By Martin Steinberg
Mozart is turning 50 this summer. No, not Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus (Amadeus), but the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York’s Lincoln Center. When it began in the summer of 1966, it was called Midsummer Serenades: A Mozart Festival. Air conditioning was an enticement to get people to go to Philharmonic Hall for concerts featuring Mozart and other light musical fare on warm summer nights. Tickets were $3.
More than 54,000 people attended festival events that summer.
Now, air conditioning is a given, and the concerts offer a range of composers, both pre- and post-Amadeus, but still mostly Mozart. Tickets can be purchased for $20 to $80—not exorbitant by New York City standards. And many performances are free.
The festival, which adopted the name Mostly Mozart in 1970, has become a New York summertime institution, and has presented more than 2,200 performances by 25,000 performers to over 2 million concertgoers in its half century. It has branched out, staging performances throughout the city and as far away as Japan. Artists who made their US or New York debuts at the festival include flutist James Galway, pianist Mitsuko Uchida, mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, and conductors Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Louis Langrée, who is starting his 14th season as the festival’s music director.
“It’s important to have a mostly Mozart and not an only Mozart festival because Mozart is in the center of Western classical music.”—Louis Langrée
How has the festival lasted so long? Consider its core—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. “It’s a privilege to be able to go so deep into his music as one does when one is hearing it a great deal,” says artistic director Jane Moss, who has led the festival since 1992. “It’s like an infinitely receding horizon. You sort of never arrive. In other words, there’s always something new to discover.”
This year’s five-week series officially starts July 22 with Langrée leading the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in a free concert at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park. The all-Mozart concert will include the Violin Concerto No. 3 with soloist Simone Porter making her festival debut.
The short summer season, which runs through August 27, has a special focus on opera, including the debut on July 25 of The Illuminated Heart. Commissioned by the festival, it features fully staged selections from Mozart’s operas and will be directed and designed by Netia Jones. Also, Langrée will lead the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra using period instruments in staged performances of Così fan tutte and Idomeneo.
The festival will also present more than 50 premieres of works, led by the International Contemporary Ensemble, to honor the 50th anniversary. One premiere, on July 27, will feature ICE soloists backed by a string ensemble from Elementary School 316 in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights.
“It’s important to have a mostly Mozart and not an only Mozart festival because Mozart is in the center of Western Classical music. He follows Baroque and he precedes Romanticism,” Langrée says in a phone interview. “He inspired the next generation. He opened the doors to Romanticism.”
“Mozart was a contemporary composer in his time. He would definitely want us to be looking at the new,” says Moss. “He also was quite an innovator. So, to us, it makes total sense to include contemporary music.”
For the milestone season, the festival commissioned a world premiere from Pulitzer Prize–winner David Lang. His the public domain is an a cappella composition to be performed on August 13 in a free concert by 1,000 professional and amateur singers led by Simon Halsey.
“It’s a wonderful way to participate together—just music. Music is really that, when you have no words or no philosophy,” says Langrée. “There is no Republican music or Democrat music, there is just music. The language from people, [no matter] from which origin they are, class, profession—suddenly they are joining together and sharing an experience. That’s the joy of music, that’s the raison d’etre of music.”
Because of its low prices and summertime informality, the festival has been an entry point for classical-music novices, in addition to aficionados. “I have met so many people who told me, ‘Mostly Mozart—it’s where I experienced my first classical concert ever,’” Langrée says.
The festival’s musicians take great pride and find joy in their participation. It has also given them an opportunity to delve into works by the great composer. Though it may seem surprising now, when the festival started, a concert series probing Mozart was uncommon.
“I got to learn a lot of great Mozart, which I may not have played otherwise,” says Alvin McCall, a cellist with the St. Louis Symphony who has played with the festival orchestra since 1986. “Mozart is a good guy, I found out. There’s always something new to learn. I enjoy his contrapuntal writing very much, like [symphonies] 40 and 41.
“It just speaks to me. I understand him, his language.”
“What’s amazing about the festival is first of all, you get to play the most incredible repertoire,” says Ruggero Allifranchini, the festival orchestra’s concertmaster since 2012 and associate concertmaster of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. “Not that you can’t do that during the year, but you can play a lot of Mozart symphonies and just the cream of the repertoire all concentrated in four or five weeks.
“With two different programs a week, it’s very intense to just play amazing music with excited colleagues. Not to mention, the audiences are incredible, quite enthusiastic. It’s such a pleasure.”
Organizing such a popular and ambitious festival does have its challenges, including a major decision about what to do for the 2019 season, when its main base, David Geffen Hall, will be closed for renovations. The festival moved to the more intimate Alice Tully Hall in 1976, when what was then called Avery Fisher Hall was closed for renovations. Moss says neighboring Tully Hall is a possibility again, but no decision has been made.
Langrée isn’t daunted. A smaller venue can be an opportunity to present more experimental programs, such as juxtaposing Mozart pieces with Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.”
“There are two ways of considering it,” he says. “It’s either a problem—‘Oh my God, we won’t be in Geffen Hall!’—or it can be a wonderful challenge. It won’t be in Geffen Hall, so we have to invent something different.
“And I think it’s exciting.”
In Depth with Jane Moss
Impresario Jane Moss has boldly transformed the Mostly Mozart Festival into what the Los Angeles Times says may be “the hippest summer music festival in America.” Since coming to Mostly Mozart in 1992, she has helped expand its offerings without losing sight of its focus—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
When she got involved, the festival largely presented traditional concerts of Mozart and Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic composers in Lincoln Center’s staid Avery Fisher Hall. Now, the festival performs in the newly renamed David Geffen Hall—on a stage that is moved forward so that audiences surround the musicians. The programs have also been taken to smaller venues on and off the Lincoln Center campus.
Intimate midnight chamber-music soirées with wine are offered after the night’s main performances. Contemporary works are commissioned and dance troupes are programmed as part of what the festival calls “a multidisciplinary, multilayered, and far-reaching exploration of its namesake genius and his influence on succeeding generations.” Moss reflects on the festival, and its transformation during her tenure.
What do you think of the 50th anniversary?
I find it very moving, actually, when you think of the success of Mostly Mozart. In the beginning, it was considered to be sort of crazy, because the common wisdom was there wasn’t any audience in New York in the summer.
Also, at that time, Mozart wasn’t done that often. The operas were done, but there wasn’t much happening in the orchestral world around Mozart.
The festival was created with a two-part focus, one of which was obviously to celebrate the genius of Mozart; but the other was to create a point of entry for new audiences for classical music. What has been so moving to me over the years is the number of people who have told me, “The first classical music concert I ever attended was Mostly Mozart.”
It really was a success right off the bat. And then after a while, it became like the New York Yankees in terms of summer in New York; in other words, the brand identity of the festival sort of transcends that of an arts festival.
It’s become a summertime New York institution.
When did you get involved?
A little over 20 years ago. When I first arrived it was basically concerts in Avery Fisher Hall with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, with the occasional chamber-music concert. We’ve really transformed it since then. It was largely, if not exclusively, Classical period. This year, I think we are in 11 different
We do the orchestra concerts, of course, which continue to be a kind of heartbeat to it, but now we are doing dance presentations, we do opera presentations, we do late-night concerts, we’ve added a very robust dimension of contemporary music, which is an important feature of the festival as well. That was most dramatically realized last summer when we did George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, which was an extraordinary opera production.
So it’s not your mother’s Mostly Mozart Festival any more.
Why Mozart and not Bach?
If you’re going to be focused on a single composer, you really need breadth of repertoire. Bach has a great deal of work in some genres but not all genres, and not genres of large forces of scale. And we do use David Geffen Hall, which is a large hall.
That’s why Bach doesn’t work.
The other reason Mozart works is that you have 41 symphonies and 27 piano concertos—you have so much of it, plus for
me personally, he’s greatest in the area of opera. That’s where his impact is unbelievable.
You also have the issue of being able to look at the music that came before him, sort of leading up to Mozart and what influenced him, which is harder to do when it’s Bach. In other words, you can look at Bach in the context of a Mozart festival, and you can also look at the music following him.
He’s very interesting, for lack of a better word—he is a bit of a fulcrum. He’s an
amazing composer, Mozart, not to state
It’s funny. You’d think that after 50 years he would have worn out his welcome, or as a programmer, you’d say, “Now what? Surely we don’t have to listen to the ‘Jupiter Symphony’ again.” But he actually does the opposite—he is sort of an endless source of inspiration.