winning combination of graceful athleticism and a Tiger Woods smile that would instantly disarm any audience.
“Attacks were crisp and right on the mark, and the rhythmic life of beethoven’s fourth had a winning buoyancy.”
He also gets over the keyboard in a hurry, which is a good thing since both Mendelssohn and Liszt have written a lot of notes to play in a relatively brief time. I wish I could say that his performances bowled me over as much as they did the people around me, but I didn’t hear much charm, elegance, poise, or youthful radiance in his cocky dash through the Mendelssohn concerto. In any case, it takes an older and wiser virtuoso to discover the demons lurking beneath the surface of Liszt’s astonishing showpiece, a transcription that is considerably more than the empty, vulgar display that Lang Lang served up.
The best news about the concert, and surely a good omen for the future of “Mostly Mozart,” is Louis Langrée. This French conductor can hardly be said to be a high-profile name on the international circuit, at least not yet, but he appears to be exactly the musical shot in the arm that the festival needs. Not since Lorin Maazel won over the New York Philharmonic have a conductor and orchestra bonded as quickly as Langrée and the “Mostly Mozart” musicians seem to have. It was definitely a reinvigorated group that played Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony this time around. Attacks were crisp and right on the mark, the rhythmic life of the piece had a winning buoyancy, the instrumental blend couldn’t have been more smoothly managed, and the symphonic proportions were all neatly in balance. Perhaps no new secrets about a classic came to light, but it was a satisfying performance full of vitamins, sound musical sense, and the comforting feeling that even better things are to come.