Mostly Mozart's repertoire broadens with its audience

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Mostly Mozart's repertoire broadens with its audience
Installation view of Nina Chanel Abney’s installation “San Juan Heal.” Photo: DBOX.

by Oussama Zahr

NEW YORK, NY.- For the past 10 months, the back side of David Geffen Hall has greeted passersby with Nina Chanel Abney’s installation “San Juan Heal.” Its bold, color-blocked illustrations pay tribute to the largely Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood that was torn down to make way for Lincoln Center in the mid-20th century.

“San Juan Heal” was a way of acknowledging this performing-arts campus’ original sin. When it was announced, Henry Timms, the center’s president and CEO, said, “We’ve been very intentional about thinking about different voices, different audiences, more people seeing themselves at Lincoln Center.”

But as the months passed, I began to wonder: Are there more people of color on the building than inside it? If the installation is both a nod to the past and a hope for the future, then what is Lincoln Center doing to get there?

The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, which has taken up residence at Geffen Hall for 2 1/2 weeks as part of Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City programming, has a lot of ideas on that front. With so few concerts, it has little time to capture audience interest, but it also has more room to be conceptually agile.

Near the end of July, the ensemble’s concerts began with a premiere by Iraqi American composer Amir ElSaffar, featuring his Two Rivers ensemble, and continued with programs — led by Thomas Wilkins, Gemma New and Jonathon Heyward — that featured contemporary works about identity and equity while otherwise sticking to the orchestra’s unofficial remit of familiar, easy-on-the-ears repertoire. The performances ranged from workaday to exhilarating.

Wilkins, in opening remarks, spoke of composers who feel “comfortable in their skin” as a kind of artistic self-actualization, and he and Heyward gave a platform to Black composers: Adolphus Hailstork, Xavier Foley, Jessie Montgomery and Fela Sowande.

At Wilkins’ concert, Foley’s “For Justice and Peace” — written for double bass (Foley), violin (concertmaster Ruggero Allifranchini) and string ensemble — spurred into action with flashy passagework after an elegiac opening. In Sowande’s African Suite (1944), the musicians tossed genial Nigerian melodies to one another with infectious spirit. But it was in the finale, Hailstork’s Symphony No. 1, that Wilkins inspired excellence in them and conjured a heady mix of timbres like thrashing beams of light and glistening surges of sound.

Heyward opened his program with Montgomery’s “Records of a Vanishing City,” a tone poem that swirled with the music — most conspicuously, Miles Davis — that she heard growing up on the Lower East Side. Amid the piece’s slippery, chimerical atmosphere, a solo clarinet, played by Jon Manasse, emerged with sweetly mellow innocence, like a child’s voice in an urban variation of Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” As it happened, a vivacious account of Barber’s Violin Concerto followed.

Last year’s Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra concerts featured a diverse lineup of composers too, but the choices — William Grant Still, Joseph Boulogne and Florence Price — have sometimes crowded out contemporary composers. The recent programs, though, reflect an evolution in a more substantive direction toward true inclusivity.

Heyward, in his first concert with the orchestra since being named its next music director, displayed a natural rapport with the audience, an appealing podium manner and a crisp way with downbeats. Stiff at first in the Montgomery, he gradually relaxed into more organic gestures in the Barber and Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony.

At the moment, though, there is a gulf between Heyward’s intentions and his output. He spoke of “absolute joy” before the Schumann, then delivered something more like breathy contentment. Earthiness teetered on earthbound in the symphony’s exultant depictions of the Rhineland.

Despite this orchestra’s name, Mozart made just one appearance in the three recent programs, when New conducted his “Prague” Symphony, a sterling example of his mature style, woven together with unmistakable snatches of the operatic masterpieces he wrote around the same time, “Le Nozze di Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.”

New cultivated a fine core of color and volume and shifted from it in gradations, though she didn’t necessarily mine the Andante’s introspection or the Presto’s drama. She also led Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sarah Gibson’s “warp & weft,” a mysterious, openhearted, at times astringent tribute to the feminist art movement of the 1970s that fought to elevate so-called women’s work from craft to fine art.

The soloists on these three evenings brought personal flair, if not the last word in technique, to their showpieces. Foley’s adroit, sly, softly powerful style in Bottesini’s Double Bass Concerto No. 2 drew listeners to the edge of their seats despite a stylistically questionable habit of bending notes. Stewart Goodyear took off like gangbusters in the Mendelssohn piano concerto — fast, efficient, driving — and put aside elegance for hair-raising thrills. In Barber’s rapturous Violin Concerto, Simone Lamsma smoothed over the tension brought by triplet rhythms in the first movement’s long, sumptuous melody; her tendency to play on the sharp edge of the pitch gave her tone an uncanny brilliance that kept it from nestling into the warm orchestral textures.

Shanta Thake, Lincoln Center’s artistic leader, came onstage before each concert to welcome the audience and lead it in what she called a “ritual.” Last year, this call-and-response exchange felt like a way to speak healing into existence after the pandemic. This year, the audience’s disengagement from the exercise deepened with each concert.

Arguably, Wilkins and Heyward are the ones creating community by enlarging the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s repertoire. And if the delighted reactions of the large, diverse crowds — who supplied enthusiastic applause and even scattered standing ovations between pieces — are any indication, it’s working.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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