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The opening concert of the Mostly Mozart festival, on Tuesday at Avery Fisher Hall, was mostly about other composers. True, the evening began with a stroll through the Linz Symphony, a dutiful exercise on behalf of Salzburg’s favourite Nockerl. Louis Langrée (right) conducted it with informed restraint. The ad hoc orchestra, more notable for eagerness than for refinement (and possibly under-rehearsed), mustered hints of elegance. Still, this was throat clearing. The important business followed.
The centrepiece was Beethoven’s usually mighty Emperor concerto, refreshed here with invocations of Mozartean intimacy. Langrée stressed baroque grace rather than Romantic thrust, ponderous convention notwithstanding. The soloist was Paul Lewis, the 35-year-old virtuoso from Liverpool, making his local orchestral debut. The programme booklet unblushingly heralded him as “one of the most sought-after artists of his generation”. Be that as it may, he dealt in fleet revelations – with bravura that seemed both easy and organic, light and shade subtly applied, lyrical indulgence and climactic thrust delicately balanced. Langrée provided an equally sensible and sensitive frame.
Novelty entered after the interval with 25 minutes of mild adventure courtesy of Osvaldo Golijov, the first composer-in-residence since Mostly Mozart began in 1966. The native of La Plata, Argentina, and resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, is flavour of the month – maybe of the year – among easy-to-take modernists. As formative influences he cites chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer impulses, plus tangos of Piazzolla. One detected traces of all in Azul for cello and orchestra.
First presented in Tanglewood as a vehicle for Yo-Yo Ma, it has been significantly revised, perhaps agitated. Alisa Weilerstein, the 24-year-old protagonist on duty, made the central monologues drone and pulsate with inspired aplomb, her tone vacillating between very dreamy and very raucous. A folksy percussion ensemble contributed exotic punctuation that sometimes could be seen but not heard. Golijov’s long crescendos, both dynamic and textural, seemed carefully calibrated. The orchestra had little to do, and did it well. Sonic pleasantries abounded. Even so, the totality suggested much ado about not so much. Call it a pale shade of Azul.