David Atherton’s farewell concert as Music Director of the Mainly Mozart Festival Saturday (June 22) offered the sold out Balboa Theatre audience high spirits, pristine music making, and a touch of valedictory symbolism. At age 69 and at the top of his form, the intrepid British conductor is stepping down from his festival post to give someone else a chance to interpret this repertory, although Mainly Mozart is just beginning its search for a new director.
Starting his program with Mozart’s First Symphony in E-flat Major, K. 16, and ending with his final symphony, Symphony No. 41 in C Major (“Jupiter”), K. 551, Atherton signaled that over the last quarter century he has given San Diego audiences his take on the gamut of Mozart’s orchestral catalogue. Expressing his zeal for Mozart, Atherton has consistently displayed an authoritative grasp of musical architecture and the emotional power of expressive dynamics.
From his opening downbeat to the final cutoff, his assertive stance assures an impeccable[php snippet=1] performance level, a virtue that has both defined the Mainly Mozart brand and gathered a loyal following. Atherton’s “Jupiter” Symphony, for example, took us down every familiar path to wonder at such an exquisitely well-manicured garden. Those who hoped for some new insight, something unexpected, were disappointed—this is the price of complete control.
I wonder: with such an assembly of elite musicians in the festival orchestra, do they need that level of oversight? What would happen if they were less constrained? The image of a relaxed, understated Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony keeps flashing in my mind’s eye.
For me, this concert’s high point was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto in F Major, notably pianist Adam Neiman’s commanding role as soloist. Written in 1957 for the composer’s son Maxim, this is one of Shostakovich’s sunniest works, revealing an atypical lightness of touch, a playful take on the grandiose Russian concerto that brings to mind the ebullient works of Prokofiev before he returned to the Soviert Union.
From the piquant music-box themes of the concerto’s opening movement to the unrelenting powerful dance rhythms of the
finale, Neiman made the piano sing, especially in the upper registers, where the instrument’s timbre tends to be dull and flat. In the dreamy middle movement, he managed to be genial and wistful at the same time. Atherton and the festival orchestra supported his probing interpretation at every turn; for a chamber orchestra, they projected a robust, compelling symphonic sweep.
Fortunately, there were no stuffy farewell speechs at this concert, although a well-edited short video presentation at the program’s beginning assembled words of concise commendation from musicians and board members associated with Mainly Mozart. We can only hope that the festival’s next 25 years will be as groundbreaking as the first.