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Friday, August 1, 2014

Concert Review: The Prodigy as Prodigal Son

Mostly Mozart opens (formally) in style.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Louis Langrée returns to lead Mostly Mozart.
Photo © 2014 Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
The Mostly Mozart Festival is the oldest of Lincoln Center's summer performing arts extravaganzas. In recent years, the stewardship of music director Louis Langrée has led to a resurgence in quality. The addition of a special concert stage reconfigures Avery Fisher Hall into a more intimate venue. The audience is seated in part on the Philharmonic stage,  and the musicians play on a specially constructed platform under a set of baffles designed to brighten the sound of the room.

Mr. Langrée and his forces were in fighting form on Tuesday night, playing the first of two all-Mozart programs with pianist Richard Goode. The concert opened with the Overture to Don Giovanni, which itself starts with a re-creation of the opera's climax. The players caught the fearsome tone of the entrance of the statue of the murdered Commendatore, with the timpanist  using hard wooden sticks to lend extra force to the monument's tread.

Woodwinds and low strings conjured the licking flames and brimstone fumes before the music careened off in a different direction, following the good Don on his madcap adventures. The players and Mr. Langrée were tight and precise, navigating the dizzying turns of the music as if there was real need in their playing. The Overture concluded with the  alternative "concert ending," a coda composed by Mozart for performance outside the opera house.

Mr. Goode chose the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, a lovely and energetic example of Mozart's mature style, and one written in a tricky major key. Orchestra and pianist engaged in friendly dialogue in the first movement, with Mr. Goode's performance of the piano part having an intellectual force and liquid, singing line over the ensemble. Strong contributions from clarinets and horns (there is no oboe part) enhanced the quality of the solo part, especially in the slow central movement.

The best of Mozart's piano concertos strike a balance between playfulness and serenity, a fine line that Mr. Goode drew masterfully as he led off the the final movement. In this Rondo, piano and orchestra chased each other through a set of repetitions of the main theme, with Mr. Langrée keeping the pace brisk but never too fast. The last bars found Mr. Goode weaving his piano line closely with bassoons and clarinet, bringing the work to a scintillating close.

The Symphony No. 41 (known as the "Jupiter") is Mozart's last great orchestral work, with innovations in theme and structure that point the way forward to the 19th century. Yet it is also a work that bursts with good humor and inside jokes (a key theme in the finale may be recycled from an infamous (and very filthy) Mozart vocal canon from 1782) even though the piece was written under great pressure. Other themes and references are buried throughout the score effectively summing up Mozart's achievements as a symphonist, even though this work was written three years before the composer's death.

Here, the Mostly Mozart players gave a a crisp, polished performance that still had a sense of rambunctious energy. Mr. Langrée led this well-oiled machine with a small beat and hidden hand movements, occasionally just standing with his baton at his side, bobbing on his feet in the minuet and letting the orchestra almost drive itself in the hurtling fugue that wraps up this remarkable work. Conductor and ensemble showed the benefits of their years together with these four movements, which let the orchestra voice itself in four unique ways. With more performances like this one, 2014 may be a good summer for Mostly Mozart.

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