The day had been hot and muggy. But a mild breeze was blowing at Lincoln Center by the time the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra took the stage in Damrosch Park on Tuesday evening.
The pianist Conrad Tao played an elegantly unruffled Mozart concerto and a daydreamy “Rhapsody in Blue.” Apart from a sprinkling of small performances last summer, this orchestra hadn’t been assembled since 2019, but it sounded comfortable and spirited.
In just three years, the group has become an anachronism. The festival whose name it bears — Lincoln Center’s premier summertime event before the pandemic — is no more. The center’s summer, once a messy assortment of competing series and festivals, has finally been streamlined under a single label: “Summer for the City.”
Planned by Lincoln Center’s president, Henry Timms, and its artistic chief since last year, Shanta Thake, Summer for the City has hoisted a 10-foot disco ball over the plaza fountain and includes outdoor film screenings, spoken word, social dance, comedy shows and an ASL version of “Sweeney Todd.”
Five of New York’s dance companies will come together next month for a few days of performances. And starting on Friday, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra moves inside to Alice Tully Hall for five programs: 10 concerts over two weeks.
But despite that packed little orchestral season, other musical experiences that once appeared under the Mostly Mozart rubric have vanished along with the name — including guest ensembles, intimate recitals, and the new music that flows out of the classical tradition and is embodied by the International Contemporary Ensemble, long in residence at the festival but absent this year.
Up in the air is the ultimate fate of the Mostly Mozart orchestra, a high-quality, carefully built and expensive group whose music director, Louis Langrée, has been on its podium since 2002. Though Thake told the orchestra on Friday that it would be a part of the summer next year, things get hazier beyond that. And while her vision for the season is still developing, this first iteration seems to have intentionally moved away from swaths of music and performance that have been central to the center’s identity for decades.
Which is not to say that Lincoln Center’s summers have been just one thing. As Joseph W. Polisi, a longtime president of the Juilliard School, describes in “Beacon to the World: A History of Lincoln Center,” recently published by Yale University Press, the initial thought was that the center’s own programming would happen primarily in the summertime, so as not to compete in fall and spring with the constituent organizations for which it serves as a landlord, like the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic.
As the campus was being conceived, summer was imagined to be a good time for folk-ish operas and musicals, like “Oklahoma!” or Copland’s “The Tender Land,” or perhaps a film festival; it’s in the DNA for the center’s summer offerings to be ambitious but accessible, populist but serious.
Though Summer for the City is taking place largely outdoors, the novelty in those early years was being inside: Midsummer Serenades — A Mozart Festival, which started in 1966 and was renamed Mostly Mozart six years later, was the first festival in New York to take place in an air-conditioned hall.
The campus’s Community/Street Theater Festival of the early 1970s morphed, a few years later, into Lincoln Center Out of Doors, a free, outdoor, eclectic mélange: Ballet Hispánico and bluegrass, string quartets and a doo-wop opera, and eventually a helping of social dance as Midsummer Night’s Swing.
Mostly Mozart grew to be perceived as stodgy and listless in this company. When Jane Moss — like Thake, a hire from outside classical music — became the center’s artistic leader in the early 1990s, it was believed that part of her brief was to eliminate it. After the Lincoln Center Festival, which hosted ambitious international touring productions, was founded in the mid-90s, Mostly Mozart, which had once lasted up to nine weeks, dwindled from seven to four. A musicians’ strike in 2002 was another existential crisis.
But instead of spiking Mostly Mozart, Moss took a firmer hand with the programming, hired Langrée as a partner, and broadened the offerings — eventually to something closer to Slightly Mozart. In 2017, amid budget and management crises, the Lincoln Center Festival folded and Mostly Mozart was set to expand by up to 50 percent to partly compensate. The festival orchestra entered the opera pit for the first time in 2019; there were dance theater productions and the lauded New York premiere of “The Black Clown”; Langrée’s contract was renewed through 2023.
During the center’s pandemic silence in 2020, though, Moss decided to step down. And here we are: Mostly Mozart, instead of being expanded, has been eliminated.
In a joint interview with Timms, Thake said that this year’s Summer for the City should not necessarily be seen as the model for all to come. “It’s definitely a unique moment,” she said. “We’re coming out of a two-year pandemic. This is our first full expression of what is possible.”
Referring to the center’s Restart Stages initiative from 2021, she added: “There had been some proven success in experimentation. What you’re seeing this year is a continued explosion of form, and putting it all under one umbrella.”
Summer for the City has the spunky feel of Joe’s Pub, the cabaret space that Thake ran, along with other Public Theater initiatives like Under the Radar and Public Works, before she was hired by Lincoln Center. It also feels like a throwback to the Community/Street Theater Festival and Out of Doors tradition from the early ’70s.
That can yield wonderful programming, and much civic good. Growing up just outside the city, I found Midsummer Night’s Swing — with its tango-ing, salsa-ing crowd — exciting and glamorous, the definition of a New York summer night.
But those offerings existed in an ecosystem in which classical music — broadly construed as far as style, period and form — was another pillar, not a fringe.
Thake insisted in the interview that classical programming has found its way into Summer for the City in more varied, informal ways: as an accompaniment to blood drives and a mass wedding ceremony, and in the form of music-and-meditation sessions in the David Rubenstein Atrium.
Timms added: “In terms of volume, probably, the amount of classical music being presented hasn’t changed much. The nature of it has changed, to some degree, though not fundamentally.”
The two leaders implied that the reconception of the summer is pulling the center more toward the role of host, welcoming as many people as it can onto campus, while the constituent organizations handle or at least share the presenting — especially in the classical sphere. The idea, for example, is that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s small set of Summer Evenings concerts can basically take care of what was once Mostly Mozart’s cozy A Little Night Music series, as well as its other solo and chamber events.
The danger, of course, is that in reducing redundancies and internal competition, the city simply ends up with less.
It’s true that the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s compressed season — which began with a week of mentoring and performing alongside student musicians — promises to showcase talented young guest artists. On Aug. 5 and 6, Langrée leads Mozart’s Requiem, a few days before Jlin’s arrangement of that work is the score for Kyle Abraham’s recent dance “Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth” — the kind of artistic cross-pollination that should be the center’s stock in trade.
Even more important, the orchestra’s Tully concerts are choose-what-you-pay, a ticketing philosophy that should be a model for the center’s whole year. A range of excellent music, painstakingly prepared and performed at the highest level for affordable prices: That is true populism.
Instead, classical music, even in its ever-struggling nonprofit form, gets cast as the elitist hegemon for which scrappier alternatives must be found — certainly if much-vaunted “new audiences” are going to be attracted.
But classical programming should not be considered a chore, or a bone thrown to a dwindling audience — a familiar one rather than “new.” No, serious performance is a jewel, of which Lincoln Center is one of the few remaining supreme presenters. Conrad Tao playing Mozart with a superb orchestra for free or cheap: That is the core of the center’s mission. Its job is to cultivate audiences for and increase access to that.
Which is not to say that change is impossible. Is a resident orchestra with an appointed music director the only way to fulfill Lincoln Center’s mission? Perhaps not. But is there a way of programming such an orchestra so that it could be an integral part of a diverse, adventurous summer season? Yes. Could it be joined to opera, recitals, new music and guest ensembles in broadening what I think Timms and Thake are trying to do: to foster inexpensive interactions with great performance? Absolutely.
“We’re still getting our feet under us,” Thake said. “And seeing again, how can we continue to be responsive? How can we move through this season and get a sense of what worked, what didn’t work, what’s next for all of us?”