The stars were out at Saturday night’s Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra concert at the Balboa Theatre. And I am not describing the night sky over Horton Plaza Park, but rather the two stars who dominated the Balboa Theatre stage: coloratura soprano Ellie Dehn singing with breathtaking authority in Mozart’s unjustly overlooked choral gem Davide penitente, K. 469, and violinist Augustin Hadelich giving his mesmerizing account of Beethoven’s beloved Violin Concerto.
To be fair, these two were the brightest stars in Saturday’s Mainly Mozart firmament, inasmuch as Dehn was joined by two other fine vocal soloists in the cantata Davide penitente—soprano Erica Petrocelli and tenor Randall Bills. And the festival orchestra members are largely concertmasters and first-chair players from symphony orchestras across the continent. Shaping each of these formidable works with commanding insight, festival Music Director Michael Francis also was nothing less than incandescent on the podium.
Kudos to Francis for pulling the dusty score of Mozart’s seldom performed Davide penitente off the library shelf, placing it at the very center of the festival, and leading such a forceful, insightful performance of the cantata. One reason typically given for the cantata’s relative obscurity is that Mozart reworked large portions of his unfinished Mass in C Minor, K. 427, using an Italian language text of biblical Psalm paraphrases penned by Saverio Mattei, to create Davide penitente—although I have never heard anyone express reservations about J.S. Bach’s B Minor Mass because Bach recycled some of his old church cantata movements in the profound mass he finished towards the end of his career in Leipzig.
Some 60 members of the San Diego Master Chorale provided majestic choral statements, grand sonic pillars that resonated with ardent dramatic edge that boldly defined the cantata’s structure. In the Master Chorale’s disciplined counterpoint we heard Mozart’s homage to the fugal mastery of J.S. Bach—the final chorus “Chi in Dio sol spera”—and his homage to Handel’s rich, kaleidoscopic harmonic progressions—the middle chorus “Si vuoi, puniscimi.”
Dehn thrilled us in her exuberant account of “Tra l’oscure ombre funestre,” a stunning coloratura aria Mozart wrote specifically for the cantata. The gleam of her highest register and her vivid phrasing brought to mind the recent roles she has so magnificently created for San Diego Opera: Alice Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff (2017) and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni (2015). She was well complemented by Petrocelli and Bills in the Trio “Tutte le mie speranze,” and each of these vocalists provided confident solos in other portions of the cantata.
Although Davide penitene is rarely performed, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major is a staple of every orchestra’s repertory, and even casual concertgoers know this work. Thankfully, Hadelich chose dynamic restraint and probing eloquence as his interpretive keys to this concerto. To this listener, his approach completely refreshed a familiar concerto and opened up myriad sections to satisfactions not previously experienced.
Francis took his cues from Hadelich, which allowed the orchestra to develop its most luxurious, transparent textures in the broadly scaled first two movements. Of course, the instrumentalists gave the finale’s Rondo an aptly spirited, even playful run for its money, and Hadelich unleashed his mighty virtuoso technique in that movement’s demanding cadenza.
The Mainly Mozart audience gave instant, roaring approval to this sophisticated approach to the Beethoven Concerto, and Hadelich rewarded his fans with an unabashed virtuoso showpiece, Paganini’s “Caprice” No. 24.
This concert was presented by the Mainly Mozart Festival on Saturday, June 15, 2019, in the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego. The festival continues in various San Diego venues through June 22, 2019.