© New York Times, 07/31/2003

ith its labor problems in abeyance, with its air-conditioning system in top form and with a new music director in tow, the Mostly Mozart Festival opened its season at Avery Fisher Hall on Tuesday night. Television cameras whirred. A mostly elegant crowd, its appetites appeased by preconcert banqueting in the lobby, was in attendance.

The conductor (Louis Langrée) may be new, but the music was not, this in accordance with standing Mostly Mozart policy. The hot days and humid nights of midsummer Manhattan do not encourage musical arousal; better the soothing familiarities of Mozart's Overture to "Le Nozze di Figaro" and the Beethoven Fourth Symphony. With them came the added sideshow of Lang Lang at the piano. There was to be some Mozart arcana (relative rarities at least), but Stephanie Blythe, the mezzo-soprano, took ill at a late hour, and two arias from "La Clemenza di Tito" were scratched. Mr. Lang filled in the blank spaces with Liszt's long elaboration on Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

Mr. Lang is one response to the classical-music doldrums, having won a breathless following by repeating familiar piano concertos with startling virtuosity. Given the right talent, it is an excellent strategy. The audience, knowing the pieces by heart, can then devote its full attention to the performer. On Tuesday it was Mendelssohn's G minor Concerto serving as Mr. Lang's billboard. The young man put into its three movements as much heartfelt gesture as this tightly wound piece would allow, and actually the built-in restraints of Mendelssohn's cooler approach did him a favor, letting us truly appreciate an extraordinary control of the instrument and a collection of tender musical instincts.

Liszt's music, in its over-the-top mode, invites on the other hand the kind of athleticism visited on it here. Mr. Lang crashed and banged, raced and whirled, sighed and moaned. One sensed the faint smell of sawdust in the air, and Tuesday's audience, up for a good time, hung on every fast-moving note. Maybe a little vulgar excess is just what classical music needs. Mr. Langrée's formula for excitement is speed. The Mozart overture whizzed along. The Beethoven symphony's finale was pushed to its structural limits; even the slow movement, never meant to linger, accelerated to a trot. Fortunately, Mr. Langrée had the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in front of him: compact in number, highly talented and ready for every race their conductor set them off on. More Mostly Mozart concerts are scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

- Frank B.
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