American orchestras have always had a penchant for hiring foreign conductors as music directors. For some time, Italians have been popular (Arturo Toscanini, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Riccardo Muti); for a while Hungarians were all the vogue (George Szell, Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti), and even Finns have particular cachet on these shores (Paavo Berglund, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Osmo Vänskä).
But with the appointment of Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic five years ago, the spotlight has shifted to Latin America. What better time for Mexican maestro Carlos Miguel Prieto, Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, to conduct the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra?
In his debut concert Wednesday (June 18) at the Balboa Theatre, Prieto proved to be an exuberant, highly communicative conductor able to elicit a wide range of dynamic and emotional responses from the orchestra. His take on standard repertory—he chose Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert as his calling card—was fresh and invigorating, and the orchestra’s response to his direction was both alert and eager.
Instead of preceding Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major with some short, snappy opera overture, Prieto opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 in B-flat Major, a long, structurally and harmonically sophisticated opus from the composer’s final outburst of creative symphonic invention. Prieto gambled that he could rivet his listeners’ collective attention for half and hour and then complete the hour with one of Beethoven’s most probing works, and he succeeded.
When called for, his Haydn stood at attention to the conductor’s assertive downbeats, yet gamboled gracefully in relaxed, lyrical moments. His Menuetto displayed just the right amount of edge and bite, and its Trio sparkled with a kaleidoscope of warm wind solos. In the Adagio, Prieto reminded us that Haydn was also a respected opera composer (alas, only in his day!) who could spin out melodies to touch the heart. His judicious pacing of the Finale kept its explosive conclusion discreetly under wraps before he released its thematic fusillade.
Prieto’s partner in the Beethoven Piano Concerto was his compatriot Jorge Federico Osorio, and the two could not have been more amicably attuned. To say that Osorio’s playing was polished, his cadenzas bracing and his textures transparently defined would be true but completely inadequate considering the depth of his interpretation of a concerto most of us know all too well. As he took us through its familiar trajectory, he revealed the composer’s temperament, his idealism as well as his inner torment, a musical confessional that was spellbinding. It was like a master class—not in the sense of “how to play Beethoven,” but rather how to enter into his world.
He offered a short encore, a modest but glowing transcription of a J. S. Bach Chorale Prelude for organ. When Osorio is not touring, he teaches at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. After hearing him perform, we now know how fortunate his students are.
To Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major, D. 125, Prieto brought his formidable skill and admiration, and for most of the time I was with him. This rarely performed early symphony (Schubert was 18 when he finished it) parallels the four-movement architecture of Hadyn’s Symphony No. 102, but where the latter exudes urbane finesse, the former is saddled with the striving enthusiasm of youth.[php snippet=1]
Prieto coaxed a hint of swagger from his players in the effervescent Allegro vivace, and he danced deftly around his stand to convey his notion that the Andante was really a lithe dance in disguise. In the Trio, Principal Oboe Nathan Hughes piped a beguiling, sweet shepherd’s song. It was difficult to overlook some of Schubert’s simplistic string writing. More diplomatic music historians call Schubert’s early symphonies “works in progress,” where ardor does not always compensate for lack of technique.
Since Mainly Mozart has always touted its binational status, Prieto might be a particularly canny choice for its next music director.