BWW Review: MAINLY MOZART FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA at The Balboa Theatre
William Preucil has been the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra's concertmaster since its first performance in 1989. He's also the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, so you might guess he and his Festival Orchestra cohorts are an impressive collection of musicians. You'd be more right than you probably suspect. The symphony orchestras of Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Philadelphia are among those that have contributed 26 principals, and 11 additional concertmasters to this year's concert-schedule roster! It's an all-star group. If you don't live in San Diego, you might want to plan a vacation here to coincide with the orchestra's brief season. This year's festival began on June 2nd and extends through June 25th.
Michael Francis became the orchestra's music director and conductor in 2015. The following year he launched a six-year survey of Mozart's life and music with Mozart-heavy programs that progress chronologically through that composer's works. The first year emphasized Mozart as prodigy. This year's theme is Beauty Through Adversity: Finding One's Voice. The opening Festival Orchestra concert included Mozart's Symphony No. 30, written when he was 18, and the eighth piano concerto, written when he was 21. The program also included Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite and Beethoven's first symphony, both similarly written as the composers were breaking away from past traditions.
Guest soloist pianist Conrad Tao is quite a prodigy himself. He was one year old when he began picking out melodies at the piano, four at his first recital, and eight when he performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No.12 with the Utah Symphony. Now, in his early 20s, he has interpretive depth to go with exceptional technique and a broad repertoire. In a brief mini-recital before the main program, he was entertainingly ferocious in the "Turkish" finale of Mozart's Piano Sonata no. 11, and later gave a beautiful crystal-clear performance of the eighth piano concerto. His encore was Elliot Carter's "Catenaries," an incredibly thorny and difficult piece. He introduced it with the disarming announcement that he hadn't practiced it, so he wasn't sure how it would turnout. Liszt will have to be set aside on the shelf of immortals if that was literally true.
In a touch of Glenn Gould-like eccentricity, Tao performed the concerto in gray socks--without shoes. And, perhaps with intentional irony, in a concert that celebrated youthful creativity, his encore was a piece Carter wrote when he was 98.
Tao's performance was matched by the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra in its sympathetic accompaniment. Effective balances were aided by its size, half that of most symphony orchestras. Although "big band" Mozart and Haydn has its attractions, I'm usually happy to do without today's huge string sections when it comes to baroque and early classical-period performance.
Maestro Francis was equally impressive in the orchestral pieces. The Stravinsky Suite offers many challenges for effective sectional and instrumental balances, and the orchestra, consisting of musicians whose other jobs take up most of the year, has relatively little time together. It didn't matter, these are superb musicians with an excellent conductor.
Mozart's early symphonies, to my ears, also fare better with orchestras closer in size to that of his era. Section balances are often closer to what the composer would have heard. As in the concerto, the Festival Orchestra produced a cleanly articulated performance with well-executed dynamics and beautiful solo passages.
Mozart's later symphonies are some of the first works that can benefit when played by larger forces, and Beethoven pushed even further in that direction with his first symphony. I won't argue smaller is better when it comes to its performance. But it does have advantages, especially with musicians boasting the credentials of Mainly Mozart's. Solos were again flawless, and ensemble passages pristinely clear. Any wish for the sheer sonic impact of a larger orchestra was offset by nimble, energetic playing and perfectly judged dynamics.
It's not too early to schedule a vacation around next year's entire Mainly Mozart Festival (June 1 through 24). The theme? Breaking the Mold: Brave New World! I bet William Preucil will be back with Michael Francis and most of the orchestra's other concertmasters for its 30-year celebration.