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Neither a Bang nor a Whimper

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
08/24/2001 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 35 & 41; Piano Concerto # 23
Alicia De Larrocha (piano)
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Gerard Schwarz (conductor)

I anticipate that all of my colleagues’ reviews of the final concert of Gerard Schwarz at the Mostly Mozart Festival will be the standard treacle about what an outstanding job he did over the years and how much he will be missed. I heartily subscribe to the thesis if not the sentimentality and so would rather move on to other matters. It is interesting to speculate how the festival will grow under a new leader, since Schwarz’ watermark has been so all-pervasive. Perhaps more modern music will emerge, and a modest proposal would be to present works directly influenced by the beloved Austrian. The choice of leader will also be a significant statement: does the management want to continue the intellectually satisfying work of Schwarz or revert to the festival’s roots as a light summer alternative? Only time will tell. How about Kurt Masur as director? He’ll be out of a job soon enough.

The recent performance history of the works of Mozart is fascinating. Revered in the 1940’s, he was treated on the concert stage as the greatest exponent of the symphonic and operatic repertoire, a tradition widely accepted by the parents and grandparents of the public of the time. But over the years, Mozart has acquired the faint odor of the simplistic and become the poster child (as Vivaldi is the poster adult) for the mind-numbing repetitions of FM radio, serving as little more than wallpaper for offices and elevators. The standard New York concert season contains very little of his music, a phenomenon which made Colin Davis’ New York Phil all-Mozart program last winter so curiously refreshing. After that overblown bicentennial of his death in 1991 and the popularity of the play and film “Amadeus”, the overexposure has led now to a certain historical irrelevance. Mozart has become what he used to call himself, a “trained monkey” useful in easing the digestion of the noble audience who hired him.

And that points out the real value of Gerard Schwarz. He never treated his subject as a cliché, choosing to present instead the highest quality of programming and performance available. Last evening’s farewell concert was a suitable example. It became painfully obvious this summer that the MMF orchestra needs strong leadership (they are essentially a pick-up group, albeit of a high standard of musicianship) and he was able to provide it on a more limited basis in this his valedictory year. What emerged last evening was the repressed collective memory that Mozart is an absolute delight and it is not his fault that he has been appropriated by the merchants and the systematic dumbers-down of American high culture. At the end of the day, little Wolfgang is the most divinely inspired of all of the composers, nay of all of the artists, in Western civilization. If we choose to reduce him to pablum, then shame on us as a society.

Both performances of the symphonies were excellent, Schwarz particularly adept at delicate phrasing and a controlled intensity missing from many of his more famous colleagues. His attention to dynamic detail is especially rewarding, each little crescendo and diminuendo (it is important to remember that these devices were truly experimental in Mozart’s day) speaking volumes of musical interpretive meaning. No one who knows me could possibly expect me to be objective after all of these years about Alicia De Larrocha, who need only emerge onto the stage for the crowd to be transported to another level of artistic appreciation (the only downside to her performances are the inevitably tiresome prolonged standing ovations). Madame was, of course, totally at home in the beauties of the 23rd Concerto and demonstrated as usual her mastery of economy of motion. Every music lover should see her perform live at least once. She puts into perspective the athleticism of more flamboyant performers, exposing for all to hear only the joy of the music itself.

Ends of eras need not be sad occasions. The powers that be have a golden opportunity to enrich the musical landscape of summer in the city. We won’t even mention recent bad decision making in New York and Philadelphia and just hold our collective breaths through the long winter ahead.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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