The New York based Mostly Mozart Festival is easily overshadowed by Tanglewood Summer Season at the same time in Massachusetts, but it would be careless to underestimate its quality. The programme on August 5th, 2011 banished any doubt about its ability to live up to world standards.

© Bill Phelps
© Bill Phelps

Conductor for the evening was Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado. Although he is less flamboyant and a few years older than his Venezuelan counterpart Gustavo Dudamel, the sensitive and delicate yet cogent delivery he was able to coax out of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra reminded me of a performance I heard with Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic last year.

Often dubbed “ouvertures”, a French term fashionable at the time, the four orchestral suites Bach composed are perhaps best described as dance tunes with twists. They contain fresh musical ideas extraneous to simple court entertainment pieces while preserving the dance routine. The Ouverture No. 4 in D, BWV 1069, may not contain such popular melody as “Air on the G string” in the Ouverture No 3, BWV 1068, but it does have the most elaborate instrumentation.

Always mindful of the gaiety of the underlying dance rhythm, especially in the spritely final movement Réjouissance, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s interpretation was elegant and dignified. The brass and percussion added colour to the stately grace of the dances, without stuffy majesty or regal aloofness. On the contrary, the soft and gentle tone of the strings did much to bring the audience close to the orchestra in an air of intimacy, despite the size of the concert hall. Was it because all players except the cellists were standing?

His Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 is perhaps the single work that defines German composer Max Bruch. According to the programme notes, it is one of the five great violin concertos by composers of the 19th century. Yet unlike Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, Bruch does not have other compositions immediately identifiable with him. Paul Schivo attributes this in the programme notes to the fact that Bruch wrote mostly choral works for a limited audience, and that his preference was for mastery rather than innovation.

Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 clearly demands virtuosity from the soloist. Superb technique, however, was not the most remarkable aspect of Joshua Bell’s performance. For him, flawless technical execution was almost a given. What set him apart was ability to express depth of emotional distress inherent in the work without degenerating into mawkishness. This was most notable in the slow second movement, which has a tinge of decadent romanticism redolent of the Adagietto in Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

The sweet and polished tone of his Stradivarius projected hopeful beauty in a work with tragic undertones. His rapport with the orchestra was seamless. Not for a moment did he allow individual technical prowess to be overly assertive or outshine the orchestra. Joshua Bell deserved the rapturous standing ovation he received.

The final work in the programme, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550, is one of three the composer finished in a short span of six weeks in the summer of 1788. Only two among symphonies generally attributed to Mozart are in minor key – both G minor – and Symphony No. 40 is sometimes referred to as the “Great G minor” to distinguish it from Symphony No. 25, the “Little G minor”.

I often think of the first movement as a hot spring with bubbles constantly rising to the surface. The opening theme on the upper strings surges repeatedly above the rumbling accompaniment figure in the lower strings. It is more angst-ridden than most of Mozart’s other works, but describing it “dark”, as some commentators have done, goes overboard. Schuman’s description of “Grecian lightness and grace” is more to the mark.

The tone that the orchestra struck in the Mozart symphony was somewhere between the dignified elegance of the Bach Ouverture and the anguish of the Bruch violin concerto. A mild sense of grief and introspection never overflowed into self-pity. Like a well groomed gentleman with not a hair out of place, the orchestra was in wholesome unity with none of the instruments being out of step. Even the woodwinds, which often become too chirpy, kept themselves in check and blended smoothly into the tapestry. The only flaw was Pablo Heras-Casado’s tempo, a fraction too fast, especially in the minuet third movement, for my liking.

Listening to the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado was like having candy floss on a stroll in the summer breeze – light, sweet and refreshing.