With newly minted Mainly Mozart Festival Music Director Michael Francis on the podium Saturday (June 6), the first festival orchestra concert of the 2015 season catapulted the packed Balboa Theatre audience into an ebullient mood. A combination of Francis’ bracing tempos, pianist Jon Kimura Parker’s keyboard wizardry, and the orchestra’s ever reliable finesse produced a rewarding musical trifecta.
Although no one would judge a serious novel after reading only the first chapter, I came away with some clear first impressions of the new maestro (I was unable to attend his Mainly Mozart debut in 2014). On the podium Francis proved a busy, detail-oriented conductor, diligently exploiting contrasts and quite unafraid of the extreme ends of the dynamic continuum.
He did appear to be a speed freak, however, not unlike the proverbial teenager who is given the keys to a Ferrari and immediately takes it out to see just how fast it will go. From this elite chamber orchestra Francis elicited a tightly focused ensemble that was able to provide him with the super-charged tempos he appeared to relish.
Since Mozart marked the final movement of his Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner”)—the flashy program opener—Presto, it would be pointless to complain about its breakneck tempo, and Francis certainly made it work. But the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, marked Allegro con brio, became more than vigorous in his hands. Its breathless tempo projected a frantic edge that seemed at odds with Francis’ genuinely thoughtful and artfully structured journey through the first three movements of the Seventh.
I was particularly taken with the second movement, the Allegretto, where he drew soulful sighs from the low strings and a myriad of cleanly outlined colors in the deft fughetta. In his program notes Francis aptly described this movement as a stately dance, and I also heard in it a stately procession wending its way through the Balboa.
The heart of this program was Jon Kimura Parker’s sparkling account of Mozart’s C Major Piano Concerto, K. 467. Although K. 467 is one of the most frequently played of the nearly 30 Mozart piano concertos, Parker made it sound fresh and vibrant, full of surprising details and engaging turns, without seeming the slightest bit fussy. Speed and clarity may be virtues than piano teachers preach endlessly, but Parker demonstrated that it is equally important to communicate the purpose of every technical feat, and intention animated his performance from the first notes he played.
Individuals of a certain age will recall the concerto’s delectable middle movement as the theme from the film Elvira Madigan, and Parker gave its dulcet melody a slightly otherworldly character, which Francis had the orchestra mirror precisely. The purist side of my brain began to complain about “Romanticizing” Mozart, but I decided to shut that down and simply enjoy the magic of the moment.
At intermission, some colleagues raised reasonable eyebrows about Parker’s cadenzas, which certainly pushed the stylistic borders of the Classical period with more complex harmonies and textures than appear in music from the 1780s. But Mozart left no written-out cadenzas for this concerto, so either the performer must use or concoct a cadenza that would pass the scrutiny of a Music Theory teacher who specialized in 18th-century harmony or go for broke and improvise in such an amazing fashion as to enrapture the audience, which is what Mozart and his colleagues did in their time.
Parker’s rousing cadenzas bubbled over with surprises and allusions to other Mozart works (I noted the opening motifs from Symphony No. 40 in the first movement cadenza), keeping us in delightful suspense, wondering what he would do next—exactly what a cadenza should do. Bravo!
For his encore, Parker offered his wistful, nuanced take on Scott Joplin’s rag, “Solace.”