It is no secret. David Atherton, founder and Music Director of the San Diego Mainly Mozart Festival, will retire when the festival season ends next weekend. From the star-studded concert he and the festival orchestra mounted Saturday (June 15) at the Balboa Theatre, it is clear that the maestro does not intend to exit the San Diego arts scene unobtrusively.
The festival orchestra, which has been Atherton’s pride and joy for the last 25 years, sounded as sleek and sonically unified as we have come to expect from this cadre of first-chair players drawn from orchestras across North America. But it was the three stellar soloists, clarinetist Anthony McGill, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who made us feel we were at one of those elite European festivals nestled in an historic spa-town.
For starters, Anthony McGill gave a transcendent account of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, K. 622, as tonally shimmering and emotionally rich as the most devoted Mozartean could wish for. Although we seem to have a bumper crop of fluent clarinetists these days, McGill displayed more than mere technical prowess. In the concerto’s middle movement, for example, he insinuated a level of pathos in his phrasing that any soprano attempting the Countess’s “Porgi, Amor” from The Marriage of Figaro would rightly covet.
Spinning out immaculate flourishes up and down the range of his instrument, which I took to be one of those basset clarinets especially designed for the unusually low range of this concerto, he never allowed such display to disturb the felicitous chamber music dynamic level and equanimity he brought to the work. Although Atherton kept the orchestra sublimely under the soloist while he was playing, he encouraged overly muscular fortes when McGill was catching his breath.
The audience let loose their raucous approval of McGill, calling him back to the stage several times—a level of praise usually[php snippet=1] reserved for a pianist who has just hammered home one of those grandiose Russian piano concertos. For once, elegance was awarded the prize. If you are wondering where you have seen this performer’s name before, he has appeared in recent Mainly Mozart festivals. And he was one of the four musicians who performed the John Williams commission for Barack Obama’s first inauguration. And he is the brother of the San Diego Symphony’s recent Principal Flute Demarre McGill, who—to the acute sadness of local symphony goers—now occupies a similar position with the Seattle Symphony. When not participating in festivals, Anthony occupies the Principal Clarinet position at the Metropolitan Opera. I certainly hope the Met’s Mozart sopranos come to him for interpretive coaching!
For most orchestras, one soloist per concert is standard, but on Saturday, McGill was just the opener. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott followed him in Mozart’s Concert Rondo in D, K. 382, a single movement showpiece for piano and orchestra that the newly arrived Salzburg native concocted to impress the Viennese musical public. The Rondo may not be one of Mozart’s more profound offerings, but McDermott took every note seriously, and with her scintillating articulation and verve made the most of this indulgent Viennese pastry.
Like the music of Mozart, Astor Piazolla’s works are marked by their undeniable audience appeal, and his suite “The Four
Seasons of Buenos Airies” is a slam-dunk charmer, especially when Salerno-Sonnenberg takes the solo violin role and leads the accompanying string ensemble as she did on Saturday. Latin passion, the underlying drive of the tango lightened by the improvisatory impulses of jazz, and occasional winks to Antonio Vivaldi’s ubiquitous “The Four Seasons” define Piazolla’s homage. This sophisticated suite embodies a kind of “third stream”—music midway between jazz and classical—that Gunther Schuller espoused but did not compose as persuasively.
If you don’t know the Vivaldi opus, this four-movement work makes complete sense on its own, although you may wonder why the rest of the audience emits an audible chuckle from time to time. Salerno-Sonnenberg was in top form enunciating the sizzling themes that the strings would then toy with, and her sexy downbows gave the tango sections the steamy innuendo that makes this music so accessible. In her conducting role, her cues with her violin bow may not have been elegant, but her authority in this piece was beyond dispute.
Atherton opened the concert with a striking nonet for strings and winds, “Dance Preludes” by Witold Lutoslawski, a brilliant Pole who, like his Russian counterpart Dmitri Shostakovich, had to mask his creative compositional daring to sneak it past his Communist government censors. His five-movement suite has little to do with dance, but linking his sometimes edgy counterpoint to folk dance fooled the authorities. I found everything about this piece delightful—it was like Bartók in an uncharacteristically optimistic frame of mind!