Yesterday evening, the Mostly Mozart Orchestra performed a free concert at Avery Fisher Hall. This "preview" has become an annual event - this was its tenth anniversary - and obtaining tickets has itself evolved into something of a summer ritual. Lines begin forming hours before the box office opens; by 10 o'clock a huge crowd of classical music lovers fills the plaza as they wait for tickets to be distributed. Standing (or sitting) in line while reading a book or talking with one's neighbor can be an enjoyable experience, especially when the weather is as fine as it was yesterday morning.
The program at this abbreviated concert consisted of only two works and was performed without intermission. The composers featured were Mozart and Brahms.
The program opened with Mozart's Symphony No. 34 in C major, K. 338 (1780). The work was written at a particularly frustrating point in the composer's career. He had already spent several years traveling through Europe in search of employment and had only just returned to Salzburg in 1779 to take up the position of concertmaster that his father had manged to secure for him during his absence. But Mozart had no intention of remaining in such a confining environment. His patron, Archbishop Colloredo, showed no appreciation of his talent and - even worse for one who aspired to compose operas - the court theater had recently closed. In 1781, Mozart relocated permanently to Vienna.
In spite of all the bitterness Mozart experienced during this period, the K. 338 is an unusually exuberant work. It is in three movements, rather than four, a somewhat outdated format that had already fallen out of fashion in the more progressive capitals of Europe but was still in vogue in backward Salzburg. The key of C major in which the symphony was written was in German music generally reserved for festive occasions and would be used again by Mozart in his final symphony, the 41st. The music also shows the clear influence of the Italian overture, the sinfonia. This was not at all unusual in Mozart's output during these years. He had traveled extensively in Italy from 1769 to 1771 and had brought back with him a profound sense of that country's musical styles that was to permeate much of his later Salzburg work. This can be seen as early as the Symphony No. 3, K. 138 written in 1772.
The next and final work was Brahms's Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885). It presented a startling contrast to the Mozart. The Brahms is a dark funereal work in the most literal sense of the term. Some critics have gone so far as to discern within it an anticipation of the bleak fin de siècle mood that was to characterize Viennese music in the following decade. This negative outlook can be seen most readily in the final movement passacaglia that concludes the symphony; there is not trace of hope to found within it, only an expression of utter despair in the E minor ending. It's notable that the Second Viennese School composers were in the twentieth century to make extensive use of the passacaglia in their own work and one can only conjecture to what extent these artists found their source of inspiration in this somber Brahms masterpiece.
Though the Mostly Mozart Orchestra displayed a great deal of enthusiasm in their approach to the music, they are not a world class ensemble. I found the Mozart piece enjoyable, although I was horrified when music director Langrée picked up the microphone in mid-performance in order to give an aside to the audience. As for the Brahms, the orchestra tried hard but were beyond their depth and failed to master the full complexity of this extremely difficult work.