Friday, July 17, 2009

Was Mozart a Sociopath?

Posted By on Fri, Jul 17, 2009 at 1:49 PM

db14/1247851837-amadeus2.jpgI can’t help but feel that the days of New York Philharmonic’s annual outdoor concert in Prospect Park, my favorite cultural happening of the year (sorry SummerScreen!), might be numbered. Though the al fresco performances are nearly 45 years old—they’re held in other city parks, too—every day, the Times’ “Arts, Briefly” identifies another cultural organization going belly up or cutting back in these donationless recession days. Canceling a costly populist giveaway would be an easy cost-cutting measure, and the Phil even has a model for (partial) dismantling: the Metropolitan Opera used to host a similar series of concerts across the five boroughs and beyond, but in recent years they have scaled back: last year they hosted a single megarecital—not even a full opera—in Prospect Park; this year, they’re hosting a few small recitals in parks across the city (including, strangely, the inaccessible Coffey Park). But the company’s major focus seems to be on its HD screenings of last season’s performances, to be held outdoors during August into September at Lincoln Plaza.

But, obviously, no pre-recorded broadcast, no matter how high resolution the images or clear the sound, can compete with the timbre of strings, winds and horns drifting over tree tops. I look forward to the Philharmonic’s Brooklyn sojourn like children look forward to Christmas; the sound may be imperfect—amplifiers not much superior to computer speakers pale in comparison to the reverberating acoustics of the concert hall, even Avery Fisher’s—but it’s a fair trade-off: music is better when you get to watch the orange-and-violet gloaming give way to stars while sipping wine (the cops look the other way!) and eating crackers. Nothing quite complements Mozart like a firefly landing on your tie.

So, enjoy these shows before you wish you had. Alan Gilbert, the incoming musical director, conducted Wednesday evening’s program; Gilbert plans to have a stronger cultural presence in the city than his aloof predecessor, Lorin Maazel, who most summers wouldn’t have been caught dead leading a parks concert. (He did so only once in seven years.)

The program was made up of two classical stalwarts; Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”), the last of the composer’s famous trio of late symphonies, began the evening. Heard consecutively, as they’re sometimes programmed, those three symphonies are exhausting; individually, they’re more accessible. The opening movement of the 41st, composed in 1788, sounds like proto-Beethoven in its emotional range, in contrast to the crassly un-nuanced ebullience that characterizes much of Mozart’s work. It toggles between brash pronouncements and meek responses, like a dialogue between Bluto and Olive Oyl: a romantic and somewhat abusive duet.

But the subsequent movements frequently sunk into predictability, with momentary exceptions. Overall, the temperamental shifts in the music sounded more playful than dramatic—the emotions were imitative, like a “smiling” dog. Is it possible that Mozart was so brilliant in his understanding of composition that he couldn’t take it seriously outside of structural and harmonic virtuosity? Was Mozart a musical sociopath, incapable of sincere feeling?

Maybe I’d just had too much wine. (Already?) The second piece, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, suffered a similar problem at first: the first movement—in which, call me crazy, I hear precursive shades of the 20th Century, from Bernstein’s “Dance at the Gym” to Brian Wilson’s “Smile”—alternates between dances and pastorals, and the former sounded stilted under Gilbert’s baton, particularly in comparison to the bopping performance Xian Zhang led in November 2007. Perhaps it was the conductor, not the composer?

Then the orchestra found its stride in the second movement, my favorite piece of music. Like, ever. The opening bars of this melancholy dirge sent chills through my arms, and Gilbert smoothly led the plaintive passages through their dynamic shifts, made ethereal under an astral canopy and all the more poignant by the dead quiet that befell the chatty crowd.

In Running on Empty, River Phoenix says, “you can’t dance to Beethoven,” but that’s not entirely true. This ain’t no Chuck Berry, it’s true, but it’s hard not to shimmy, or at least tap one’s foot, during the final half of the Seventh; the orchestra played with speed and unity here, swinging through the swirling sections. Though it has some funereal and regal interludes, Beethoven’s Seventh is one of the most terpsichorean pieces in the repertoire.

The orchestra played an encore, chosen by text message election. (Oh, how hip! It’s just like your aunt who’s on Facebook.) Beethoven’s “Egmont” overture was edged out by Mendelssohn’s “Scherzo” from the Octet for Strings; in the context, it came across like a lesser Beethoven movement. After the show, attendees were treated to a fireworks display. (Brooklyn earned it after Macy’s snubbed rooftop spectators this Independence Day.) Quick and boisterous, it elicited substantially more applause than any dusty old piece of music. Beethoven and Mozart just can’t compete with bright shiny things.

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