“The Mostly Mozart Festival,” intoned Louis Langrée, as the maestro prepared to conduct his final symphony at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall August 12, after 21 years at the helm of the annual summer event, “is no more.” Langrée was being dramatic, but not overly so. Lincoln Center’s dissolution of Mostly Mozart, and its stripping of the festival’s musicians of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra name, is a big deal—or it should be. That it’s received so little attention is yet another sign of how post-pandemic New York has lost its will to fight for its civic and public culture.
Mostly Mozart is, or was, synonymous with Lincoln Center. The July and August weeks-long festival of, yes, mostly Mozart and other classical composers dated to 1966, almost to Lincoln Center’s founding (give or take a pandemic, and a few first-decade hiccups).
So why get rid of it? And why do so in such a harsh fashion, turning the first summer since 2019 that concertgoers have been able to enjoy a normal season into a depressing and confusing time, rather than a joyful one?
The ostensible reason is that Lincoln Center has offered too many summer festivals, from Midsummer Night Swing to the Lincoln Center Festival to Lincoln Center Out of Doors (all defunct for several years). The idea is to put some of what each festival used to do, plus some new programming, into one festival called “Summer for the City.”
Beyond this explanation, it hardly escapes notice that Lincoln Center—like all New York civic institutions whose donors and patrons are mostly older, richer, whiter people—is baroquely self-conscious about becoming more “diverse.” As Langrée pointed out in one of the deliciously French, micro-aggressive mini-lectures he delivered throughout his final few Mostly Mozart concerts this month, Lincoln Center thinks classical music is “maybe elitist.” It wants less summertime classical music, and more “social dance.”
It’s a bad idea to resist all change. If a festival isn’t working, as some of Lincoln Center’s past summer offerings weren’t, then change it or scrap it. And it’s true that Lincoln Center, like many arts groups, is financially struggling and couldn’t avoid some consolidation.
But killing off Mostly Mozart doesn’t solve the problems Lincoln Center is facing—if, indeed, those are even problems. Sure, Lincoln Center should put on summer offerings besides the usual, well-loved Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Handel. But as Langrée also helpfully reminded his farewell audiences, Lincoln Center already did that, with Mostly Mozart having commissioned dozens of new pieces over the years for its summer concerts.
And sure, it’s great to appeal to new audiences. Ironically, though, Mostly Mozart proved this year that it was able to do that, as well. Its new “pay as you wish” ticketing policy brought in newcomers. Rather than end the festival altogether, why not just continue with the pay-as-you-go policy, whether for all concerts or for a block of seats at each, or give away some seats each night via lottery?
In any case, Lincoln Center needs its middle-class and affluent customers. Pay-as-you-wish attendees can never replace people who regularly attend multiple concerts at Lincoln Center year-round and pay ticket prices high enough to help sustain the expensive programming. In attempting to prove how well it’s connecting with non-classical-music devotees in the summer, Lincoln Center risks alienating the paying customers it needs in the fall, winter, and spring.
At bottom, Lincoln Center is a classical music institution (at least, many of its donors and patrons, for more than half a century, have thought so). Its main Upper West Side campus is composed of an opera, a ballet, a philharmonic, and a chamber-music society (with a jazz center a few blocks south). It therefore makes a lot of sense to continue to center a summer festival around, well, mostly classical music, and to imply so in the name of the festival. For Lincoln Center to ditch Mostly Mozart is like the Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London ditching Shakespeare (it tried to do something like this, actually, and customers revolted), or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris selling off its Monets, or New Orleans’ Preservation Hall deciding to jettison jazz.
It would be one thing if Lincoln Center were scrapping Mostly Mozart because it had thought of something equally excellent to replace it. But the “Summer for the City” offerings, mostly outdoors and free, were all over the place, from social dance to “silent disco” to well-being and comedy sessions to “hip-hop week.” Such eclecticism would be fine if the offerings were consistently good. But the quality was akin to that of the free outdoor concerts that some midtown and downtown office buildings hold for their office workers at lunchtime: some pass the time, some are terrible, and none stands out for unique excellence.
The clue to the confusion is in the new name. “Summer for the City,” in contrast with Mostly Mozart, means nothing. We know it’s summer, and we know we’re in the city, but what are we supposed to take away, in terms of theme or a purpose? Lincoln Center has given up coherence—Mozart, with some other stuff thrown in—in favor of undefined, mediocre variety. The institution seems to have adopted the management strategy of a bloated 1970s corporate conglomerate that can’t decide whether it wants to make jet engines or women’s underwear; decides to make both, in an attempt to “diversify”; and winds up doing neither very well.
Finally, in shifting its summer focus from indoors to outdoors, Lincoln Center is now persistently annoying its own dense Upper West Side neighborhood and the patrons of its indoor arts organizations. For two summers now, to host its “Summer for the City” offerings, Lincoln Center has erected a massive metal, mirror, and plastic stage in its marquee plaza, complete with disco ball. These aren’t the best materials for acoustic brilliance, with noisy bass and amplified voices reverberating against the structure.
The metal and plastic stage suffocates Lincoln Center’s central plaza for the two months of each year that people are most likely to be seeking an outdoor place to enjoy the weather. Most of the time, when no performance is happening, it’s just a dead space. Further, it magnifies summer heat and light. The gaudy, cheap-looking disco ball and stage might have been fun for one year, in 2022, as an ironic way to return from the pandemic. But it threatens to become a permanent summer fixture.
Langrée’s swan-song final performances inside David Geffen Hall, held during the first two weeks of August, reminded us what we’re losing. On his final night, after evenings that featured composers from Lully to Tchaikovsky to the modern-day Valerie Coleman, Langrée exuberantly conducted Mozart’s final three symphonies.
Even here, though, Lincoln Center managed to annoy its customers. First, it ended the practice of giving out paper Playbill programs (another change that Langrée acidly commented on in between symphonies). This omission felt surly: pay as you wish, but we’re not going to give you the normal courtesy of a program that we give our real audience.
Second, before each performance, Lincoln Center’s chief artistic officer, Shanta Thake, insisted on taking the stage before Langrée, standing at a microphone and attempting to coax the audience into a kindergarten-level participatory exercise, a series of gratitude affirmations (“repeat after me: thank you, teachers!”). Judging by the audience’s lack of interest, maybe there’s real hope for New York: most attendees rebuffed her, conspicuously remaining silent when commanded to “thank” various interests. One older man even tried a gentle heckle (“bring back Mostly Mozart!”), which passes for civil disobedience at a classical concert.
Thake’s repeated attempts to compete with Langrée for stage time, and her obtuse failure to sense that it wasn’t working, illustrates a problem with many prominent arts organizations: the administrators seem to believe that the organizations exist for them. A good administrator doesn’t try to upstage her performers; she remains in the background.
Lincoln Center says that next summer, it will continue to put on some classical music, and with the same orchestra, just under a new name and a new director. Langrée was gracious in exhorting the audience to come back next year, to hear the same musicians do . . . whatever it is they’re going to be doing, under whatever will be their new name.
If Lincoln Center doesn’t fully believe in its core values, giving them up at the slightest hint of trouble, why would it expect anyone else to believe in them? If Lincoln Center wants people who don’t care about Mozart to come to Mozart concerts, it’s not going to accomplish that result by putting on “social dance” and hoping that this creates such goodwill that attendees will buy a Mozart ticket. It will get new people interested in Mozart only by putting on excellent Mozart. When the nation’s premier classical music complex says that it doesn’t think Mozart is that important, why should anyone else?
Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images