Mostly Mozart is now in its thirty-fifth season at Lincoln Center, the last for music director Gerard Schwarz, who bids the festival adieu this summer. As Schwarz has overseen the programming, brought in many new faces, and conducted a generous number of the concerts over the past seventeen years, Mostly Mozart is bound to be a different sort of animal without him.
Or is it? There are only so many changes to be hung on a winning formula that has consistently filled Avery Fisher Hall during August, when the dog days can be brutal. Schwarz has done just about everything possible to make this annual event seem special, out of the ordinary, even festive, but he has never tampered with the basic plan that has guaranteed success over the years. The secret is simple enough: a mix of orchestral, choral, and chamber concerts along with occasional solo recitals, all featuring a nonthreatening classical repertory and as many high-profile musicians as can be flagged down as they rush up and down the Northeast’s busy summer-music corridor.
The dominant fare continues to be Mozart, probably the only composer who could sustain such constant high exposure – practically everyone loves Mozart, and luckily he produced a huge, inexhaustibly rich body of work in every form. Other composers and types of music associated with Mozart turn up on the side, of course – this year it’s Haydn and the Italian Baroque – and Schwarz has gone out of his way to uncover some fascinating relevant curios. I personally thank him for letting us hear, on two different occasions no less, Richard Strauss’s controversial rethinking of Mozart’s once problematic opera seria Idomeneo. I only wish he had found a way to work in Reynaldo Hahn’s Mozart, a delicious comédie musicale written in 1925 for Yvonne Printemps.
If this season’s opening-night concert did not seem especially celebratory or even distinguished, such is the nature of so-called galas these days, more social occasions and fund-raisers than important musical events. Yes, the requisite stars were on hand, violinist Itzhak Perlman and violist Pinchas Zukerman, to play Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. That such proficient instrumentalists, who have collaborated on this sublime score many times, would give a polished reading goes without saying. It’s been years, though, since I’ve heard Perlman play anything with the commitment and interpretive concern he once brought to his work, and his performance, for all its surface beauty, sounded stale and mechanical. Zukerman may never have commanded the flashy virtuosity of Perlman at his best, but at least this caring musician still injects feeling and a sense of discovery into his playing. Schwarz led the orchestra in Mozart’s Symphony No. 20 and Beethoven’s “Pastorale,” solid and enjoyable performances even if they had little new to say about such familiar music.
This summer’s major novelty – Schumann’s rarely performed Paradise and the Peri – had little to do with the festival’s eponymous composer, but it was welcome anyway. When new in 1843, this secular oratorio – “for cheerful folk,” as the composer put it – was quite popular, and it helped make Schumann an international figure. Exotic pieces about the Near East were in vogue, and Thomas Moore’s 1817 oriental epic Lalla Rookh, which provided the oratorio’s subject matter, was on everyone’s bookshelves. The plot deals with the quest of the Peri, a creature of Persian mythology born of a fallen angel and a mortal and therefore denied entrance to Heaven. If she brings the proper gift with her, however, celestial life will be hers, and after several unsuccessful attempts the Peri discovers the right offering: the teardrops of a criminal moved by the sight of a young boy at prayer.
More than anything, the excessive sentimentality of the text has worked against Paradise and the Peri. It’s still a bit much even if we look at the subject, as Schumann did, in terms of that ubiquitous Romantic theme of an innocent female spirit who falls from grace, strives, and eventually finds redemption – an allegory about the creative artist as well as a celebration of the nineteenth-century ideal of womanhood. The score’s the thing, though, far more harmonically and structurally adventurous than anything Wagner had written up to this time, and it is just as melodically rich as any of the songs that flowed so copiously from Schumann’s pen just before he wrote the oratorio. With Christine Goerke as a radiantly expressive Peri, Schwarz led a performance that savored all the lyrical and instrumental beauties of the score, certainly one of this conductor’s finest Mostly Mozart moments.
The Tanglewood Festival is also saying a long goodbye to its music director as Seiji Ozawa prepares to step down next year, after 29 seasons on the podium of the Boston Symphony. As one who grew up with that orchestra and whose first orchestral concerts were conducted by Serge Koussevitzky and Charles Munch, I’ve found Ozawa’s lengthy but artistically sleepy tenure in Boston puzzling as well as disappointing. Since I did hear at least one memorable Ozawa evening some years ago, a concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra, I journeyed to Tanglewood in hopes that the same composer’s Salome would be just as revelatory.
It wasn’t, really. Most of this glittering score sounded sluggish, inert, and opaque under Ozawa’s dead hands, except for the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which fairly exploded with color and vitality. Go figure – perhaps this orchestral showpiece is the only part of the opera with which the BSO and its conductor are really familiar. Singing the title role for the first time, Deborah Voigt once again demonstrated that Strauss’s heroines suit her voice and temperament. Not only did she soar through the music with fearless abandon, she also plunged into the text to give a chilling aural portrait of this depraved teenager. Barring a dramatic weight loss, it’s doubtful that a staged Salome is in Voigt’s future, but vocally the role is hers to command. More shouted than sung, Kenneth Riegel’s hammy Herod was a sore trial, but Jane Henschel (Herodias), Albert Dohman (Jochanaan), and Christopher Ventris (Narraboth) gave Voigt strong support.
Opening concert of the 35th season, at Avery Fisher Hall.
The Strauss opera, conducted by Seiji Ozawa and starring Deborah Voigt, at the Tanglewood Festival.