When I reached Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday morning at 8:45, the line for the evening's free Mostly Mozart concert had already snaked around the corner onto 66th Street and had continued lengthening even as I watched. It was another hour and a half before the box office began distributing tickets and by then the line was several blocks long, but it had been a pleasant enough summer morning to sit and read my book while waiting.
The concert itself was not full length but a shortened "preview" without intermission that featured works by Mozart, Gluck and Berlioz performed by the festival orchestra under that baton of its music director Louis Langrée. If there were a theme to the evening's selections, it was one of lurid melodrama as the orchestra explored first the story of a seducer dragged off to hell by an avenging spirit amid a barrage of pyrotechnics followed by the opium dream of a young man so maddened by his passion for his unrequited love that he imagined himself poisoning her.
The program opened with the overture to Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. The overture was the last piece of music composed for the opera and was famously completed only hours before the opening night performance. The musicians at the Prague premiere were not even given the chance to go over the music before having to play it before an audience. Nevertheless, this was a thrilling work in which Mozart sounded the theme of the divine retribution that would be visited upon his anti-hero when that character refused to repent for his crimes. In many ways, this was for the time a very modern approach that emphasized the autonomy of the individual who refused to be bound by conventional morality and instead chose to follow his own destiny no matter the consequences.
The next work was the final scene from Gluck's 1761 ballet Don Juan. Not surprisingly, the plot of the ballet was very similar to that of the Mozart's opera. By the time it was composed, the story of the unrepentant seducer had become - especially in Italy, as noted by Goethe - an extremely popular entertainment beloved by the public for its hellfire ending. As Rodney Bolt noted in his biography of Lorenzo Da Ponte, The Librettist of Venice:
"The original Spanish tale of a lascivious aristocrat who meets his doom dated back 150 years to Tirso de Molina's El burlador de Sevilla, and had appeared in a variety of versions, including at least four operas, countless puppet shows, plays by Molière and Goldini, and a ballet by Gluck."
It was interesting at this concert to hear Gluck's music played side by side with that which Mozart wrote more than a quarter century later. The similarities were at once obvious as it was clear that both composers had attempted to find the most terrifying musical description available to accompany the climactic scene of eternal damnation. Though Gluck's technique was masterful and innovative, especially in its use of trombones, it was Mozart's music that was the more sophisticated and thoughtful as he explored the fate of his protagonist with what amounted almost to sympathy.
The last time I had heard Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique was only in May when I saw the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra perform it at Carnegie Hall with Mariss Jansons conducting. As I wrote in my post describing that performance, the work was most definitely intended as a self-portrait. Here, Berlioz clearly identified himself with the suffering Romantic hero who underwent unimaginable pain and even death at the guillotine for the sake of his all-consuming love. In that sense, the hero of Berlioz' symphony was the spiritual heir to Don Giovanni himself. There was no sense of repentance or self-doubt in evidence as the composer's alter ego waited for his death sentence to be carried out. Instead, he was inspired by a final vision of his dead beloved. The Romantic undercurrent that was only implicit in the music of Gluck and Mozart was here fully manifested.
The Mostly Mozart Orchestra, though obviously not a world class ensemble on the level of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, nevertheless gave a rousing and fully satisfying rendition of the program. The percussion section, in particular, was very strong in its performance of the Berlioz. Conductor Langrée should be given a great deal of credit for eliciting from the orchestra members such truly excellent playing. He used their talents to the fullest, and the entire ensemble richly deserved the standing ovation they received at the end of the concert.