NEW YORK—It’s hard to imagine how Mozart could fit into a concert with the theme “Americans in Paris,” but the opening concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival managed to do that.
The festival began with one of the most celebrated pieces by the late conductor, composer, and educator Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): the sparkling overture to “Candide” (1956).
Although the musical adaptation of French author Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novel was commercially unsuccessful, its overture along with the soprano takeoff on coloratura arias, “Glitter and Be Gay,” and the love duet, “Oh, Happy We” (which are both quoted in the overture) have endured as popular works in concert.
The Overture is a high energy piece and Louis Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra launched into it with gusto. It was an exciting way to start the concert.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453 (1784) was performed by the orchestra with the distinguished pianist Emanuel Ax as soloist. The concerto was likely first performed in public by one of Mozart’s pupils, Barbara von Ployer. He also wrote the Piano Concerto No. 14, K. 449, in E-flat Major for her.
The Concerto No. 17 is comprised of three movements: an opening Allegro and then Andante and ending with the Allegretto. The last movement is famous in part because Mozart taught the melody to his pet starling, a very musical bird. The music has been compared to that sung by Papageno (the bird man) in the opera “The Magic Flute.”
Ax played with great sensitivity, as one would expect from a pianist known for his affinity to the music of Mozart.
The second half of the concert opened with an unusual piece: Adagio and Rondo in C Minor for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola, and cello, K.617 (1791). Often the piece is performed with piano soloists but Mostly Mozart presented the original version.
Interestingly, the American in Paris theme is supported by the fact that Benjamin Franklin, among his innumerable other achievements, developed a version of the glass harmonica and played it. Franklin was the American ambassador to France from 1776 until 1785. While serving in that post, he lived in the Parisian suburb of Passy.
The work was performed at the concert by Friedrich Heinrich Kern and Philipp Marguerre, both on glass harmonica, Jasmine Choi on flute, Max Blair on oboe, Shmuel Katz on viola, and Ilya Finkelshteyn on cello.
A glass harmonica looks nothing like a harmonica that a musician puts in his mouth. Rather this looks like a vibraphone except the player doesn’t use mallets. The musicians move their hands over the top. The breathy sound is similar to what you hear when you move your hand over the rims of glasses filled with different amounts of water.
The music itself is recognizably that of the supreme melodist Mozart.
The concert ended with George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (1928). Sadly, the composer, like Mozart, died in his 30s. The native New Yorker wrote songs for Broadway musicals and Hollywood films. He started writing classical pieces in his 20s: first, Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and then Concerto in F (1925).
“An American in Paris” was inspired by Gershwin’s trip to the city and the work includes the sounds of the taxi horns. He actually wrote most of it when he returned to his New York apartment. Thus, along with the French sound, there is an American blues influence.
The Mostly Mozart Orchestra played a new edition of the piece by Mark Clague. He incorporated different kinds of saxophones and tinkered with the pitch of the taxi horns to bring them closer to what he believes Gershwin intended.
The concert was an audience pleaser, with only light and lyrical works.
The Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center continues until Aug. 12.
Another Festival to keep in mind is Lincoln Center Out of Doors. These concerts present great artists and are free. On Saturday, Aug 11th at 7:30 pm, music icon Mavis Staples and singer-songwriter Joe Henry will perform.
On August 10th at Damrosch Park, Bobby Sanabria and his Multiverse Big Band will perform a unique tribute to Leonard Bernstein on his 100th birthday: a Latin jazz version of songs from the composer’s most successful work, West Side Story. Sanabria’s recently released double album, “West Side Story Reimagined” (on Jazzheads) incorporates the infectious rhythms of jazz, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican and Brazilian music, and is a triumph. Three days earlier, on August 7th at Film Society’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center’s Amphitheater (144 West 65th Street), educator, drummer, composer, and arranger Sanabria will discuss the reimagining of West Side Story with Jamie Bernstein (the composer’s daughter, who is also a writer and broadcaster).
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.