An ear for the refined

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Ludovic Morlot. Remember the name.

According to the programme booklet at Avery Fisher Hall, he is “quickly establishing a reputation as a fine international conductor”. The puffery-mongers may be right.

At 33, the maestro from Lyon has left a promising mark on the big bands of Boston, New York, Chicago, Houston, Rotterdam and Birmingham, for starters. His distinguished mentors have included Charles Bruck, James Levine and Colin Davis. He seems equally comfortable untangling the modernist knots of Elliott Carter and flourishing the romantic gush of Tchaikovsky.

Unlike most competitors in the current podium sweepstakes, however, Morlot is no splash-in-the-pan virtuoso. He doesn’t hop, skip and leap. He doesn’t telegraph easy agonies and empty ecstasies. He doesn’t endorse conspicuous perspiration. He doesn’t bother with a baton. Crucially, he doesn’t conduct the audience, just the music. It is refreshing.

New York made his acquaintance last here when he zoomed in, suave and calm, as a last-minute replacement for Christoph von Dohnanyi with the Philharmonic. He returned under less glamorous conditions in July to lead a popsy concert in a park. And here he was, Friday night, making an auspicious debut at the Mostly Mozart Festival.

He opened the concert on terra relatively incognita with incidental music from Thamos, König in Ägypten. Contemplating Mozart’s remarkably sophisticated flourishes and reflections, Morlot managed to sustain both elegance and eloquence, some untidy orchestral responses notwithstanding. The Mostly Mozart orchestra, it must be remembered, plays and stays together only in the summertime, subsisting on a rather meagre rehearsal diet. Noble compensation for passing inequities was provided in any case by Randall Ellis’s exquisite performance of the central oboe solo.

To send everyone home in a reasonable facsimile of rapture, Morlot turned to the restrained storms and stresses of Schubert’s Symphony No. 4, aka Tragic. Some conductors, remembering that the composer was only a precocious 19-year-old when he created this little miracle, concentrate on Schubert’s gentle, retrogressive lyricism. Call it innocence. They point to the influence of Haydn and, yes, Mozart. Morlot chose to look ahead, citing the coming attractions of bold Germanic romanticism. In the process, he may have slighted occasional opportunities for refinement and subtlety of nuance, but he validated inherent grandeur, even in the menuetto, without resorting to exaggeration. And his penchant for velocity never suggested speed for its own sake. He made the familiar impulses seem thoughtful and warm, breathless and bright, even spontaneous.

At the beginning and end of the evening Morlot demonstrated his skills as a leader. In the middle he demonstrated his sensitivity as a follower. The vehicle was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, aka Turkish. The soloist was Christian Tetzlaff – “internationally recognised”, it says here, “as one of the most important violinists of his generation”. The self-congratulatory blurb goes on to cite his “unassailable musical integrity”, “disciplined technique” and “highly individual, compelling interpretations”. The proof of the pudding is in the playing, of course, and the German virtuoso hardly needs the prefabricated hyperbole. He played with passion that never precluded precision, with poise that never precluded propulsion. Others may find more charm in the introductory allegro, but few can sustain such stylish flair throughout, or write such a dashing cadenza.

Incidental intelligence: a few days ago at the Mostly Mozart opening, a gala affair supported by the rich and the generous, push-button applause greeted virtually every Luftpause. At this concert, a garden-variety affair, the sophisticates out front knew when to clap, and, more important, when to listen.

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