The Mostly Mozart Festival, which had its origins as a summer concert series decades ago in the early years of New York’s Lincoln Center performing arts complex, skipped its 2020 season and returned with a abbreviated calendar in 2021 and this year.
There seems to be a question mark over the future of this feature of Lincoln Center’s summer lineup, an unwelcome sign of the continued devaluation of classical music and the music education that should come with it.
At the same time, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s 10-concert series at Alice Tully Hall over the current two-week period points in a more promising direction, one that appeals to wider audiences with unusual programs, without “dumb down” the art form. Last Saturday evening, in the middle of a week of heat waves, the Mostly Mozart ensemble presented one of these unusual programs to an enthusiastic audience. No doubt as part of an effort to expand its audience base, Lincoln Center, apparently for the first time, also offered ticket buyers a “choose what you pay” option, offering tickets for as as little as $5 for a good orchestra. .
The program started with Overriding message, a short work by Nokuthula Ngwenyama, a violist and composer of mixed Zimbabwean and Japanese ancestry. The work, which received its premiere in New York, and whose theme deals with the possibility of other forms of life in the universe, seduced from the first hearing.
This was followed by the evening’s saxophone soloist, Steven Banks, performing two works: the Concerto for saxophone and string orchestra by the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936), followed by Camera concertino by the French composer Jacques Ibert (1890-1962), for saxophone and a small ensemble including woodwinds and brass, in addition to strings.
Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which closed the program, is always welcome, but it was the two symphonic works for saxophone that attracted the most attention and were the heart of it.
The saxophone, a wind instrument that was not invented until the 1840s, has been most associated with jazz. Musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are inseparably identified with the saxophone.
The powerful and lively influence of jazz, first pioneered by African American performers and/or composers like Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, found its way into classical music during the third and fourth decades. of the 20th century. At this time, the popular jazz craze in the United States and Europe was at its peak.
Composers like George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud and many others ignored or dismissed the sneers of those who claimed that jazz idioms and rhythms had no place in their music.
It is no coincidence that the works by Glazunov and Ibert presented at the Mostly Mozart concert were composed in the 1930s – Glazunov’s in 1934 and Ibert’s only a year later. Relatively few classical works have incorporated the instrument. Debussy Rhapsody for saxophone and orchestra is a. Ravel’s Orchestration of Mussorgsky Pictures at an exhibition uses a saxophone, like Prokofiev does Lieutenant Kije Suite, which also dates from the 1930s. The important Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos composed for the saxophone. In recent decades, more and more composers have used the instrument. Notably, John Adams composed a saxophone concerto.
Glazunov’s concerto is a relatively short work, lasting about 15 minutes. It is largely in the romantic style for which the composer was known, in works like Seasonsthe Raymonde ballet and its eight symphonies. Glazunov came of age during the time of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. He was always seen as a musical conservative, a view that gained currency in the 20th century.
The composer, born in Saint Petersburg, was over 50 at the time of the October Revolution. He remained in Russia during the early years of the Soviet Union (and headed the Leningrad Conservatory when Shostakovich was a student there). Although Glazunov left the USSR in 1928, he never took an anti-Soviet stance, as did his compatriots Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky.
Given his traditionalism, Glazunov’s attraction to the saxophone in the last years of his life is all the more striking. It was a famous German saxophonist who pushed the composer to use the instrument, although Glazunov died before he could hear a performance of his concerto. The concerto remains perhaps the most performed classical work for saxophone today.
Steven Banks brought a modern sensibility to the work, emphasizing its jazzy rhythms and playing it at a slightly faster tempo than usual. The saxophone occupies a particularly important place in this work for string orchestra, with its playful passages and its many solo passages reminiscent of a cadenza, and which ends with a great flourish.
Jacques Ibert was a generation younger than Glazunov, and that quarter century made a big difference in the musical influences he absorbed as he embarked on his own career as a composer. The influence of jazz is undeniable in the concertino. Ibert was comfortable and far more familiar with jazz than Glazunov, who was nearly 70 when he composed his concerto. While that doesn’t make Glazunov’s work any less appealing in its own way, a modern listener immediately warms to the palpable excitement and verve in Ibert’s work.
The combination of instruments is important here. The flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and trumpet give extraordinary color and variety to the score. The work, also lasting less than 15 minutes, is in two movements. In the midst of its wind colleagues, the saxophone hovers and dominates everything, almost from the first bars.
Ibert had an intriguing life and career. One of his first orchestral pieces, composed in 1920, was based on the work of Oscar Wilde The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), written while Wilde was incarcerated. Ibert’s music was banned by the pro-Nazi Vichy government in 1940 and he eventually moved to Switzerland for the duration of the war. He has written the music for many films, including works by Julien Duvivier, GW Pabst, Maurice Tourneur and Marc Allégret. He notably composed the music of Orson Welles macbeth (1948) and Gene Kelly’s “Circus” segment Invitation to dance (1952).
Banks, winner of the first prize at the 2019 International Young Concert Artists Audition, the first time a saxophonist has been awarded this honor, was an extraordinary performer in the two saxophone works on the program.
Considering the role of jazz in the July 23 broadcast, the international experience of its key participants was relevant and significant. On the podium was Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang, currently the highly regarded music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. As noted above, the composer of the opening work has mixed South African-Japanese ancestry. The works for saxophone were composed by a Russian and a Frenchman. And the saxophone soloist, Steven Banks, is African American.
This program shows, according to this writer, how music from the first half of the 20th century should be played more often. For important historical reasons, the promising trends of this period – including clashes of different styles and approaches – were followed by a period of relative musical sterility after World War II. The composition of classical music today suffers from many of the same ills as in other spheres of cultural life, but the work of a century ago retains considerable value and interest today.