Mainly Mozart’s final concert of the season featuring the Festival Orchestra on June 23 had a bittersweet edge. The audience is struck with the realization that this specific assemblage of musicians will not appear together again, even though 2018 has marked the 30th consecutive season of the festival.
A few musicians have been with the Festival Orchestra since its beginning, but newer—usually younger—players dot the orchestra each season. As an invitational ensemble, its roster lacks the continuity of a resident orchestra.
I was especially impressed by this year’s wind players, especially the horns, who supplied unfailingly unified, sumptuous lines regardless of each work’s style or tempo. Equally winning was the dexterity and polish of the cellos and basses, who brought such point to complex figurations at demanding tempos.
Of course, next year’s roster could be even better, although that would be expecting a lot. One sign that the orchestra will stay the course is the continued leadership of Music Director Michael Francis. Just before the orchestra opened the concert with Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 in G Major, K. 318, Board President Ronald Heller announced that Francis had just signed a new contract that will keep him as Mainly Mozart’s Music Director through 2023.
Oddly, on Francis’ last night with this year’s Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra, the music of Mozart played a minor role. Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 in G Major, a short, breezy work in three movements that looked back to the galant Symphonies of C. P. E. Bach, and Mozart’s “Rondo Concertante,” an arrangement of a single piano piece as a one-movement piano concertino, served as charming appetizers to the evening’s main dishes, a major Haydn Piano Concerto and Felix Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony in A Minor, Scottish.
Vivacious Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić drew his audience into Haydn’s effusive piano traceries with his amazingly supple and elegantly articulated technique in the D Major Piano Concerto, Hob XVIII:1 1. While his right hand danced a kind of keyboard tarantella, his left hand boldly sculpted bass lines with persuasive accent and animation.
I suspect the reason we hear more Mozart piano concertos performed in concert than those written by Haydn is because of the former’s engaging melodic invention. Haydn can sound a bit tame by comparison, but this D Major Concerto revealed Haydn’s advantage over Mozart’s middle period compositions: his ability to craft frequent, surprising modulations—especially to the minor mode—that easily compensate for lack of melodic brilliance.
Although Haydn’s D Major Concerto’s final movement is marked “in the Hungarian Style,” I heard various exotic influences, including the martial rhythms and colors of Turkish janissary bands. Francis and Lazić collaborated splendidly to make this rarely performed Piano Concerto one of the delights of the 2018 Mainly Mozart season.
Concluding both this concert and the 2018 season with Felix Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony allowed Francis to show the Festival Orchestra in its finest form. Mendelssohn had no success with opera, but he filled his symphonies with dramatic intensity, and Francis not only unleashed the formidable power of this muscular chamber orchestra to indulge these vibrant dramatic flashes and excursions, but he deftly guided every transition of mood and tempo with the finesse of a seasoned string quartet.
Although historians have designated this A Minor Symphony, finished in 1842, as Mendelssohn’s Third, most concur that it is actually his final completed symphony and should be counted his Fifth. Its scope and brilliant orchestration make it a worthy successor to the Beethoven symphonic canon and places it in that logical progression of European symphonic development that leads to Dvořák, Brahms and Mahler. Francis and the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra gave this critic a heightened appreciation of Mendelssohn’s gift as symphonist in their rewarding account of the A Minor Symphony.
This concert was presented by Mainly Mozart on Saturday, June 23, 2018, in the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego, CA. The 2018 Mainly Mozart Festival concludes June 24, 2018, with chamber music performances in Carlsbad and Rancho Santa Fe.