For 50 years, Manhattan Augusts have turned, pinwheel like, on concerts of Mozart at Lincoln Center. The impossibly hot days pass, the humidity rises to steam-bath torpor and, then, as the evening brings the temperature down a grateful-making three or four degrees, you walk across the park or grab the subway in the still bright evening, and arrive (to find the fountain blissfully spraying a bit of cool extra damp into the plaza air), and then go to hear something beautiful by an old composer. It’s an atmosphere more strictly festive and informal than the autumn severities soon to come. As the Proms concerts add festive informality to London listening, so the Mostly Mozart Festival, to give it its proper Avenue of the Americas name, adds a note of New York hamishe to the often-sober rituals of classical music listening.
And then, it adds a note of something more, since classical music of the Mozart vintage has had, over that half century, a special, wider meaning in New York than it has had almost anywhere else. I am looking as I write at a wonderfully evocative document of that first season, 1966. It’s the cover, drawn by the stylish illustrator and graphic designer Rudi Bass, of a program for “New York Is A Summer Festival”—a tourist promotion of the just-born Lindsay administration, from which the first Mostly Mozart festival seems to have derived, or with which it at least coincided. The Bass drawing is as nostalgic an object for those who still recall ’60s New York as any Belle Epoque poster by Cheret of can can girls. There, in jaunty, aquiline rendering, are sports and shopping bags and summer dresses . . . but high above them, the summit of the action—higher in the register of city delight than outdoor cafés or even Yankees baseball—is a concert of classical music, with a black-tied conductor leading a unified band. (Presumably, it’s a stylized invocation of the New York Philharmonic playing, as it often did then, outdoors.) In 1966, New York meant classical music, and classical music meant New York. My own cosmopolitan mentor, the critic Eugenio Donato, once said to me dogmatically, “Paris for movies, London for theater, and New York for music.”
And it was true. Why New York built such a rich classical music culture is a complicated story: Beginning with its role as the refuge of émigré musicians, it had birthed, through the 1940s and ’50s, an indigenous music scene of incredible richness, exemplified in the figure of Leonard Bernstein—leader of the New York Philharmonic, a Broadway composer, and a fine Mozartean. The Mostly Mozart festival in 1966 reflected the ease and comfort—the sense of fun—that the classical music audience felt with its beloved objects.
As that program cover so sweetly suggests, 1966 seems in retrospect to have been a high-water mark of contented middlebrow music culture. What do we mean by “middlebrow”? Often used as a pejorative now, it should mean simply the belief that art forms and ways of living once restricted to the rich should be available to the aspiring middle classes. This was true of New York then—more true than perhaps of any other city at any time. Bernstein’s conducting, Balanchine’s ballet, Beverly Sills’s opera—these were immutably high-art events that were also inarguably popular and available. Mostly Mozart was part of that wave.
A city where people are expected to know more than they thought they might about music is a city that is culturally in pretty good shape.
It’s true, as its mockers say, that bad middlebrow runs on an engine of mere status, making people feel badly about what they don’t know. But the good kind makes people feel happy about what they can know. The first kind of middlebrow may be only a form of salesmanship, but the second is a base for citizenship. A city where people are expected to know more than they thought they might about music is a city that is culturally in pretty good shape. Making Mozart matter to everyone is not a way of cheapening Mozart; it is a way of enriching us all.
It was that appetite for art that made Mostly Mozart not a sober “reach” but a summer festival. Yet it would be disingenuous to pretend that much has not changed, too. Not that the appetite for art or good music has diminished in New York. What has happened is that it has become dispersed. The grandes messes, the common masses of New York, have been atomized into a thousand smaller niche audiences. (In fact, New York teenagers now use the odd word—niche—with serene aplomb—“That’s very niche, Dad” a 16-year-old might say about a dubiously striped parental shirt—as their parents once used the adjectival “cool.”) We may no longer have that comfortable middlebrow audience to appeal to, and the Mostly Mozart Festival has altered, at times subtly, at times by main force, to reflect that truth. There are now much treasured late-night performances in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, smaller venues opened for smaller musics, new and contemporary sounds thrust among the Viennese—it may be, astonishing idea, that chamber music will once again be played in chambers, and table music over tables, and perhaps even small operas in small houses. The amplification of effects, begun with the concert hall and the symphony orchestra as their centerpiece, had nothing inevitable about it. A fine audience can flourish in smaller rooms with newer sounds. What those of us who were around in 1966 see as atomization may merely, and profitably, be a division by sincerities: Stripped of mere duty, only those who really care to listen will go, and, in a city the size of ours, that few will always be enough. The composition of the festival 50 years on reflects that transformation.
And then it was Mozart who . . . went deeper into the strange, high register of mixed emotion, where no one can say if it is love or sadness or yearning, whether the tears involuntarily produced are those of joy imagined or melancholy recalled.
Every age and city will have its own Mozart; ours may not be the least of them. It all comes back to the music. Smaller venues, more select programs, hybridized energies from contemporary concert music—all of these are good things. Mozart is a great one. Mozart remains the still center around which the festival turns. A case, perhaps tendentious—doubtless tendentious, but what the hell—can be made that Mozart is more at home in Manhattan than in any other of his towns. It would be slightly absurd to claim Mozart for New York in preference to all the other European cities where he loved and worked and died. Slightly absurd—but only slightly. We rightly claim his greatest collaborator, Lorenzo Da Ponte, for our own—he immigrated, taught, and died here, after all—and his values, like Mozart’s music, with its thematic encoded undercurrent of Masonic egalitarianism and its emphasis on immediate feeling and humane mid-range of emotion, remain part of our birthright as New Yorkers. A fellow Mason of Mozart’s wrote that good music should “inculcate feelings of humanity, wisdom and patience, virtue and honesty, loyalty to friends, and finally an understanding of freedom.” Such words can seem to us a pat formula—until we stop to think that each term finds its exact equivalent somewhere in his music: from the value reversal, valet over duke, of Figaro to the wisdom and patience invoked by his adagios, to the value of solidarity that is enacted by the orchestra itself when it attempts the final, still terrifyingly audacious movement of the Jupiter Symphony, right on to the possibilities of freedom that that audacity endorses.
And then it was Mozart who—in his Clarinet Quintet and Concerto, in all the slow and most of the first movements of the last seven piano concertos—went deeper into the strange, high register of mixed emotion, where no one can say if it is love or sadness or yearning, whether the tears involuntarily produced are those of joy imagined or melancholy recalled. Mozart, though not by the usual chronologies of musical style a Romantic, surely summons up musically everything we normally mean by romance. It touches our heart before it charges our heads. (It charges our heads, too, but only after.) The special sound of Mozart’s music is not romantic anger and angst but romantic longing—and that tone is the one New York knows best and loves most, that plangent-poignant, Gatsby-Gershwin sound.
Miraculous music! Though the festival, properly, now curves around and beyond Mozart, it can never curve too far away from him. He’s as central to the festival as the fountain is to the Lincoln Center plaza. To all critics who threaten to stifle a yawn in its familiar presence rather than falling to their knees in eternal gratitude for his existence, the Mostly Mozart Festival is a perpetual correction. In the end what it is—mostly—is, well, mostly, Mozart. Mozart the incomparable genius, who wrote masterpieces as the rest of us write text messages, and cared less for innovation than imagination. “Music is feeling then, not sound,” firmly declared the most Mozartean of American poets, Wallace Stevens, and it is in search of that feeling that we cross the park, pack the subway, get to the concert hall. The emotion we seek is mostly Mozart’s and, for 50 years, through Mozart, has been—and, let us pray, remains—seasonally, occasionally, our own.
Adam Gopnik is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He has also written librettos and lyrics for several musical occasions.