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Mostly Mozart Festival (1)- Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven: Gil Shaham (Violin), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Pablo Heras-Cosado (Conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City 3-08-2010 (SSM)

”Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-Flat

Mozart- Violin Concerto in A Major, K.219 (“Turkish”)

Beethoven- Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36

One can understand why over the years short shrift may have been given to the Mostly Mozart Festival. The wine cask from which Mozart's music has been poured out for this festival for the past 44 years would surely contain mostly dregs by now. Having been to the first season back in 1966, and having attended them regularly for the first 10 years, my reason for not continuing to attend them was the commonly-heard complaint then that less and less Mozart was being performed. I'm not the purist now that I was and I could understand that to keep the festival going it would, of necessity, have to broaden its repertory. As a comparison,  Seen and Heard International, though granted it's of British origin, receives and publishes dozens of reviews from the London Proms. No Mostly Mozart concert has been reviewed here since 2006 and  while no attempt will be made to compete with the Prom's 50 or so concerts reviewed here, we will give the Mostly Mozart Festival some of what is due.

This performance was held in a modified Avery Fisher Hall with seating in the back and to the side of the orchestra in part, of course to increase the number of people attending, but also, perhaps, to give the concert hall a stadium-like feeling, à la Royal Albert Hall. I'm not sure that this change made for a more congenial space; Royal Albert Hall which holds twice as many people still felt warmer and more mellow. I should qualify that by saying the temperature in Avery Fisher Hall rose several degrees with the entrance of the young conductor Pablo Heras-Cosado. Four years older than the equally hirsute Gustavo Dudamel, both share a youthful enthusiasm and a commanding presence. Tall and self-assured, Heras-Cosado conducts baton-less in the tradition of Stokowski, Mitropoulos, Boulez and Leinsdorf (“Why use a stick if I can't promise a carrot'”), with broad and sweeping arm gestures. His only understandable mishap was in the transition between the second and third movement of the Mozart Violin Concerto where he took the upbeat before the orchestra was ready. I suspect he might have done this to avoid being annoyed by the small groups who applauded after every movement.

The Dumbarton Oaks Concerto was an ideal starter. If I could summarize the performance in a few words, it would be, to use a borrowed title from a Stravinsky disciple, John Adams : A Short Ride in a Fast Train. The first movement is a stylized Brandenburg Concerto: the opening phrases coming to life in the manner of the opening to the First Brandenburg, the flutes later reflecting the tonal impact of the Fourth Brandenburg, the nearly always present basso continuo and bass instruments are a reminder of the ambiance of the Third and Sixth. The way the instruments individually or in groups take over the orchestra is very much in the style of the concerto grosso. One would not normally think of Stravinsky as comical, but there were outright guffaws during the beginning of the second movement with the unexpected exaggerating tootings of the bassoon. The final movement continues the locomotive sounds of the first movement, the pulsing bass and improvisatory style clearly influenced by jazz of the day. All these complicated goings-on were clearly held together by the taut reins of the conductor. It was totally clear from the conductor's gestures what he wanted to hear and the orchestra gave him everything he wanted. The final notes, unfortunately, were lost in the hurry of the audience to applaud and “Bravo.” I will say, though, that unusual as the response is for most of Stravinsky's music, the audience seemed totally, completely caught up in the performance of the music and of this vibrant conductor.

My feeling is that Gil Shaham knows the score of the Fifth Violin Concerto of Mozart so well that he could play it while reading a book or listening to Hip-Hop music with headphones or both at the same time. The Concerto was clearly a part of him, varied only slightly by the give and take of the conductor and the orchestra. The pacing of the outer movements was slightly faster, more in the style of commonly heard historically informed performances. There was no attempt though to imitate original instruments. There didn't have to be. This was a performance that transcended any parochial protocols. Everything flowed naturally, as if Mozart himself were playing and conducting. The normally hackneyed “Turkish” interlude in the middle of the 3rd movement had a push and pull that made it sound as if it were a newly discovered revision of the piece by Mozart himself.

I am not sure why some conductors who normally are sticklers about following the score to a tee, feel they have the freedom to end the piece exactly the opposite way that the composer specified. The pianist Piotr Anderszewski, for example, whose classic recording of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations was praised for its authenticity (“Beethoven as he would have played it himself") ends his recording of the piece with a piano when the score clearly marks it as a forte. Here Heras-Cosado does the opposite. Instead of ending the piece quietly he ends it, instead, in complete disregard of Mozart's clearly specified piano, with a forte.

The encore performed by Mr. Shaham was an amazing piece of virtuosity: ten minutes of almost everything a violin can and can't do. Mr. Shaham announced that the piece was “Turkish but not Mozart.” I spent my intermission trying to get the name of the piece and the composer from several staff and orchestra members but all I could get from them was that it was an improvisation. They ignored the fact I kept mentioning that the orchestra was accompanying him from a score that had to be written and named by someone.

The final piece was Beethoven's Symphony No.2. The performance continued in the punchy, charged style of the conductor with tempi somewhat on the fast side. It was adequate, but I kept wondering if, with the packed agenda of this conductor, he might not have given as much time to rehearsing the piece as it needed. It would be the kind of warhorse that the orchestra should know by heart and there was not the feeling as in the earlier pieces that Heras-Cosado had thrown his heart and soul into it.

Having broken the ice and rejoined the Festival, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the high performance level, even though this particular program was, fortunately, Mostly Not Mozart.

Stan Metzger

Note: It has come to my attention, after this review had been published, that, indeed, the encore that Gil Shaham played was an improvisation. According to Alan Kozinn of the New York Times, Gil Shaham had improvised upon and wrote the orchestral accompaniment for the popular Turkish tune: Nihavent Longa.


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