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Friday, July 29, 2016

Concert Review: Taming the Savage Beast

A scuffle mars Thursday's Mostly Mozart concert.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Louis Langrée led Thursday's Mostly Mozart concert at Alice Tully Hall.
Photo © 2014 Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Normally, a review of a performance like last night's concert at Alice Tully Hall featuring the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with guest pianist Leif Ove Andsnes would confine itself to the music that was played onstage. However, an incident in the house before the concert must be mentioned first. It happened during the introductory lecture by festival music director Louis Langrée. An ugly, violent moment, it may serve as a launch point to discuss the importance and necessity of the music of Mozart and Bach, civilized art that can tame the restless hearts of New Yorkers trapped in an extended wave of humidity and heat.

Mr. Langrée chose to introduce the program and talk about the connection between Mozart, Bach and the modern music of Anton von Webern and George Benjamin, whose arrangements of Bach's work were integral to the program. As Mr. Langrée spoke, a man arrived at his seat on the left side of Alice Tully Hall, about eight rows from the stage. He discovered a younger gentleman sitting in his aisle seat. An argument started. At its climax, the younger fellow struck the elder with his umbrella, knocking him onto the aisle steps. The audience, shocked by this, turned their heads to see. Several declaring that the attacker "should leave."

At the time, Mr. Langrée was onstage, surrounded by eight musicians from the Festival Orchestra, who were getting ready to play George Benjamin's arrangement of part of Bach's Art of the Fugue. His talk, on the importance of counterpoint and Bach's influence on Mozart was paused, and ushers quickly summoned security. The younger gentleman and his three companions were quietly ushered out by a Lincoln Center guard and the house detective, to the general approval of the audience. The lecture resumed, and the concert followed.

Then it was time for the New York premiere of the Canon and Fugue from Bach's The Art of the Fugue as orchestrated by the contemporary composer George Benjamin. A manual of counterpoint in musical form, The Art of Fugue is Bach's last, unfinished composition. Mr. Benjamin reworked this music for octet, using clever combinations of instrumental voices to create new "blended" sounds, much as one would play multiple pedal or wind stops on a pipe organ. The opening canon and the following contrapuntal fugue sounded with clarity and purpose, in an honest arrangement that would have made the work's progenitor proud.

Mr. Andsnes then took the stage joining the (now seated) orchestra for the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. Following the Bach-Benjamin work, it was easy to hear the influence of the older composer, particularly how Mozart voiced woodwind parts in the stormy introduction of the first movement. When the piano entered, it sighed and sobbed like the tragic hero of an opera seria. Mr. Andsnes broke loose in flight in the long cadenza that ends the first movement. The second, with its famous main theme was a salve to the ears. The bright finale showcased both orchestra and soloist with a leaping Rondo. After three rounds of applause, the pianist obliged with an encore, the first Nocturne from Frederic Chopin's Op. 15.

The second half started with another Bach arrangement: Anton von Webern's setting of the Ricercare from The Musical Offering. Incorporating harp, trombone, English horn and other instruments not generally used in Bach's music, this is is the sound of the early 20th century voicing the music if the 18th. Played with slow majesty and relish by the Mostly Mozart musicians, this work ed the influence of Bach's voicings and phrasings on the complex modern music of the Second Viennese School.

The concert concluded with Mozart's Symphony No. 38, dedicated to the city of Prague. This three-movement work let the orchestra be heard in various voices, from the weeping oboes against a curtain of strings to the hard-driving taps on the timpani that propelled the first movement forward. Working without a score, Mr. Langrée reminded listeners of his flair and style as a Mozart conductor. The slow movement was taken at a proper Andante clip, paving the way for the burst of energy in the final movement. As the last bars sounded, the audience applauded, reminded of the power of Mozart to soothe even the most savage of New York concert-goers.

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