"This once-hopeless festival has become an unlikely model of change...It did not invent any of the principles that pulled them out of stagnation. They simply embraced them." — Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
Flying high from their glowing preview in last Sunday's Times, the Mostly Mozart Festival—now in its 47th edition and 11th under Music Director Louis Langrée and Artistic Director Jane Moss—kicked off this week at Avery Fisher Hall with a program featuring the festival's namesake alongside works by Beethoven, this year's featured composer. If that may not sound like the blueprint for a fast forward-thinking festival, nearly half of this year's programs feature works by living composers, most performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble—or ICE—who over the past three seasons has become the festival's in-house new-music group.
But as last night's concert proved, the old stuff can still yield some glowing pearls. The program opened with Beethoven's bracing Coriolan Overture, as bold and uncompromising a piece of music as has ever been written. Written at the same time as Beethoven's iconic Fifth Symphony, this is dark, brooding music that wakes you up and gets your attention before ending on a mysterious fade of three plucked notes.
Soon after, the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who made a memorable debut at last year's festival, performed Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto with ease and elegance. Even if his interpretation wasn't particularly probing, Bavouzet's ability was front and center, the notes gliding effortlessly off his fingers while the orchestra gleamed underneath.
Mozart was represented by a pair of concert arias, capably sung by the British mezzo Alice Coote, though she failed to ignite any kind of excitement in Avery Fisher Hall, despite the temporary thrust stage that brought her out into the middle of the orchestra. It might just as easily have had to do with the relative obscurity of the two selections: "Ch'io mi scordi di te...Non temer, amato bene" and "Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio" from La clemenza di Tito, featuring solo piano (Bavouzet) and clarinet (Jon Manasse), respectively.
The concert ended with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony: a titan among warhorses. It was a pleasure to hear this 40-minute masterpiece with a smaller orchestra, and all of the individual parts easily discernible. Langrée kept things in tight reserve early on, which was disappointing: this is a fiery symphony that should have teeth and snap. But it turned out Langrée was just saving it for the end, letting the orchestra out to full gallop in the breakneck finale. The orchestra sounded tight and polished—more importantly, they sounded alive. Appropriately, the audience rewarded them with an explosive standing ovation.
Not only does the Mostly Mozart Festival give New Yorkers a reason to stick around for the month of August, it keeps them out late on a school night with A Little Night Music, the series of intimate concerts with free wine and candlelit tables in the Kaplan Penthouse. Less than an hour after playing Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, Bavouzet was even more impressive in his dispatching of Debussy's Préludes, Book 2, his fingers flying across the keyboard in an impressionistic haze. As if feeding off of his own energy, Bavouzet played three encores, going on until nearly 11:30. Mostly Mozart has made a name for itself in discovering new talent such as Lionel Bringuier, Pablo Heras-Casado, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin; it looks they have another on their hands with Bavouzet.
A warning: A Little Night Music's new 10PM start time (up from 10:30) meant that I missed the first part of Bavouzet's performance last night, so you'll need to keep an eye on the clock if you've got tickets to both the early and late shows on some future evening.
More pics on the photo page.