Over the past 10 months, Nina Chanel Abney’s installation “San Juan Heal” has adorned the back side of David Geffen Hall, welcoming passers-by with its bold and colorful illustrations. The artwork pays homage to the predominantly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood that was demolished to make way for Lincoln Center in the mid-20th century. While the installation was intended as a way for Lincoln Center to acknowledge its past injustices, it raised questions about the representation of people of color both inside and outside the building.
The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, currently occupying Geffen Hall as part of Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City programming, has made efforts to address this issue. With a limited number of concerts, the orchestra has more room for innovative programming that appeals to a diverse audience. The recent concerts featured works by contemporary composers that explored themes of identity and equity, alongside more familiar repertoire. The performances ranged from ordinary to exhilarating, showcasing the orchestra’s versatility and artistic excellence.
During the concerts, conductor Thomas Wilkins and Jonathon Heyward highlighted the works of Black composers, giving them a platform for their music. These composers included Adolphus Hailstork, Xavier Foley, Jessie Montgomery, and Fela Sowande. The performances of their compositions were met with enthusiasm and showcased the orchestra’s talent and versatility. Wilkins, in particular, inspired excellence in the musicians during Hailstork’s Symphony No. 1, creating a captivating mix of timbres.
Heyward, in his first concert as the orchestra’s next music director, demonstrated a natural rapport with the audience and a confident conducting style. While his interpretations of the music were not always consistent with his intentions, he showed promise and potential. Meanwhile, conductor Gemma New led a captivating performance of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, showcasing the orchestra’s ability to adapt to different musical styles.
The soloists in these concerts also brought their own unique flair to their performances. Double bassist Xavier Foley impressed with his skillful and powerful style, although some criticized his habit of bending notes. Pianist Stewart Goodyear delivered a thrilling rendition of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, showcasing his technical prowess. Violinist Simone Lamsma brought a subtle brilliance and tension to Barber’s Violin Concerto.
Shanta Thake, Lincoln Center’s artistic leader, introduced each concert and led the audience in a ritual. While this ritual was meant to foster a sense of community and healing, it seemed to lose its impact as the concert series progressed. However, conductors Wilkins and Heyward succeeded in building a sense of community through their programming choices, as evidenced by the enthusiastic response from the diverse audiences.
Overall, the recent Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra concerts at Lincoln Center reflect a positive shift towards inclusivity and diversity. By showcasing works by contemporary composers and amplifying the voices of marginalized communities, the orchestra is taking steps towards creating a more representative and inclusive cultural institution.