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Mozart, string ensemble light up stage

"Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" may not seem like a terribly dramatic piece, but the New England String Ensemble knows better.

The group last performed Mozart's greatest hit in its inaugural concert, 13 years and two music directors ago, and that rendition was interrupted by a power outage that plunged the stage into darkness.

On Sunday afternoon, the ensemble's new director, Federico Cortese, decided to test fate (and Jordan Hall's circuit breakers) by programming the piece again.

First came a suite of elegant dances from the ballet "Le Triomphe de l'Amour," by the French baroque master Jean-Baptiste Lully . Both Lully and the monarch he served, Louis XIV, were accomplished dancers, and in fact they met onstage -- nothing helps one's career like being in the same chorus line as the king of France. The performance was pretty but homogenized, as if the players were avoiding any sounds that might betray their modern instrumentation, but not substituting anything in their place.

Boston composer Jakov Jakoulov's Viola Concerto No. 2, written in 2000, was a welcome foil; in the first measures, the group displayed more color and incisiveness than in all the Lully.

The concerto was marvelous, particularly the first movement, with Boston Symphony Orchestra violist Michael Zaretsky playing long, rhapsodic lines over an arresting, roiling orchestration. And if the finale was perhaps too reminiscent of Stravinsky at his most primitivist, it was an undeniably effective homage.

The second half began with Brahms's "Liebeslieder Waltzes," originally written for voices and piano duet. Instead of singing, Boston theater stalwart Leigh Barrett recited G.F. Daumer's texts before each movement, an idea that might have looked good on paper, but needlessly interrupted the waltz-to-waltz flow.

Here, too, the performance was marked by a curious restraint; while the cello section dove into the phrasing with ballroom verve, the rest seemed unsure about letting Brahms lilt like Strauss.

And the Mozart? Happily, this familiar work bred no contempt in ensemble or conductor. Here was the complete performance: variety and energy, breadth and flexibility. The lights stayed on; the music positively glowed.

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