After 21 years, Louis Langrée’s tenure as music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra has ended. As a farewell, he conducted two programs across four evenings last week, and the music he made was uplifting, staggeringly beautiful and, finally, triumphant.
The ensemble used to be associated with a festival of the same name, but that was quietly shuttered after the 2019 season. Next year, the players will have a new name and a new music director. But the sound of the orchestra — which draws its musicians from the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and several other groups — as it is known today was built by Langrée.
“What I have learned and shared has made life more beautiful,” Langrée told the audience on Friday, during an evening that became an extended goodbye, with breaks for recollections, reflections and even musical demonstrations à la Leonard Bernstein (whom he cited as an influence). Langrée struck up the band as he explained the deceptive simplicity of Mozart’s melodic writing or the off-kilter minuet of the 40th Symphony. But he caught himself: “It’s a concert, not a lecture,” he said with a chuckle.
His first program of the week, on Tuesday, was a motley assortment of pieces by Lully, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Kodaly and Valerie Coleman, taking the orchestra’s tasting-platter approach to an extreme. Coleman’s “Fanfare for Uncommon Times,” written without strings or woodwinds, was a study in layered, graduated brass timbres. The orchestra dug into the saturated colors and whiz-bang energy of Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta” and brought a bountiful tone to a Mozart overture and selections from Lully’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.”
The 27-year-old violinist Randall Goosby, making his Mostly Mozart debut, was luminous in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto — his tone luscious, elegant and sweet without being syrupy. His unforced ease and alluringly relaxed vibrato gave his legato suppleness, and his trill was an act of gracefulness instead of athleticism. When the orchestra re-entered with the first movement’s main theme, it felt like a catharsis of the joy Goosby had cultivated.
Compared with the stylistic whiplash of Tuesday, Friday was magnificently lucid: a jubilant tour through Mozart’s final three symphonies. Langrée referred to the pieces as the “holy trinity” of Mozart’s symphonic output, all written in the summer of 1788. The program’s sense of occasion, its feeling of culmination, turned Langrée wistful; he thanked the ushers, stage crews and security personnel and expressed pride in the Mostly Mozart players, most of whom he hired himself. “This place will stay magical for me,” he said.
Langrée is a Mozartean of vibrancy, potency and efficiency. Mozart is about harmoniousness — requiring an orchestra to balance color, style and execution in a reflection of the music’s essential consonance — but Langrée treats that quality as a starting point. Then he finds expressive freedom, something like romance, but attacks it incisively. The music bursts with feeling as it flies by in tidy fashion.
The works came in chronological order, starting with the Symphony No. 39, in which the players unleashed sonorous drama in the Adagio-Allegro and wholly conceived melodic statements in the Andante con Moto (which featured Christopher Pell’s dreamy clarinet). Langrée didn’t shortchange the minuet’s clipped phrases, and the concluding Allegro had a windswept quality.
He brought expansiveness to these late symphonies without distending them and let them breathe without slowing them down. In the 40th, Langrée crafted a fast, finely wrought opening filled with slender sound that kept anxiety and release in constant tension. The Allegro Assai, full of life, had dash as well as elegant form.
After intermission on Friday, Langrée got candid. He pushed back against the way “Lincoln Center wants to present less classical because it’s elitist,” adding that the center can and should embrace hip-hop and R&B without abandoning Mostly Mozart fare. He pleaded with the audience to return next year to support the musicians, even if Mozart’s name is being “erased from the orchestra.”
Langrée located the greatness of the “Jupiter” Symphony in its compassion rather than its grandeur. He cushioned the assertive opening and deftly scaled back to something human — a sly smile, a sense of generosity. The winds peeked through with their peculiar colors, and the fugato finale churned briskly.
There will invariably be lapses in music whose finery never allows players to hide. Occasionally, the violins turned gray, or the horns lost their gleam. The endless runs of the Andante Cantabile in the “Jupiter” had an admirable singing quality most, if not all, of the time.
On Saturday, for Langrée’s last concert with the orchestra, the audience greeted him with a standing ovation when he entered, and applauded him and the players for nearly 20 minutes at the end.
The previous night, Langrée had talked — and sung — through the five parts that make up the “Jupiter” fugue before leading the orchestra in an even more effervescent encore of it. At each of the final two concerts, he was presented with a bouquet of red roses and gave out stems to each of the players. He tossed one to the audience, then kept one for himself.