Excellent playing lost amid the glitz in Mostly Mozart opener

Wed Jul 26, 2017 at 1:01 pm
Louis Langree conducted the opening concert of the Mainly Mozart Festival Tuesday night at David Geffen Hall.

Louis Langrée conducted the opening concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival Tuesday night at David Geffen Hall.

It would seem difficult to begin your season with a non sequitur—yet that’s precisely what the Mostly Mozart Festival managed with their scattered attempt at a feel-good opening gala in their Tuesday night concert at David Geffen Hall, entitled “The Singing Heart.” On what ought to have been a celebratory first night of a robust season, the festival instead offered a confused jumble of mismatched repertoire and celebrity shenanigans that bore little resemblance to the organization’s usually superior work.

Broadway veteran Bernadette Peters set the tone when, after the evening’s first two items were performed, she gave a speech from the stage in which she managed to mispronounce Louis Langrée’s surname, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s given name, and the title of the opening piece (the Kyrie, K.90) in the span of thirty seconds. Perhaps it was meant to be cute; but there was nothing especially endearing about her extended plug for her hit show Mozart in the Jungle. A great artist pretending to be confused seemed a perfect mascot for such an ill-conceived program.

Let this not take anything away from the performers. The Young People’s Chorus of New York deserved every one of the many cheers they got for their excellent singing on Tuesday night, beginning with that Kyrie, in which they showed tight ensemble, perfect intonation, and beaming clarity. Under the direction of Francisco J. Núñez, their four eclectic arrangements of traditional and spiritual songs were impressive, particularly their warm account of “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal.” It’s hardly their fault that their performances were incongruously wedged in among the movements of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony.

The “Haffner” was itself superb, albeit in three installments. In his fifteen years at the helm, Louis Langrée has transformed the Festival’s orchestra into a formidable ensemble. Still essentially a pickup group consisting of musicians with other full-time chairs during the season, at their best they give polished, stylish performances that any orchestra could be proud of.

They showed off an energetic, robust sound in the first movement, pressing into the string to bring unusually dark hues to the music. The Andante was sweetly inoffensive, but the final two movements were brilliant—the Menuetto a picture of spirited elegance and the Presto bright, bursting with light in every attack. If we could have heard the entire symphony uninterrupted, it would have made for a compelling reading, but what we got instead was a cautionary tale of “historical practice” gone awry. The splitting up of the symphony, the program note insisted, was common in Mozart’s day; this might have made sense with a couple of concert arias or divertimentos to fill the gaps. Thrust into this context, the YPC’s selections just seemed bizarre.

Peters wandered back in to introduce Beethoven’s “virtuistic” Choral Fantasy, which proved to be the highlight of the evening. Langrée’s reading was grand and uplifting, and featured a cool, clear, utterly enchanting flute solo by Jasmine Choi. The Concert Chorale of New York, joining forces with the YPC singers, were in fine voice, backing a lineup of impressive vocal soloists, led by Janai Brugger and Jennifer Johnson Cano. The women in particular showed a lovely, liquid shimmer in their singing.

Kit Armstrong impressed in his Mostly Mozart debut, taking on the piece’s substantial piano part. His approach could have been slightly less aggressive, but his playing was spacious and sensitive, his technique solid.

That would have been a fine, triumphant ending to a troubled program, but they opted to bring the whole company back for that chestnut from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow.” It was well rendered, richly blended, and completely out of place.

As she introduced the Beethoven, Peters asked, “What better way to head into a month of captivating programming?” One can think of a few, actually.

We give gala programs a fair amount of leeway for frilly programming, contingent as they are on financial backing, but the pageantry ought to show the organization at its best, even if it is not the most adventurous performance of the season. For that, it seems, we’ll have to wait until Saturday, when Jeremy Denk performs Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto alongside Schubert’s Fifth Symphony.

Tuesday’s program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at David Geffen Hall. mostlymozart.org

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