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Bobby McFerrin and Spirityouall at Summerstage

Mostly Mozart: Festival Orchestra Presents All-Brahms Program

by Robert Leeper

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David Afkham [Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou]

As part of its new incarnation as a purveyor of new works and innovative programming, the Mostly Mozart Festival has given wide exposure to a plethora of young conductors. Over the past couple of years this has included international stars Lionel Bringuier and Pablo Heras-Casado, and last night at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra had another young conductor at the helm, David Afkham, conducting a program of music by Johannes Brahms.

Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello was overall given a soulful, stirring, and searching reading . While both violinist Vadim Repin and cellist Truls Mørk brought a fittingly Romantic take to Brahms’ final orchestral work, they also felt a touch reserved. The first movement opens with an arresting dialogue between the two soloists, and the duo truly moved as one super-soloist, so close was their synchronicity and tone. However, there was a tendency for this to render some median of emotion—in addition to being first-time collaborators, they had the sheet music in front of them, which, while not inherently a problem, can diffuse some of the spontaneity of a performance.

In the slow middle movement, the soloists excelled not when fighting the orchestra, as in the first movement, but when allied with the ensemble. They sang out from gentle arpeggios that swelled and ceded again, with the smooth curves of the Andante calmly leading to the beginning of the raucous final movement. Conductor David Afkham had enthusiasm and excitement during the theme and other upbeat sections, but was not able to bring the group back down for the more delicate passages, leaving a sound that communicated flatness rather than longing. 

After the intermission, the concert concluded with the composer's Second Symphony. If Brahms' First Symphony—22 years in the making and hailed as “Beethoven’s Tenth”—can be considered a work for earnest connoisseurs capable of pursuing its minute details and complete sincerity and passion, then the Second extends its warm sunshine to connoisseurs and laymen alike. It belongs to all of us who love great music, weather or not we can grasp the more subtle complexities. There was a radiance to the work—a healthy freshness and glow. Afkham exemplified the essential characteristics of serene cheerfulness and gentle melody, animating the moments of joyful good humor while occasionally providing a more reflective meditation.

There was just a bit of grit in the opening horn solo, as a pearl might form around a grain of sand, perfectly complementing the pastoral feeling. The first movement, however, went on to envelop the audience in warm melodic waves gradually growing to an elemental scale while always keeping a light touch, as exemplified by Yoobin Son’s bucolic flute solos. The final movement led to a noticeably triumphant and brassy coda, resulting in an anticipated roar from the crowd—in this case, very well deserved.

The Mostly Mozart Festival continues through August 24 throughout Lincoln Center; more information available at mostlymozart.org.

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