English conductor Justin Brown won high marks for versatility in his debut with the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra Saturday (June 21) at the Balboa Theatre. Before he ascended the podium to conduct the Festival Orchestra, he and Mainly Mozart Spotlight Series Curator Anne-Marie McDermott gave a short piano four-hand recital that included a winning, probing account of Franz Schubert’s F Minor Fantasy, D. 940.
Brown was playing the duet’s secondo part, so it was not easy to tell how much of the F Minor Fantasy’s triumph was due to his artistry, but then anyone who can keep pace with the elevated pianism of Anne-Marie McDermott is clearly a keyboard player to be reckoned with.
In his role as conductor, Brown was a study in overcompensation, his large arm motions an aerobic flutter of myriad cues and nuances that a less distinguished ensemble of players no doubt would have found helpful. Nevertheless, the Festival Orchestra responded with buoyant, cleanly defined accounts of Mozart and Beethoven that reassured its loyal audience that its dependable high level of performance had not retired with their founding director.
Brown opened with Zoltán Kodály’s little-known tone poem “Summer Evening,” a harmonically conservative essay that offered a cornucopia of melodic invention and nocturnal mood-setting that would have served as a fine movie score, had motion pictures been invented when Kodály wrote the piece as his graduation piece from Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy. The work gave the wind principals of the Festival Orchestra a field day of lush solo opportunities, which they played with uncommon finesse.
Brown’s strong suit was his account of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony, animated and ebullient overall, but always leaving space for the composer’s unexpected asides and droll surprises. He made the chamber-sized Festival Orchestra sound close to a robust, full symphony orchestra, notably in the work’s outer movements. He pressed the orchestra for similar results in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466, but was hindered by his earthbound soloist Shai Wosner.
While I admired Wosner’s fluent technical vocabulary, I kept hoping he had something to say about the music he was so impeccably executing—he told us everything about the score, but too little about the music behind all those notes. His approach was cool, detached to the point of clinical, and while the lightness of his attack might have been chosen to imitate the smaller scale of the fortepianos of Mozart’s time, it instead distanced him from the vibrant playing of the orchestra.
While preparing for this concert, I came across an essay by the noted pianist and classical music scholar Alfred Brendel, who warned pianists against finding mere technical sufficiency in their Mozart playing. “Mozart’s piano works should be for the player a receptacle full of latent musical possibilities which often go far beyond the purely pianistic.”
When Mozart chose to write in the minor mode—only two of his nearly 30 piano concertos in in a minor key—he was at his most dramatic: think of Don Giovanni or the great C Minor Mass. If Wosner had unleashed the drama of Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto, then his keyboard prowess would have put to its highest use.