Bringing in Kent Nagano to conduct last season’s SummerFest grand finale chamber orchestra concert was such a smashing success that festival Music Director Cho-Liang Lin thought he could get lightning to strike again in the same place by signing up James Conlon, another star conductor, for the 2013 SummerFest finale.
Conlon, who is Music Director of both the Los Angeles Opera and Chicago’s summer long Ravinia Festival, was able to shoehorn La Jolla into his busy conducting schedule, but no one had counted on the unexpected surgery that took the maestro off the podium for the month of August. On short notice the La Jolla Music Society drafted the estimable English conductor Raymond Leppard to fill in for Conlon, provoking some rumbling of discontent from SummerFest subscribers who felt deprived of what Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita called “that touch of star quality.”
Although the 86-year-old Leppard made his way gingerly across the Sherwood Auditorium stage, his gentle authority behind the podium won over both the festival players and the closing night audience. When Leppard turned to take his bow at the end of a piece, he flashed a beatific smile that was completely congruent with the radiant musical countenance he coaxed from the program’s two Mozart Symphonies and the D Major Serenade.
Leppard’s take on Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, was courtly and serene, giving the orchestra time to elucidate the masterful web of themes and countermelodies with which this work is so lavishly endowed. His tempos did not sacrifice Mozart’s dramatic edge, but there was no hint of the daemonic that more fiery tempos of the opening movement so easily suggest. I found the nobility and breadth of Leppard’s final movement particularly satisfying.
The string ensemble took its cue from contermaster David Chan’s warm, sumptuous timbre, and the winds in the G Minor glowed with unusual luster. Certainly it was a luxury to have have Carolyn Ransom Karoly as principal flute, John Bruce Weh as principal clarinet and San Diego Symphony’s own Valentin Martchev as principal bassoon—indeed, half of the the orchestra’s glowing wind section was drawn from the local symphony.
In Mozart’s day, the instrumental serenade was essentially over-written background music, I imagine more fun for the players than for a serious audience, but the “Serenata Notturna” in D Major, K. 239, is more like a cheerful three-movement Baroque concerto grosso for two violins, viola and contrabass. Mozart gave the solo quartet all of the sophisticated repartee, which violinists Chan and Lin, violist Richard O’Neill and bassist Nico Abondolo dispatched with finesse and evident pleasure. The rest of the strings accompanied with more or less dutiful enthusiasm, while timpanist Jason Ginter gleefully insisted on his wry obbligato.[php snippet=1]
As a modest tip of the hat to Benjamin Britten’s centennial year, the program included his “Simple Symphony,” Op. 4, which the composer finished at age 20, although many of the themes came from his own childhood music sketches. Leppard’s empathy for his fellow countryman was evident at every turn, thoughtfully shaping Britten’s eloquent polyphony and gently indulging his catalogue of unusual orchestrations, including the pizzicato second movement that turned the lower strings into giant guitars. The Sarabande, in the third-movement position where we typically expect a scherzo, unleashed a plangent theme that invited the strings’ most opulent sounds of the evening.
The program opened with Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K. 201, a prolix piece that tends to overstay its welcome. The orchestra lacked the polish is displayed in the G Minor Symphony, and there were some problems of balance with the over-zealous horn section, but the mellow second movement and the mellifluous Trio of the Menuetto proved ample compensation.