For forty-two years, the Mostly Mozart Festival has been a centerpiece of Lincoln Center's agenda‹and of New York City's summer cultural life. The last decade has witnessed exciting growth and diversification under the questing leadership of Jane Moss, Mostly Mozart's Artistic Director, and Ren_e and Robert Belfer Music Director Louis Langr_e. Once limited to Avery Fisher Hall, the festival now presents work in multiple Lincoln Center venues. This year's edition (July 29 to August 23) offers an exciting feast of events. Plenty of Mozart, to be sure, but the repertory spans five centuries and several continents. One set of events thematically explores artistic expression related to loss and transformation; another presents compositions and artists from one of the contemporary world's most flourishing musical cultures, Finland.
Argentina's Osvaldo Golijov initiated the role of a festival composer-in-residence last summer; this year the position falls to one of Finland's most internationally acclaimed and consistently innovative creative artists, Kaija Saariaho. What might be called Mostly Mozart's Finnish Connection started with a 2006 co-commission from Peter Sellars' New Crowned Hope Festival (Vienna) to Saariaho for her La Passion de Simone. This oratorio concerns Simone Weil, the influential French ascetic philosopher, religious mystic and Resistance worker who died at 34 in 1943. The role of Weil will be performed by beloved soprano Dawn Upshaw. Saariaho has said that several of her vocal works were created with Upshaw's clear lyric voice and verbal gifts, including the cantata Lohn (1996), the song cycle with chorus Chê¢teau de l'ê¢me from the same year and the opera L'Amour de loin (2000). Saariaho's collaborators from that project, librettist Amin Maalouf and director Peter Sellars, also helped create the oratorio, which Sellars will stage in the Rose Theatre. These Mostly Mozart performances mark its American premiere.
One of Saariaho's other preferred interpreters is her fellow Sibelius Acadamy graduate, cellist Anssi Karttunen, who gives the local premiere of a piece she dedicated to him, Notes on Light (for cello and orchestra) and also takes part in one of the Festival's late-night Little Night Music concerts incorporating Saariaho chamber works played with pianist Tuija Hakkila. Both the oratorio and the orchestral program (with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) are led by Finland's Susanna M‹lkki, an exciting young conductor now in charge of the legendary Parisian music group, Ensemble intercontemporain. Finnish conductor Osmo V‹nsk‹, a Mostly Mozart favorite, also helms two programs.
Another conductor debuting in New York, Edward Gardner, presides over a concert reading with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment of La clemenza di Tito (1791), Mozart's magnificent penultimate opera, in which he effectively reinvented and ended the genre of opera seria. Charismatic lyric tenor Toby Spence sings Tito; dynamic, silken-voiced Alice Coote, who has thrilled Met audiences in several "pants roles," adds another as the Emperor's friend and rival, Sesto.
Inspired by another of Mozart's final works‹his powerful, enigmatic Requiem‹Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio and his New Zealand-based MAU company of two dozen Pacific Islander performers present the American premiere of a Requiem that Moss characterizes as "a remarkable soundscape, or assemblage"‹a piece transcending conventional categories of performance in presenting how a traditional culture deals with loss. Australasia will also be represented by public art installations by Australian video artist Lynette Wallworth: the interactive "Invisible by Night," dealing with the subject of grief, and "Hold: Vessel 1 and 2," a communal experience involving imagery drawn from nature. Housed in Frederick P. Rose Hall's Atrium Space, they will be accessible July 31-August 16 from noon to 10 p.m., closing at 6 p.m. on August 17.
For all her fresh programming, Moss stresses the festival's core. "Music by Mozart‹our primary source‹is always in good hands here; that is the heartbeat. We seek to make his musical presence very alive and of our time. In fact, there's more Mozart this summer than last summer. His music is as alive and as contemporary today as when it was written. Part of our contemporary focus is all of the artists of our own time who continue to be inspired by him."
Moss credits Louis Langr_e as having been "at the center of the transformation of Mostly Mozart via the quality, enthusiasm and engagement of the Festival Orchestra; without that element, the rest of the festival wouldn't work." The Ren_e and Robert Belfer Music Director leads four programs, including bracketing the festival with two programs linked with key profound Mozartean works: the chamber version of Das Lied von der Erde, featuring Anna Larsson and Paul Groves, paired with the 40th Symphony (July 29-30) and Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen, accompanied by the stunning Mass in C minor with vocalists that include Lisa Milne and William Ferguson (August 22-23).
Much else is packed into an exciting month, including appearances by two outstanding period ensembles, Rinaldo Alessandrini's Concerto Italiano and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Returning favorites include pianists Garrick Ohlsson and Jeremy Denk. Debuting artists besides Alessandrini include French conductor Lionel Bringuer and Czech maestro JirÐ Belohlšvek , German baritone Christian Gerhaher, French violinist Janine Jansen, Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku, Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo and Romanian pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa. Two film programs showcase Leonard Bernstein conducting a variety of Mozart works.
Moss and her team place in-depth background information and features onto the festival website, and she recommends consulting it to help choose and prepare for festival events, and to attend the many pre- and post-concert discussions scheduled throughout the festival. She encourages audiences not only to frequent beloved favorites but to court new aural experiences: "Choose that which is most unfamiliar to you: it will pay off every time." That kind of transformation‹the kind derived from encountering new artists and works, or new approaches to tradition‹can only promote gain.
David Shengold writes frequently about the arts.