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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Festival Preview: Mostly Mozart 2015

Lincoln Center's longest-running festival event returns for its 49th season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
This year's Mostly Mozart Festival features optically enhanced Mozart. 
Either that or he's trying to look cool.
Image by StrangeStore
Before there was the Lincoln Center Festival, Midsummer Night's Swing or Lincoln Center Out of Doors, there was Mostly Mozart. This venerable celebration of all things classical, medium-sized and small returns to the Upper West Side for a month starting in the last week of July and continuing through the first three weeks of August. This year's schedule includes the New York premiere of George Benjamin's opera Written on Skin and appearances from piano luminaries like Pierre Laurent-Aimard, Jeremy Denk and Emanuel Ax, baritone Matthias Goerne and cellist Sol Gabetta in her Festival debut.

Mostly Mozart has long had the reputation of being a "tired" and "stuffy" festival held during the hottest month of the year in New York. However that has changed radically in recent years. The addition of complete opera performances, a residency by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and a focus on more modern music besides the usual Mozart and Beethoven has made for a reinvigorated environment.

The other reason to visit Mostly Mozart is to hear Avery Fisher Hall in its special Festival configuration. The orchestra is moved forward to a central temporary stage, and audience members are seated on all four sides. Overhead, a specially built concert ceiling opens up new vistas of sound in that moribund venue. It may be an almost impossible task to make this big hall more intimate but the sound at Mostly Mozart is generally pretty good.

The major event of this year's Festival is Written on Skin. This modern opera plays for three performances at the David Koch Theater located just across Lincoln Center Plaza from Avery Fisher Hall. Written by British composer George Benjamin with librettist Martin Crimp, Skin premiered in 2012 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival before enjoying a successful run at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in 2013.

The story is based on a French legend that also appeared in Boccaccio's The Decameron. It centers around a an elderly Protector (Christopher Purves) his unhappy wife Agnes (Barbara Hannigan) and a mysterious, angelic Boy (Tim Mead) that ends up seducing the wife. Skin takes its disastrous love triangle to a terrible end of murder and revenge. This opera will be played by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under the baton of New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert, and marks the return of opera performance to the theater that once housed the now-defunct New York City Opera.

Following a free preview concert on July 25, this year's Festival kicks off "for real" on July 28 with a program featuring Mr. Ax and soprano Erin Morley in an all-Mozart program. The focus shofts to Brahms the following week (the Symphony No. 4) and then touches on Weber, Schumann Bach and Beethoven. Most concerts are preceded by opening recitals (free to ticket-holders) with a wide range of recital and chamber repertory setting the stage for the orchestra The regular concert schedule wraps up August 21 with Haydn's mighty The Creation.

The final reason to attend Mostly Mozart is its extraordinary side programming. Chamber concerts this year feature regular guests the Emerson String Quartet and ICE. Following the Avery Fisher concerts, there are A Little Night Music recitals held high above Lincoln Center in the Kaplan Penthouse. With a glass of wine in hand, one can hear artists like the Danish String Quartet, Mr. Ax collaborating on works for piano four hands or an intimate recital of Debussy and Satie by Alexei Lubomov.

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