Mozart in the summer seems to be a very good idea for orchestras. Critics may grouse about programming over-familiar works during the regular season, but having a focused concentration on a beloved composer in the guise of a festival makes sense — something sparkling, refreshing, familiar yet bracing. As proof of concept, the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York has been going strong for more than five decades now. This summer, to finish up its season, the National Symphony Orchestra is offering a not-quite-two-week, three-program mini-festival devoted entirely to Mozart, which began on Friday and runs through June 22, spotlighting some of the orchestra’s most beloved principals, in the hands of conductor Nathalie Stutzmann.
Stutzmann belongs to a category of artist seldom seen on the conductor’s podium: She is a singer. For all of the violinists and pianists and brass players who have become conductors — pop quiz: name two in each category — it’s hard to think of many singers who have successfully established themselves at the heads of major orchestras. (Another pop quiz: prove me wrong on that.) Stutzmann seems to be making it fly, with prestigious guest appearances at a range of starry ensembles. I confess that when she last appeared with the NSO, I didn’t love her work unequivocally, but musicians and listeners alike were much more impressed than I was, responding to her personal collaborative flair, and the NSO had no problem putting her in charge of all three concerts of this year-end treat. Her light touch and empathetic approach worked well for this Mozart; she seemed more authoritative than she did to me in 2017, and at the same time was able to animate the orchestra with a glance, a whispered phrase, a gesture, keeping a sense that there was a dialogue going on between podium and instruments, rather than an austere will being imposed from one to the other.
All three of the programs feature an overture, a symphony and a concerto — two concertos on the first program on Friday and Saturday, with three NSO principals. In practice, the performance was a reminder of how unfamiliar some familiar works can become; the sinfonia concertante for violin and viola was long something of a parade piece for Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, who last did it here in 2008, but I haven’t often heard it otherwise; and according to the program the NSO hasn’t played the bassoon concerto, a jewel, since 1994.
It was certainly a treat to hear the NSO principals in action, headlining in beautiful works they’ve probably known for years but have little opportunity to perform. The sinfonia concertante featured Nurit Bar-Josef, the orchestra’s concertmaster, and Daniel Foster, the principal violist, harmonizing down to their wardrobes (purple gown and purple shirt), and they demonstrated the very best advantages of an orchestra showcasing its own. Both have played together for years, not only in the orchestra but in chamber ensembles, and they showed ease and authority and synchronization as they traded off themes, she with a tone of bright shiny gold, he with a burnished and more muted warmth, showing off each instrument’s strengths.
Bassoonists have even less chance to shine, and Sue Heineman, the orchestra’s principal bassoon, demonstrated that this is our loss. This bassoon concerto — the only survivor of several concertos Mozart wrote for the instrument — takes the player from virtuosic fingerwork to melting beauty (the second movement strongly foreshadowing the aria “Porgi, amor” from “The Marriage of Figaro”), and Heineman brought it all off with matter-of-fact ease, the insouciant air of “Oh, this? Just a little thing I picked up.” I found I had a big smile on my face during most of her performance.
This kind of conversational ease may be something Stutzmann encourages; she got it from the orchestra, as well, in the “Haffner” symphony that finished the program, lively and brisk and ending with a sharply delineated transition into the final movement, crisp and never clinical. It rounded out a program that had opened with the promise of the “Marriage of Figaro” overture, which felt, of all the works, the least vivid, perhaps simply because, after years of opera-going, I can’t hear that music without my ear wanting to follow it on into the opera. There was certainly nothing wrong with the NSO’s bright and sparkling performance.
The “Mozart Forever” festival continues at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday and Wednesday (a program that includes the 4th horn concerto with principal horn Abel Pereira) and Friday and Saturday (with the flute and harp concerto, soloists Aaron Goldman and Adriana Horne).