Classical music has a hazy future in Lincoln Center summers

Opera theater

The day had been hot and humid. But a light breeze was blowing through Lincoln Center as the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra took the stage in Damrosch Park on Tuesday night.

Pianist Conrad Tao played an elegantly unflappable Mozart concerto and a dreamy “Rhapsody in Blue.” Other than a sprinkling of small performances last summer, this orchestra hadn’t been together since 2019, but it sounded cozy and spirited.

In just three years, the group has become an anachronism. The festival for which it is named — Lincoln Center’s first summer event before the pandemic — is no more. Central Summer, once a messy assortment of competing series and festivals, has finally been streamlined under a single label: “Summer for the City.”

Planned by Lincoln Center President Henry Timms and its artistic chief since last year, Shanta Thake, Summer for the City hoisted a disco ball 10 feet above the plaza’s fountain and includes projections of outdoor movies, spoken word, social dancing, comedy shows, and an ASL version of “Sweeney Todd.”

Five of New York’s dance companies will come together next month for a few days of performances. And from Friday, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra moves inside Alice Tully Hall for five programs: 10 concerts over two weeks.

But despite this busy little orchestral season, other musical experiences that once appeared under the Mostly Mozart rubric have disappeared with the name – including guest ensembles, intimate recitals and new music that stems from the classical tradition and is embodied by the International Contemporary Ensemble, long in residence at the festival but absent this year.

Up in the air is the ultimate destiny of the Mostly Mozart Orchestra, a high-quality, carefully constructed and expensive band whose musical director, Louis Langrée, has been on his podium since 2002. Although Thake told the orchestra on Friday that it would be a summer party next year, things get hazier beyond that. And while its vision for the season is still in development, this first iteration seems to have intentionally departed from the musical and performance swaths that have been central to the center’s identity for decades.

Which isn’t to say Lincoln Center summers were just one thing. As Joseph W. Polisi, longtime president of the Juilliard School, describes in “Beacon to the World: A History of Lincoln Center,” recently published by Yale University Press, the initial idea was that the center’s programming would take place mainly in the summer, so as not to compete in the fall and spring with the constituent organizations it owns, such as the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

When designing the campus, summer was envisioned as a good time for folk operas and musicals, like “Oklahoma!” or Copland’s “The Tender Land,” or maybe a film festival; it is in the DNA that the centre’s summer offer is ambitious but accessible, populist but serious.

Although Summer for the City is largely outdoors, the novelty of those early years was to be on the inside: Midsummer Serenades — A Mozart Festival, which began in 1966 and was renamed Mostly Mozart six years later, was the first festival in New York to take place in an air-conditioned hall.

The campus street/community theater festival of the early 1970s morphed a few years later into Lincoln Center Out of Doors, a free, outdoor, and eclectic mix of Hispanic and bluegrass ballet, string quartets, and a doo-wop opera, and possibly a social dance aid like Midsummer Night’s Swing.

Most of the time, Mozart grew to be seen as dull and apathetic in this business. When Jane Moss – like Thake, a rookie from outside classical music – became the center’s artistic director in the early 1990s, it was thought that part of her mandate was to weed it out. After the founding of the Lincoln Center Festival, which hosted ambitious international touring productions, in the mid-1990s, Mostly Mozart, which had once lasted up to nine weeks, was reduced from seven to four. A musicians’ strike in 2002 was another existential crisis.

But instead of staffing Mostly Mozart, Moss took a firmer hand with programming, hired Langrée as a partner, and expanded the offerings — eventually to something closer to Slightly Mozart. In 2017, amid budget and management crises, the Lincoln Center Festival folded, and Mostly Mozart had to increase by as much as 50% to partially compensate. The festival orchestra entered the opera pit for the first time in 2019; there were dance theater productions and the New York premiere of “The Black Clown”; Langrée’s contract was renewed until 2023.

During the center’s pandemic silence in 2020, however, Moss decided to step down. And here we are: Mostly Mozart, instead of being expanded, has been eliminated.

In a joint interview with Timms, Thake said this year’s summer for the city shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the blueprint for all to come. “It’s definitely a unique moment,” she said. “We are coming out of a two-year pandemic. This is our first full expression of what is possible.

Referring to the centre’s Restart Stages initiative from 2021, she added: ‘There has been some proven success in experimentation. What you’re seeing this year is a continued explosion of form, and putting it all under one umbrella.

Summer for the City has the spunky vibe of Joe’s Pub, the cabaret space that Thake ran, as well as other public theater initiatives like Under the Radar and Public Works, before she was hired by Lincoln Center. It also feels like a throwback to the community/street theater festival and Out of Doors tradition of the early 70s.

It can produce wonderful programming and a lot of civic good. Growing up just outside the city, I found Midsummer Night’s Swing – with its tango and salsa crowd – exciting and glamorous, the definition of a summer night in New York.

But those offerings existed in an ecosystem in which classical music — interpreted broadly in terms of style, period, and form — was another mainstay, not a fringe.

Thake insisted in the interview that classic programming has found its way into Summer for the City in a more varied and informal way: in accompaniment to blood drives and a mass wedding ceremony, and in the form music and meditation sessions in the David Atrium Rubenstein.

Timms added: “In terms of volume, probably the amount of classical music shown hasn’t changed much. The nature of it has changed, to some extent, but not fundamentally.

Uh-huh.

The two leaders hinted that the redesign of summer pulls the center more towards the role of host, welcoming as many people as possible to campus, while the constituent organizations manage or at least share the presentation – especially in the classical sphere. The idea, for example, is that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s small Summer Evenings concert series can essentially take care of what was once Mostly Mozart’s cozy A Little Night Music series, as well as his other solo and chamber events.

The danger, of course, is that by reducing layoffs and internal competition, the city will simply end up with less.

It’s true that the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s compressed season — which began with a week of mentorship and performances alongside student musicians — promises to showcase talented young artists. On August 5 and 6, Langrée conducts Mozart’s Requiem, a few days before the arrangement of this work by Jlin is the score of Kyle Abraham’s recent dance “Requiem: fire in the air of the earth” – the genre of artistic cross-pollination which should be the core business of the centre.

Most importantly, the Orchestra’s concerts at Tully are choose what you pay for, a ticketing philosophy that should be a model for the center’s year-round. A range of excellent music, painstakingly curated and performed at the highest level at affordable prices: that’s real populism.

Instead, classical music, even in its still struggling nonprofit form, is presented as the elitist hegemon for which more fervent alternatives must be found – certainly if vaunted “new audiences” are going to be attracted. .

But classic programming shouldn’t be seen as a chore, or a bone thrown at a declining audience – a familiar rather than a “new” audience. No, serious performance is a gem, of which Lincoln Center is one of the few remaining supreme presenters. Conrad Tao playing Mozart with a superb orchestra for free or at low cost: this is the heart of the centre’s mission. His job is to cultivate audiences and increase access to this.

This does not mean that change is impossible. Is a resident orchestra with an appointed music director the only way to fulfill Lincoln Center’s mission? Maybe not. But is there a way to program such an orchestra to be an integral part of a diverse and adventurous summer season? Yes. Could it be paired with opera, recitals, new music and guest ensembles to expand on what I think Timms and Thake are trying to do: foster inexpensive interactions with great performances? Absolutely.

“We still have our feet under us,” Thake said. “And to review, how to continue to be reactive? How can we get through this season and get an idea of ​​what worked, what didn’t, what’s next for all of us? »