Who does not know that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy? That his less musically gifted but financially astute father, Leopold Mozart, paraded the young lad around Europe’s major cultural centers so that the nobility might lavish their favor and gold upon the talented young genius is also a familiar bit of historical lore.
But during an interview with Mainly Mozart Music Director Michael Francis a few months before the 2016 Mainly Mozart Festival opened, Francis expressed his concern that even classical music buffs who love Mozart’s music know virtually nothing about the music Mozart wrote when he was a prodigy. Francis decided to begin to remedy that situation by programming only Mozart’s earliest music on the 2016 season, which he has titled “The Prodigy Year.”
On the festival’s opening night concert at the Balboa Theatre, Saturday, June 4, we heard two rare early Mozart works, an instrumental piece “Gallimathias musicum in D Major,” K. 32, and the young lad’s one-act opera Bastien und Bastienne, K. 50/46b. A jaunty work that unfolds into 17 short sections, “Gallimathias musicum” (a term that means “musical nonsense”) struck me as a precursor to the much longer and more fanciful Serenades the composer wrote later in his career and that are often programmed today.
Completed when Mozart was all of 10 years old, the short movements of the “Gallimathias musicum” bristled with abundant clever ideas and bright orchestrations. I particuilarly enjoyed the rousing horn calls that kept returning in a rondo Allegro, a saucy harpsichord solo, and the various miniature fugues articulated so joyfully by the accomplished wind section of the Mainly Mozart Festival orchestra.
Francis’ violins sported a mellifluous shimmer, and the entire orchestra’s tight rhythmic ensemble maintained its fresh, buoyant air from start to finish. The work’s culminating movement, a sturdy fugue, is actually based on the Dutch patriotic tune “Willen van Nassau,” an apt salute to the young Dutch Prince William V of Orange, for whose installation Mozart wrote “Gallimathias musicum.”
The fact that 12-year-old Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne was not even the composer’s first attempt at writing an opera provides sufficient amazement for most opera aficionados. Based on a simple, pastoral love story told in less than an hour, this German-language comic opera boasts a garland of pretty arias and several promising ensembles spurred by surprisingly sophisticated orchestrations. On the other hand, it claims only a soupçon of dramatic complication—will the roving swain win back this first love, the simple shepherdess Bastienne?
Mainly Mozart presented a semi-staged, concert version of this opera, and, given its paucity of plot, this format is probably all this work actually requires. Francis gave the score a spirited interpretation, full of youthful optimism. I was impressed with Daniel Miroslaw, whose bright and flexible bass showed a keen baritonal edge that allowed him to cut through even busy orchestral passages. As the story’s narrator and the advice-to-the-lovelorn dispensing magician Colas, he enlivened the proceedings every moment he appeared on stage.
Mozart gave most of the arias in this little opera to Bastienne, sung with an excess of zeal by soprano Christine Taylor Price. Her highest range suggested real dramatic power, but the role required only modest use of her best asset and remained in her realtively weak mid-range most of the time. Combined with her mushy German pronunciation, this was not a formula for a stirring performance.
On the other hand, the bloom of Yujoong Kim’s bright and supple tenor communicated splendidly both the pride and contrition of Bastienne’s lover, a role that suggested a nascent Tamino or Massetto, vivid characters from two of Mozart’s mature operas. The reconciliation duet of this short opera’s two main characters, a charming siciliana, as well as its rousing final trio proved its most engaging moments, hints of that kind of magnificent ensemble writing that elevates the Mozart operas we know and love.
Keeping with Francis’ prodigy theme, the 15-year-old Umi Garrett played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, a work the composer started as a teen-ager, although he finished this concerto in his mid-twenties. While not the work of a prodigy, it certainly qualifies as very early Beethoven.
Garrett’s opening notes sounded light and dreamy, but the music quickly called for a more assertive character, which she supplied in spades. Most commentators note the Mozartean quality of the Concerto’s first movement, and Garrett’s appproach combined Mozartean grace and clarity with the muscular drive we expect from later Beethoven. I was won over by the way she used the composer’s profuse ornamentation to decisively shape phrases, and her sharp, clean attacks delineated his themes with complete assurance.
In the Concerto’s middle movement, Garrett crafted sonically seductive themes, to which the orchestra and Francis responded in kind. The ebullient Rondo showed off Garrett’s well-developed technical prowess as well as her astute understanding of late Classical style.
For her encore, Garrett played Arcadi Volodos’ rather bumptious but demanding “Turkish March,” a take-off on Mozart’s well-known Rondo.
In its opening night offering, the Mainly Mozart Festival orchestra displayed the polish and clean ensemble we have come to expect from this elite assembly. Now in his second season as Music Director, Francis is making the orchestra his own. The players exhibit a freer, more relaxed sound, and the strings are noticably sweeter. I eagerly wait to see how this approach translates into other orchestral styles.
This concert of the Mainly Mozart Festival orchestra was given on June 4, 2016, in downtown San Diego’s Balboa Theatre. The Festival continues through June 18, 2016.