Mostly Mozart Festival: cool draw to a city during summer

The Mostly Mozart Festival, now in its 21st season, presents an astonishing amount of music in the course of its seven-week season. Happily, the standard performance in this six- to seven-night-a-week festival has remained high enough for it to be a popular summertime draw for both New Yorkers and national or international tourists. Music lovers have come to count on being able to spend several days or even a long weekend with favorite soloists and chamber musicians in the air-conditioned comfort of Avery Fisher Hall.

Music director Gerard Schwarz is once again conducting half of the Festival Orchestra's scheduled programs. Thanks to him, the ensemble has improved in quality, and he continues to go against current orchestral practice by seating the violins in classical formation - firsts on his left, seconds on his right - rather than in a solid lump on his left. This brings out the melodic counterpoint crucial to so much music.

Mr. Schwarz is, in many ways, the ideal Mostly Mozart music director, for he is easily able to cope with the workload - cranking out two programs a week, each one lasting some 2 hours with intermission. He is not always the most provocative of musicians, but he knows his styles thoroughly, is an efficient user of limited rehearsal space, and suggests the sort of panache that other conductors on the same podium have lacked.

He is even able to cope with last-minute cancellations that would tend to disrupt such a tightly run festival more than most. Despite losing both Jean-Pierre Rampal and Marilyn Horne for the first concerts, the program was smoothly revised to include both violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the Mozart 20th Symphony (planned for the following program). And we still heard the originally announced Mozart 39th Symphony, Mozart's Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K.467, and pianist Alicia de Larrocha.

For me, Mostly Mozart has always been at its best in the concertos, and no soloist has become more identified with the festival than Miss de Larrocha. It is safe to say that without her commitment in the early years, the festival probably would not have become as established as it is today. And she rarely disappoints. In her account of Mozart's 21st Concerto, grace and flashes of brilliance were the norm. There were frequent tempo disagreements between keyboard and podium, but invariably de Larrocha kept the upper hand.

Miss Salerno-Sonnenberg offered the first Bach Violin Concerto (A minor, BWV 1041) in a rather peculiar study in contrasts: Schwarz strove for a medium-ground approach, pretty but not too romanticized; Salerno-Sonnenberg took a flat-out emotive approach better suited to the music of Bruch than to Bach, and one that interfered with her consistency as a player.

She covered her youthful deficiencies with an arsenal of lurches, dance steps, and grimaces that may not be altogether self-conscious, yet are nevertheless distracting. Clearly, Salerno-Sonnenberg, subject of an enormous publicity campaign, has exceptional talent. But she needs to concentrate on polish, consistency, and a calming stage manner - qualities that will aid her communication of internal, rather than external, musical values.

The playing of the Mozart 20th Symphony was exceedingly low key and marred by wind problems - particularly the oboes - that did not let up all night. If this orchestra is ever to become an important ensemble rather than just utilitarian, Schwarz will have to take up the issue of personnel to determine what changes should be made.

Festival highlights

For the rest of the season, the lineup looks strong in soloists: cellist Janos Starker and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman (July 28-29); Alicia de Larrocha (July 31 and Aug. 1); and violinist Henryk Szeryng (Aug. 7-8), among others. De Larrocha's annual recital is Aug. 6.

Special group appearances include the Beaux Arts Trio (July 20), the Tokyo String Quartet (Aug. 3), the Ax-Kim-Ma Trio (Aug. 20), and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner (July 26).

Musical events of particular interest include concert performances of the Mozart orchestration of Handel's ``Acis and Galatea'' (Aug. 4-5), Mozart's opera ``Il re pastore'' (Aug. 13 and 15), and Helmuth Rilling leading two performances of Bach's B-minor Mass (tomorrow and Saturday).

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