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Mozart, with bite

Posted at 10:59 AM on July 30, 2008 by Fred Child

(I'm at Lincoln Center in New York today, getting ready for a live broadcast/webcast tonight, the opening program of the Mostly Mozart Festival.)

When Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival was founded in 1966, it was the only classical option for New Yorkers during the summer. With a monopoly on the summer audience, the festival, frankly, coasted. They played, yes, mostly Mozart. And did just fine as a relatively unambitious festival, operating on cruise control.

But with a proliferation of summer options for classical fans in NYC in recent years, they've have to sharpen their approach. And in the last five years, the MMF has become much more than a set of pleasant but predictable concerts.

As of 2007, they have an annual composer in residence, pairing provocative new works with Mozart's gems. (This year's composer, Kaija Saariaho, refers to Mozart as a "wonderful colleague," from whom she has learned a tremendous amount.) The festival makes a point of bringing in sterling guest artists from around the world -- this year's include pianist Garrick Ohlsson and Dawn Upshaw. Dance is a highlight this year...and not traditional ballet...Samoan dance. And every season now has a theme; this year's is "Loss and Transformation," with a particular focus on the meaning of death. (For more on that, check out this interview in yesterday's WSJ with Louis Langree and MMF Artistic Director Jane Moss.)

Louis Langree is Music Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival. His arrival in 2002 sparked many of the recent changes. His wide-ranging curiosity has broadened the focus of the festival. And his passion for music has inspired much more lively and searching performances than used to be heard here.

All of which cast Mozart's Symphony 40 in a very different light last night (to be repeated tonight). In years past, this symphony might have seemed like a rote choice to open the festival -- a well-known warhorse, back for another viewing, with nothing novel to offer. Now, because of Langree and the larger vision and context of the festival, it crackles with energy. As the starter for a summerlong festival about "Loss and Transformation," it peels back the comfortable veneer of the music. Yes, there is an elegant surface to much of the piece, but...what about the pain beneath that surface? Mozart had lost so much at this point in his life: he no longer had a comfortable place as a favorite novelty in Vienna's musical life, his income had dried up; his father died the year before, several of his children had died. The opening of this piece can be played gently, with a comfortable lilt...but Langree and the orchestra gave it a quiet, fierce rhythmic bite and intensity. It was a taut and dramatic half hour at Avery Fisher Hall.

In the second half of the concert, Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde," with tenor Paul Groves and alto Anna Larrson. (It's the chamber version, only 14 players behind the singers.) Last night's performance sounded as if one more rehearsal was in order, some slight intonation issues, a bit of confusion about entrances and phrasing. The final section of the piece was sublime, and with another night under their belts, it could be even better tonight.

Check it out live from 8-10 eastern tonight. WNYC, WFMT, and NPR all places you can listen.

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