At Mostly Mozart Concerts, Casual Vibes and High Musical Values

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The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra bears the name of a festival that no longer exists, but over the last three weeks, it played 12 concerts that showed it still has a place in the new creative landscape at Lincoln Center.

In April, Lincoln Center announced a newly streamlined festival for this year, “Summer for the City,” that subsumed (or really replaced) a sprawling collection of offerings, including the Mostly Mozart Festival and Midsummer Night Swing. Lincoln Center’s chief artistic officer, Shanta Thake, has said that the organization plays a civic role, so while the updated lineup still sprawls, its emphasis is squarely on community. Social dances, celebratory gatherings for Pride and Juneteenth and a tribute to the Brooklyn-born hip-hop star Notorious B.I.G. have filled the schedule, with many events at no cost.

Classical music, a longtime centerpiece of Lincoln Center’s identity, was allotted roughly two and a half weeks of prime time in the middle of its three-month calendar.

How does a genre that has wrestled with accusations of elitism fit with the populism of “Summer for the City”? The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and its music director, Louis Langrée, wasted no time finding out, offering up breezy yet focused concerts that unfurled as effortlessly as a picnic blanket — welcoming, comforting and filled with treats big and small.

I attended the first four programs before being sidelined by COVID-19, and the concerts I saw were a joyous success. They largely followed a template of spotlighting highly personable soloists and making a quiet point of incorporating works by Black composers after years of neglect.

The series began with a free show at Damrosch Park that juxtaposed works by Black composers and their contemporaries. Joseph Boulogne’s rousing overture to “L’Amant Anonyme” flowed seamlessly into a briskly elegant account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17. A glassy, small-scale piece by William Grant Still connected more tenuously to George Gershwin’s ecstatic “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Taking a jubilant jaunt through Gershwin’s crowd-pleaser, the pianist Conrad Tao seemed to conduct his own symphony at the keyboard, plunking out a pitter-patter of notes, coloring in sunset shades and slamming his forearm delightedly on the keys. At one point, as a siren sounded in the distance, he paused and shot the audience a look as if to say, “I’ll wait.” The crowd loved it.

Before the concert, Thake led the audience in a spoken ritual derived from the three themes of “Summer for the City” — remember, reclaim and rejoice — a reflection on the healing process that communities have undertaken during the pandemic.

The orchestra played six programs in total, performing each twice, on consecutive days. The other five programs, all at Alice Tully Hall, had a choose-what-you-pay model, with a minimum price of $5. The concerts lasted 90 minutes or less without intermission.

Whether it was the ticket prices, the inviting run times or the chance to escape the enervating heat, concertgoers seemed energized and unguardedly enthusiastic, often applauding between symphonic movements (though, instinctively, not after the slow ones). And why not, given the conductor Xian Zhang’s tight, decisive reading of Beethoven’s Fourth in the first Alice Tully Hall program? Summer seems a good time to shed some layers and some concert decorum.

There’s something heartening about audiences in shorts and T-shirts leaping to their feet in a concert hall to cheer well-turned showpieces by Ravel, Barber and Jacques Ibert. It shakes loose the idea that casual vibes are incompatible with high musical values.

The luminous Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique sang a rendition of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” so touching and minutely observed that I instinctively reached for my husband’s hand. De Bique’s voice, rich and grounded, seemed to bloom from somewhere deep inside her, taking on a slender, shimmery quality as it extended toward the top of her range.

Other soloists included the saxophonist Steven Banks, who radiated mellow glamour in the long lines of a Glazunov concerto; the violinist Augustin Hadelich, who dug into the raw strangeness of Ravel’s “Tzigane” and drew out the warm midrange of his Guarneri violin in a relative rarity by Boulogne; and the violinist Joshua Bell, who played pieces by Florence Price and Henri Vieuxtemps in a concert I missed led by Jonathon Heyward, who will become the first Black music director of the Baltimore Symphony in 2023.

The replacement of printed programs with QR codes felt like a budgetary constraint, a nonchalant trimming of concert amenities and a nod to our new, continuing pandemic normal. But it drew at least one loud complaint from an attendee.

As if in reply, Langrée took the stage and offered entertaining explanatory remarks — a new tradition in the making — before his translucent account of Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite. The conductor Roderick Cox spoke movingly of his program a few nights later, though the distinctive atmosphere of Barber’s “Knoxville” and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” Suite suffered from his unshaped orchestral climaxes.

There were new frontiers, too: Nokuthula Ngwenyama wrote the beautifully direct “Primal Message” (2020), a more emotive version of the Arecibo message sent into space in 1974, and the ensemble’s musicians invited concertgoers to mingle with them in the lobby after each concert.

If the series told a story — one of remembrance, reclamation and exultation — then it seemed appropriate to conclude with Mozart’s Requiem, a piece of vaulting yet intensely personal feeling, which I was sad to miss on Friday and Saturday.

But there’s another story here: Langrée’s contract runs through the 2023 season, and the orchestra’s contract is up for negotiation in February. (Thake has already expressed a desire to engage it next season.)

If these concerts felt like the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s audition to join Thake’s new Lincoln Center, then the ensemble did everything it could to secure its part.

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