15th season for New York's widely imitated Mostly Mozart series

It hardly seems possible that the Mostly Mozart Festival is in its 15th season of flourishing activity. It has been widely imitated, has one "official" offshoot in San Francisco (though it is independent of the original), and has become an indispensable part of the New York summer music scene -- arguably the onlym part.

When I talked to festival director William J. Lockwood Jr. five years ago around the 10th anniversary, Lincoln Center's offices were in a bright, sunny, spiffy new building on Broadway. The offices are less bright, and the light is now all artificial, since to save money they have been relocated to Lincoln Center, under the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the Footlights Cafe used to reign.

The trappings may have changed, Mr. Lockwood's office may have become less tidy, but Mr. Lockwood still retains his youthful air. His face captures a paradoxical mix of quizzical and knowing, a perpetual wonderment. One might think him quite absent- minded, yet his recall on any number of topics, including, not surprisingly, his own festival, is thorough and minute.

I asked him what the original idea had been behind the festival, and Mr. Lockwood recounted that "the idea was to do something in the summer to keep Philharmonic Hall [now Avery Fisher] open rather than dark. The idea was also to do something different, on our own, with our own money." Even in the mid-'60s , music was not a summer thing in the Big Apple, though arts organizations were increasingly expanding to 52-week years for patrons and employees.

The specifications were numerous. It had to be imaginative , inventive. A consortium of Lincoln Center officials decided to narrow it to one composer who could be performed in depth. Mozart was the only one who consistently fit all the requirements. The first two summers, Lockwood recalls, were all Mozart, and were called "Midsummer Serenades." In 1968, Haydn was let in the back door. The name Mostly Mozart became official in 1970. It was trademarked a few seasons ago. (The San Francisco "offshoot," in fact, has licensed the name from the New York office.) "Such projects have our blessing if it is clear the quality will be high."

One of Mostly Mozart's strongest drawing cards is the ticket price -- a flat when music festival tickets at Tanglewood can go as high as $30, and in Europe well over $90, $8 seems almost inconsequential.

And if one buys a coupon book, one gets 10 tickets for $65. That coupon book remains a novel approach to the problem of subscription. Instead of actually ordering a set series of concerts, the patron can pretty much pick and choose, either by mail in advance or at the box office. When they were first offered, 1 ,500 were printed.Now 7,000 have been printed, and many concerts have been sold out by mail. It couldn't be more successful.

This year a seventh week has been added, and most seats have been gobbled up. Most concerts are either sold out or very close to it. Lockwood observes that chamber concerts sell out faster than orchestral. An event like the Ax-Kim-Ma Trio concert or the big-guns Rampal, Zukerman (husband and wife) and friends went almost immediately. The slowest concerts are the Friday-Saturday orchestral offerings. People wait for the very last minute in case the weather promises a beach weekend.Last year, of 96,000 tickets available for the summer all but 1,000 were sold. This year, there are 113,000 to sell, and it looks very much like the 99 percent capacity will be repeated.

Success, success. Is there no end to it? Actually, Lockwood gets rather subdued as the subject of erosion of popularity is broached. He readily admits that the coupon books have just about reached the saturation point. He also forever frets about the freshness of repertoire and roster of performers.

Time and again, he noted that it would be so easy to just recycle concertos, symphonies, and quartets, and that the festival planners assiduously attempt to avoid it. Of course, this worry is tenored by an increasingly interesting roster of younger artists and established ones.Alicia de Larrocha became a popular favorite early on in the festival's history, and the festival was the main reason her career catapulted into superstardom. She and Jean-Pierre Rampal are perennials. Others who are becoming perennials are Emanuel Ax, Garrick Ohlsson, Alexander Schneider, conductors James Conlon and Michael Tilson Thomas -- the list is long, illustrious.

And what of the concerts themselves? The orchestra gets better every year. This season, at the opening concert, Leonard Slatkin got sounds out of the musicians one used to hear only in leading orchestras. At the end of the opening week, Slatkin offered a Haydn 93rd symphony (D major) of tremendous style and vigor.

In fact, his was a model concert on all counts, opening with a wistful, imposing reading of the "Cosi fan tutte" overture, and closing with that handsome Haydn -- a symphony so many conductors choose to overlook. In between, Mr. Ax joined Mr. Slatkin in a reliable performance of the Piano Concerto in B flat, K. 456, undermined by a blatty sounding instrument. Cho-liang Lin offered the Violin Concerto No. 5 (in A, K. 219), in a stirring, large-toned, superbly intoned account. The sound he gets from his instrument is pure, resonant, potent yet transparent. At this point, however, he does not use it to reveal the animating force of the composer.

Nor could only turn to Shlomo Mintz for any insight into Mozart as a violin composer.In a program performed by the excellent Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Jorge Mester conducting, Mintz seemed to put on his best romantic cloak -- rather as if he were playing Max Bruch -- and swamped the beautiful Fourth Concerto (in D, K.218) in a wash of highly virtuosic, musically shallow, even empty playing. He is mightily gifted, just not ready to put that gift to the service of such supreme and exacting masters as Mozart.

The Aspen players play far better than did the Mostly Mozart orchestra when I first heard it a good six or seven years back. But these students could not sustain the Mozart G minor Symphony, No. 40, K. 550, nor did Mester have enough of interest to say about the work. But all worked well in the String Divertimento K. 138 and in the patrician account of the K. 271 Piano Concerto (E flat) with the elegant Lillian Kallir at the keyboard.

The opening chamber concerts featured two of the most popular younger trios in the country today -- the Joseph Kalichstein- Jaime Laredo-Sharon Robinson Trio and the Emanuel Ax-Young-Uck Kim-Yo-Yo Ma Trio. The groups offer an intriguing contrast. The latter group probes and explores the music, wrestling and elucidating. The former merely play. It is the contrast between commitment and something to do, between embracing a work and merely playing it through.

Michael Tilson Thomas's program offered another stimulating evening, this time of Mozart, Beethoven, and Salieri (the latter in vogue as the protagonist of Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus").

The frosting of the concert was Thomas's vital, vibrant account of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony, where a chamber orchestra sounded twice as large as it might have. This young maestro has evolved from a gifted Wunderkindm to a mature maestro, and the transformation is gratifying.

Clearly, excellence reigns at Mostly Mozart. What "tricks" does Lockwood have up his sleeve beyond the maintaining of this artistic excellence and interesting, often intriguing programming? (Where else is one going to hear Salieri this summer?) Lockwood would like to see the current four records involving the festival orchestra expand. He would also like to see Alice Tully Hall become the chamber hall and Avery Fisher Hall become the main orchestral hall, so that intensive looks at Mozart's ("and others'") chamber works can be programmed, as well as forays into original instrument performance traditions -- baroque ensembles, Mozart fortepiano recitals, etc.

It is dependent on finding sufficient funding to absorb the increased costs of sustaining two halls simultaneously. This year the deficit will be $362,000 before contributions based on 80 percent capacity, Lockwood observes. "It is so obvious that Tully is the next big move for the festival to make."

Meanwhile, the order of business is to "see that [the festival] holds its own and stays fresh -- new performers, new pieces on every program -- a matter of keeping the 'formula' in flux." As this and every other past year attest, Bill Lockwood need not fret unduly.Mostly Mozart is an institution dearly loved by its supporters, and quality reigns, so that even the doubting are won over at just about every encounter.

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