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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Concert Review: Mozart Goes Last, But Comes First

Mostly Mozart, with Joshua Bell at Avery Fisher Hall.
Violinist Joshua Bell, and four-stringed friend. Photo courtesy Lincoln Center.
Friday night's Mostly Mozart concert at Avery Fisher Hall featured a conservative, crowd-pleasing program of Mozart, Bruch and Bach under the baton of fiery young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. Mr. Heras-Casado was joined by soloist Joshua Bell, playing Bruch's First Violin Concerto.

Let me preface the review proper by stating that this was the first Mostly Mozart concert that I've seen at Avery Fisher Hall in over a decade. So it was news to me that in 2005, the Festival installed an acoustic modification, moving the orchestra to an extended stage closer to the center of the room. Extra lighting and seats were added to accomodate the change, shortening the sloped orchestra seating. Seating risers were added behind the ensemble, and to the sides.

The changes also include a new overhead lighting rig, with sonic baffles designed to make the sound bloom in the Hall's problematic acoustic. Although I did not detect any immediate sonic improvement, the packed audience seemed eager to have the musicians closer and at their center for the performance.

The concert opened with Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 4, billed here on the program under its French title: Overture No. 4. The Mostly Mozart musicians played this work standing up, in the Italian style that is increasingly fashionable for 18th century music. But the first movement was problematic, with muddled entrances and blurry chords when Bach's notes should sound sharp-creased. The later parts of the Suite were better, and the orchestra recovered form with a strong Réjouissance..

Bruch wrote three concertos for the violin, but the First is the one that most violinists master and make a centerpiece of their touring repertory. Mr. Bell played an exciting, crowd-pleasing performance, soaring through the lyric runs and arpeggios and duelling playfully with the principal strings of the Festival Orchestra. In the last movement, he led the folk dance (which progresses from friendly to frenetic) with skilful string technique and exciting cadenzas.

The best music-making of the evening came with the Mozart Symphony No. 40 in g minor. This is Mozart's penultimate symphony. It is among his most famous works, and looks forward to the future of music in the 19th century. The last movement has two themes that are quoted by Beethoven in the Eroica Symphony.

Here, it was led in a potent, authoritative performance by Mr. Heras-Casado. Working without a baton, the young conductor seemed to ride on Mozart's great waves of sound. His conducting brought out the subtle secondary themes of the first movement, and the elegance of the minuet. The sudden starts and stops of the finale seemed to have extra force as he lifted his arms, bringing them crashing down to drive the orchestra forward.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats