Mostly Moonstruck at Lincoln Center

By Sedgwick Clark

Lincoln Center was once a place I avoided like the plague in the summer—staid programs, mediocre performances—but there’s no denying that the kinks have long been worked out of its two major summer festivals. One may have one’s likes and dislikes, as I expressed last week about three of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival offerings, but this series’ events have been imaginatively concocted from the very beginning, in 1996, under directors John Rockwell for the first two seasons and thence by Nigel Redden.

Lincoln Center’s long-popular Mostly Mozart Festival has been in good shape for so long that many New Yorkers have forgotten that the orchestra was a scrappy band of sight readers before Gerard Schwarz was named its first music director in 1984 after two years as music advisor, during which he had transformed its performance level and previously formulaic repertoire immeasurably. But even he eventually succumbed to the straitjacket of box-office demand (“The first concert to sell out is the all-Vivaldi one,” he once groaned to me with exasperation) and was controversially eased out by LC Artistic Director Jane Moss. French conductor Louis Langrée was enlisted as MM’s new music director, and he and Moss have varied both artists and repertoire quite successfully, on a consistently reliable performance level.

Take, for example, last Saturday’s canny non-Mozart program conducted by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä (MA’s Conductor of the Year in 2005). This was his first New York appearance since slaying the Tea Party union busters on the Minnesota Orchestra’s board of directors and triumphantly returning to his post as music director. All of the works were well known, yet together they seemed brand new. In Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto, and Beethoven’s Eighth, every instrumental choir spoke in perfect balance, revealing ear-opening details, sprightly rhythms, witty accentuation, and Vänskä’s trademark ability to coax feathery ppps from the strings. There were moments when more sound would have been desirable, but the results overall were so musical that complaints were minimal.

The astonishing 27-year-old pianist Yuja Wang was playing the concerto for only the fourth time, and she brought the house down midway in the concert with the parodic silent-movie burlesquerie of the Shostakovich concerto, scored for solo piano, strings, and trumpet (magnificently played by the London Symphony’s new first trumpet, Philip Cobb). Backstage afterwards I suggested that she should record the two Shostakovich concertos and she laughed, “The Second is too easy.” Well, he had composed it in the mid-Fifties for his young son, Maxim, but it’s a delightful piece, nonetheless. She had played the First at the Hollywood Bowl earlier in the summer along with Prokofiev’s saucily virtuosic First Concerto for the first time; seems to me that the two Shosta’s and the Prok First would make a great coupling. Then, as sales roll in, Deutsche Grammophon could pair her in Prok’s hugely virtuosic Second and Third concertos, and then finish the cycle with Prok’s Left-Hand (the Fourth) and Fifth and throw in Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto. What a great CD trio of 20th-century Russian piano classics!  Are you listening, DG?

The concert was short by current standards, and PK and I were strolling on Lincoln Center’s Plaza by 9:45. Happy visitors surrounded the fountain. A brilliant full moon was in perigee, and several members of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York were on hand with their telescopes to give onlookers the opportunity to view craters close-up. After taking a good look (the craters are most visible on the rim of the moon, we were reliably informed), we bought gelatos and settled down comfortably amidst the trees facing the Henry Moore sculpture in the reflecting pool and what Juilliard students have dubbed the “grassy knoll.” I must admit that the Center’s renovations have successfully opened up the original, clunky design of this part of the plaza, which is now more in tune with Eero Saarinen’s spacious Vivian Beaumont Theater design, which was always recognized as the most attractive building of the Center.

If regular readers suspect that I’ve lost my customarily jaundiced mind, all I can say is that such post-concert reverie must be the product of the music-making we had just heard.

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