Saturday, August 12, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival - Brahms, Bach & Mendelssohn - 08/09/17

Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102 (Double Concerto) 
Joshua Bell: Violin 
Steven Isserlis: Cello 
Bach: Contrapunctus XIV, from Art of Fugue (Arranged by Andrew Manze) 
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 in D Major (Reformation) 

For a few decades now the Mostly Mozart Festival has been perking up the summer of New York City’s dwellers, and one of its most enjoyed features used to be the free preview concert in then Avery Fisher Hall, which never failed to create a long line of music lovers, who killed time bonding among themselves, on the Lincoln Center Plaza on that morning. Last year the preview concert was moved to nearby Damrosch Park on a disgustingly muggy Friday evening, which prompted me to sit the concert – and the festival – out. This year the festival’s powers that be resolved the budgetary and logistical restrictions once and for all by not having a preview concert at all. So there.
However, I still managed to find a free Mostly Mozart Festival concert, and one that promised new takes on 11 among Schubert’s 24 “Winterreise” songs, plus games and prizes, last Monday evening in the nearby David Rubenstein Atrium. And “Schubertiade Remix” turned out to be a rambunctious evening of electric instruments, including a mean ukulele, synthesizers, amplified voices, distorted sounds, English lyrics and peculiarly loose adaptations performed by some members of the fearless International Contemporary Ensemble and other local artists. I eventually left with my ears still unpleasantly ringing and no prizes.
But all was back to normal on Wednesday night at the David Geffen Hall where the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze was going to be joined by violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Steven Isserlis for Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello, which would be followed by a maestro Manze-arranged fugue by Bach, and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. So Mozart was nowhere in sight or within earshot, but plenty of very cool music was on the program, making it the perfect introduction to the festival for my friend Vy An, after the traditional slice of pizza on the Hearst Plaza.

Since first impression are key, it was excellent timing that the concert started with the dream duo of Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis tackling Brahms’ less well-known but downright satisfying Concerto for Violin and Cello, his last work for orchestra, which by default requires both soloists to be in flawless synchronicity. This was of course not too tall of an order from the long-time music partners on the stage, and unsurprisingly the performance went off without a hitch. The expertly crafted, effortlessly virtuosic conversation between the two instruments, whether assertively alone or seamlessly together, was beautifully backed by the orchestra, which knew exactly how to take a back-seat while still remaining unmistakably present.
And since the audience made it abundantly clear that we simply could not get enough of the star soloists, they came back for an inspired Langsam from Schumann’s Violin Concerto with a coda by Benjamin Britten. Truth be told, this parting gift was so stunningly beautiful that it almost overshadowed the Brahms.
After intermission, Andrew Manze gave the slightly smaller audience a quick and fun introduction to the rest of the program, most notably asking us to remember that Felix Mendelssohn was an outstanding gymnast, among many other talents. Then we moved on to his engaging arrangement of the Contrapunctus XIV, from Art of Fugue by Bach, the master rightfully worshiped by all three composers being heard that evening.
This little foray into Bachian territory was in fact the perfect introduction to Mendelssohn’s rigorously Lutheran yet irrepressibly melodic Symphony No. 5, which was actually his second in chronological order, but never mind, to which we silently and eagerly transitioned. Another not so well-known work by a very well-known composer, the Reformation Symphony was performed in its original form on Wednesday night, Mendelssohn being notorious for not knowing when to stop revising to the point of damaging his own work.
Originally written for the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, this new piece was not finished in June 1830 due to the composer’s poor health. Rarely performed when he was alive and eventually published 21 years after he died – Hence the No. 5 attribution – the Reformation Symphony has nevertheless plenty going for it, with a serious first movement (Protestantism will do that to a composition), a carefree second one, a lyrical third one (Mendelssohn shall be Mendelssohn) and a powerful final one. The orchestra took immediate ownership of it and brought it to life in a performance that the Englishman leaving behind us qualified as “stupendous”. We could not have agreed more.

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