Suspicious Package

Illustration by Christopher Sleboda.Photo: Courtesy of Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center is at it again, trying hard to put a fresh spin on the annual Mostly Mozart Festival. Remember when this popular series began so simply, back in 1966? For many years, the combination of Western music’s all-time favorite composer and an impressive array of name musicians seemed more than enough to lure summer audiences out of the heat. No more. Music seldom gets heard in the city’s concert halls these days without being shoehorned into some sort of elaborate contextualization, complete with thematic concepts, artist profiles, lectures, exhibits, film accompaniment, you name it. If the composer-critic Virgil Thomson were around today, he’d have plenty to say about such decorative fripperies, products of what he once sourly labeled “the music appreciation racket.”

The desire, these days, is to put old art in new frames, and Lincoln Center’s vice-president for programming, Jane S. Moss, has spent a decade doing just that, redirecting the Center’s approach to broaden classical-music contexts and create cross-media events that come in smart packages. Sometimes it works, as in the elaborate “composer portraits” that almost invariably put much-performed music into a fresh perspective. On the other hand, we also get the annual “New Visions” series, which often weds familiar classics to jolting visual concepts and is a pretty hit-or-miss affair. Do we really need to see the singer of a classic Schubert or Janácek song cycle crouching barefoot under the piano?

Which brings us to Mostly Mozart. Its reinvention is far more mild—it has to be, given the festival’s tradition-minded audience—and this year takes two forms. The overall theme is Mozart’s extensive travel during his short life, touring that took him from London and Paris to Prague and Italy, where the musical scene influenced him as much as he entertained the locals. And Avery Fisher Hall has been re-outfitted with a thrust stage that projects 30 feet into the seats, giving a more immediate feel to a cavernous room often denigrated for its chilly feel and questionable acoustics.

We’ll see how the Mozart-on-the-road angle works out as the festival unfolds. In theory there’s much to ponder—here is one composer who was never really “at home” anywhere, and that surely accounted in part for his ability to absorb, transform, and transcend the styles of his day. He was always on the move, and the changes in environment seemed to stimulate him. Sometimes his work was affected by a personal event, such as the death of his mother while they were in Paris in 1778—the tragic nature of the A-minor Piano Sonata is surely a response to her loss as much as to the fiery keyboard style he encountered there. And, of course, Mozart cast his own long shadow. He never got to Russia, but that hardly stopped figures as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Schnittke from paying homage, as the concerts of Russian music on August 16 and 17 with violinist Joshua Bell will certainly show.

But if Mostly Mozart’s opening night is a guide, fulfilling the theme is the least of its problems this year. Conducted by music director Louis Langrée, the concert turned out to be a dramatically vapid, unmusical affair. Apparently the idea was to re-create the potpourri programs one might have heard in Mozart’s day, with the movements of a symphony split up and interrupted by vocal solos, an excerpt from a piano concerto, and bits of chamber music. I fail to see how reviving this antique custom serves any useful purpose, and the whole 90-minute event came off as little more than a scrappy jumble. Soprano Renée Fleming, now an absolute must for any gala with pretensions of grandeur, sang some Handel and Mozart arias in that grotesquely mannered, bluesy style she applies to everything these days. It was almost as depressing to hear pianist Stephen Hough play the slow movement of the Concerto, K. 488, so gorgeously and not be able to hear the rest. From where I sat, the new stage arrangement added little or nothing. After this decidedly unfestive opening, Mostly Mozart can only get better.

Mostly Mozart Festival
Various theaters,
Lincoln Center.
Through August 27.

Suspicious Package