HomeMusicReview: At Mostly Mozart, the Sense of an Ending

Review: At Mostly Mozart, the Sense of an Ending

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Change is coming for the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and for its longtime music director, Louis Langrée — this month is the beginning of the end of his tenure with the orchestra. When the ensemble appears at Lincoln Center next year it will be with a freshly conceived name, and with the conductor Jonathon Heyward at the helm. (Heyward also leads the orchestra in concerts on Aug. 4 and 5.)

So there is a sense of finality hovering over this summer’s offerings, which began last weekend with a free outdoor concert in Damrosch Park. On Tuesday night, Langrée and his players resumed their more typical places in the recently refurbished David Geffen Hall — renovations that kept the festival orchestra out of that theater last year.

In remarks before the concert, Langrée warmly recalled his two-decade relationship with the orchestra and with New York audiences. The program was classic Langrée: a substantial world premiere from Amir ElSaffar, a prominent jazz trumpeter and composer, nestled next to the Mass in C minor by Mozart, who, Langrée noted, sometimes looked eastward (as in the “Turkish March” movement of Piano Sonata No. 11).

ElSaffar also spoke, telling the audience how his “Dhikra” (“Remembrance”) — inspired by the 20th anniversary of the second U.S. invasion of Iraq — incorporated Western classical instruments from the festival orchestra’s ranks, alongside the players in his Two Rivers ensemble. (Among other instruments, that group features oud, a steel-string lute and an Iraqi hammered dulcimer, as well as ElSaffar’s trumpet, which channels the melodic style of Iraq’s maqam tradition.)

All cogent and stylistically broad minded as a précis. But “Dhikra” is not on the same exalted level as ElSaffar’s past work for larger groups, particularly as heard on the album “Not Two” (2017). While “Dhikra” contained some passages of wondrous blended sonority, the amplification of ElSaffar’s musicians had the unfortunate effect of making the Mostly Mozart players inaudible, and for long stretches.

It began promisingly enough, with Two Rivers players positioned on the stage near Langrée, and with 10 festival orchestra musicians — the only ones participating in this piece — strewn among the audience, one level up from the orchestra. (The conductor often faced the audience, in order to conduct his far-flung orchestral partners.)

A convening salvo from ElSaffar’s trumpet — mellow yet mournful — seemed to inspire droning notes in the strings that gradually flowered into plucked passages that ricocheted across the hall. And when fervid motifs for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn — all positioned at the back of the house — mingled with gentle notes from the Two Rivers bassist onstage, there was a glorious sense of collective blooming.

But this was not to last. The orchestral players soon left their stations in the audience, gradually reappearing onstage. And it was there that the amplified nature of Two Rivers tended to swamp ElSaffar’s writing for his Mostly Mozart collaborators. (It was sad to see the violinist Ruggero Allifranchini sawing away with abandon, at a climactic moment, and not be able to hear his contributions over the Two Rivers rhythm section.)

Some of this might be improved with slight tweaks to the levels on the Geffen Hall mixer. But some of the balance problems may be baked into the piece as written; 10 musicians is not a significant enough portion of an orchestra to graft onto a group as potent as Two Rivers.

After intermission, audiences got to feel the full force of the festival orchestra in Mozart’s Mass in C minor. Also on hand were a quartet of vocal soloists — including the soprano Erin Morley — and a double chorus (well drilled by the director Malcolm J. Merriweather).

Following his own edition of Mozart’s unfinished score, Langrée managed to inject an airy, delicate sense of bounce into the gravity of the Kyrie. Taken too sternly, the Mass sounds overindebted to Bach. Taken too lightly, you skate around the profundity of the work. Langrée found the right balance throughout. And he had a star turn from Morley, when it came to a showstopping “Et Incarnatus Est” aria, in the Credo.

Change, for this festival and for classical music on the whole, is inevitable. But this Mass was a reminder of the wonders that should be carefully shepherded going forward. After Langrée departs, it will be important for the leaders of this orchestra — whatever it’s called — to continue to balance interpretations of this high order and taking big swings with artists on the level of ElSaffar.

Mostly Mozart

Program repeats Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, lincolncenter.org.

Content Source: www.nytimes.com

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