When the celebrated English music historian Charles Burney toured Germany in the 18th century, he called the Mannehim court orchestra “an army of generals” because of its atypical virtuosity. When I hear David Atherton’s Mainly Mozart festival orchestra perform and read the number of concertmasters from other orchestras in his violin section and note all the visiting prinicpal players holdng down the other sections, I immediately think of Burney’s phrase “an army of generals.”
Thursday (June 20) at the Balboa Theatre, the festival orchestra under Atherton’s precise baton flaunted its refined, buoyant sonority as well as its interpretive finesse and masterful unity of execution in a varied program of Mozart, Schubert, Fauré and Poulenc. Yes—the army of generals designation fit to a T.
In the almost forgotten days of FM classical radio broadcasting, Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavane” was the French equivalent of the ubiquitous Pachelbel “Canon in D.” Principal Flute Stefan Hoskuldsson imparted a sensuous edge to the haunting solo that propels this mellifluous work, while his woodwind colleagues cushioned his line with an equally seductive velvet timbre. Atherton chose understatement as his interpretive guide for the “Pavane,” and it is difficult to imagine a more convincing approach to renew the worth of this familiar gem.
Among Mozart’s nearly 30 piano concertos, the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467, can also suffer from overexposure—yes, this is the Elvira Madigan theme—unless the soloist is someone like Anton Nel. Like maestro Atherton, he mesmerized us with crystalline transparency in the concerto’s reflective sections and unleashed ebullient fireworks for Mozart’s passionate displays. Yet everything worked together to create a winning sense of proportion and balance.
Mozart left no cadenzas for this concerto, but Nel’s blazing cadenzas were filled with more clever surprises than a standup
comic’s monologue. According to the program, Nel has been with Mainly Mozart for its entire 25-year run. Time may have added a wrinkle or two to his visage, but his technical prowess remains uncannily fresh and youthful. Nel displays all of the brilliance of young competition winners, but he also conveys the levels of meaning below the flurry of notes those youngsters have so arduously conquered.
Franz Schubert completed his Third Symphony in D Major at age 18, and this uneven work makes me side with the historians who conclude that Schubert was not a prodigy. A kinder soul than this writer describes his early symphonies as “works in progress,” but even given the fastidious attention and panache of the festival orchestra, this symphonic work had little to say. Awash in sweet, folkish tunes that fail to develop and lazy organization, the D Major Symphony kept my attention glued to my watch. Only the smart finale earned its keep—at long last the Mainly Mozart strings had something worthwhile to dig their bows into.
Atherton opened the concert with Mozart’s Five Contradances, K. 609, clever miniatures that spiced up the string ensemble with[php snippet=1] solos for flute and drum. For the second half, he chose Francis Poulenc’s “Movements Perpétuels,” a youthful, three-movement suite full of the urban insouciance for which the composer is know and admired. These two works are fine examples of the slighter but still worthy items from a composer’s catalogue that a festival uniquely can present and savor.