This year’s Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center opened on Tuesday evening and, to put it encouragingly, there will certainly be room for improvement as the festival continues. (The present review relates to Wednesday’s performance of the same works.) The all-Mozart opening program featured two soloists who raised the level of artistry by varying degrees in their respective performances, but in the two symphonic works, Maestro Louis Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra seemed a bit detached from the task at hand. The result – in my book, a cardinal sin of music performance – was that Mozart sounded boring.

A fixture of the New York music scene since 1966, the Mostly Mozart Festival presents four weeks of concerts each summer featuring the MMF Orchestra (traditionally including members of the New York Philharmonic) and a long list of guests, among them conductors, vocalists, and instrumentalists whose US debuts at the festival led to stellar careers. Since assuming the post of Music Director in 2002, Mr. Langrée has creatively broadened the festival’s programming around its Classical base; this year much of the repertoire revolves around the theme of “birds”, with works by Jonathan Harvey, Bartók, and Olivier Messiaen.

Considering my high expectations, ineffectual interpretive choices (or else complete non-commitment) were glaring from the outset. Mr. Langrée led a dispirited and disjointed overture to La clemenza di Tito, never really succeeding in unifying the orchestra behind any expressive ideas. Perhaps it would work in a venue with rich acoustics to take long pauses such as he did in the first few measures, but it didn’t serve the music well in Avery Fisher Hall. More importantly, Mr. Langrée and his musicians struggled to agree on one organic pulse throughout the overture, a problem that persisted the entire evening.

This lack of rhythmic conviction was out of the spotlight a bit in the works immediately before and after intermission, the Piano Concerto in D minor and two vocal works: “Misero! o sogno… Aura che intorni spiri” and “Un’ aura amorosa”. The first of the soloists, pianist Nelson Freire, was phenomenal, as he usually is. Mozart famously wrote in a letter to his father that he felt his music “should flow like oil”, and there was no better metaphor for Mr. Freire’s take on this piece. His playing reveled in an unforced tone and supple phrasing, achieving a profoundly difficult degree of subtlety with apparent ease. (Mr. Freire tried for more flexibility, pushing ahead at certain moments of escalating musical tension, but unfortunately his accompanists were unresponsive, and so his interpretive choices were subjected to tempi which, when not outright dragging, were rather dull and rigid.) The choice of cadenzas, Guiomar Novaës’s modifications of those by Carl Reinecke, complemented Mr. Freire’s naturally good taste.

Lawrence Brownlee, the tenor soloist, was strong as well, although not nearly as breathtaking an artist as Mr. Freire. The two arias on the program (the first with a lengthy, pseudo-accompanied recitative introduction) dated from different points in Mozart’s career, and were written for different circumstances as well. “Misero! o sogno…”, was written in 1783 to showcase the tenor Johann Valentin Adamberger, with whom Mozart had collaborated before. The later of the two vocal pieces, “Un’ aura amorosa”, was excerpted from the 1790 opera Così fan tutte for concert performance. In both pieces, Mr. Brownlee was technically fantastic, effortlessly in command of a big, warm voice that was unwavering from the bottom to the top of his range. In other words: vocally ideal.

He seemed, however, to have caught the bug that also ailed Mr. Langrée and the orchestra; Mr. Brownlee reflected much of their propensity to play every note at a uniform dynamic and with equal rhythmic importance. Not to wax philosophical, but if every note is “important”, then none truly is. This effectively robbed the music of that speech-like quality so evident in all of Mozart’s music, not just music with texted vocal parts.

The concluding work on this program, the glorious “Prague” Symphony, was most damaged by this lack of dynamic and rhythmic shading. Perhaps it was assumed that for the opening concert of a festival with “Mozart” in its title, the audience would react enthusiastically (many did anyway); maybe someone figured that attractive advertising and intimate stage seating under stylish lighting fixtures would add to the “interest” of the concert; possibly the orchestra was not given adequate rehearsal time. Or maybe it was simply an uninspired evening, an anomaly. In any case, it was not up to par for a major New York festival, a fact that one would hope did not go unnoticed.

**111