Bach and Mozart: Mainly Mozart’s Odd Couple

The Mainly Mozart Festival marked its mid-point last Saturday (June 13) with a grandly conceived concert in the Balboa Theatre featuring the Festival Orchestra, four vocal soloists, and the Mainly Mozart debut of the San Diego Master Chorale.

Soprano Hyunah Yu [photo courtesy of Mainly Mozart Festival]

Soprano Hyunah Yu [photo courtesy of Mainly Mozart Festival]

Mozart’s great Mass in C Minor, K. 427 was the centerpiece of the concert, with two rarely-heard works preceding the intermission: Igor Stravinsky’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s “Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her,” followed by Anton Webern’s arrangement for small orchestra of the Ricercare (Fugue 2) from Bach’s Musical Offering.

“Why Bach,” Festival Music Director Michael Francis asked in his pre-concert talk. And if Bach, then why dress him up, so to speak, in arrangements by other composers? In answer, Francis shared his thoughts about Bach’s influence on Mozart, along with interesting excerpts from Mozart’s correspondence to and from his father Leopold, as well as useful insights into the enduring influence of Bach’s work on composers into the 20th century and beyond. In the absence of any program notes in the Festival’s program book, Francis’ participation in the pre-concert talk, as well as his commentary preceding each work’s performance gave the audience invaluable and much-needed context.

Baritone Thomas Shivone [photo (c) Pete Checchia]

Baritone Thomas Shivone [photo (c) Pete Checchia]

It would be gratifying to report that the individual – and exciting – elements of this performance all combined to create something greater than the sum of its musical parts. The Mozart Mass is one of his most beloved works, and for good reason: the choral writing is full of marvels, and the soloists – especially the high soprano – are given music that, in its melting lyricism and heart-felt yearning, is worthy of art meant to address God.

But something happened along the way, and the signs of trouble came at the very beginning.

The San Diego Master Chorale’s long-standing reputation for a meticulously-integrated sound and clear diction was on full display at their first entrance in the Bach-Stravinsky Canonic Variations, although no credit was given in the program for either the Chorale’s artistic director John Russsell or their preparation for this concert. But a serious balance problem, between the orchestra and the Chorale, was immediately evident. Whether it was due to a compressed rehearsal schedule, or to a stage setup that did not elevate the chorus to a height sufficient to carry the voices over the orchestra, or to a maladjustment on the conductor’s part to the acoustics of the hall, the Chorale was unable to be heard or understood when it was singing in the same register in which the orchestra was playing.

Webern’s setting for small orchestra of the Ricercare from Bach’s Musical Offering displayed the two

Soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernandez [photo (c) Ribaltaluce]

Soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernandez [photo (c) Ribaltaluce]

qualities with which Bach infused every note he wrote – precision and a rhythmic, dance-like buoyancy. The Festival Orchestra offered its best playing of the evening in this work, although the challenge of balancing brass and woodwind lines with the strings (especially when muted) was not always successful. At least from my seat in the middle of the main floor, the Balboa’s acoustic heavily favored the brass and woodwind sections at the expense of the strings.

Situated at the front of the stage, the vocal soloists enjoyed the advantage of proximity to the audience. Making her Mainly Mozart Festival debut, first soprano Hyunah Yu overcame the limitations of a hollow lower register and a constricted middle voice with a pleasing bloom at the top of her range. She delivered the Mass’s great showpiece, the “Et incarnatus est,” with rapt focus and precise ornamentation.

Second soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernandez, another Festival debutante, deployed a somewhat metallic voice with insightful musicianship. If the two sopranos were not always able to make a pleasing blend singing together, they nonetheless demonstrated Mozart’s almost uncannily virtuosic ability to match musical setting to religious text in this Mass, an accomplishment which was to flower into unsurpassed brilliance in the operas he would compose in the years following this work.

The male soloists get the short end of the stick in this Mass (perhaps because Mozart was determined to showcase his wife Costanze, who sang the first soprano part at the work’s premiere). Tenor Steven Soph fulfilled his duties with sweet, focused singing, and baritone Thomas Shivone, currently completing studies at the Curtis Institute while helping inaugurate the Emerging Artists Program at Opera Philadelphia, sang with reassuring solidity that anchored the quartet securely in its dramatic final pages.

The restoration of the Balboa Theatre has been an important addition to the musical life of San Diego. Mainly Mozart has found a congenial home there in a time when appropriate locations for larger-scale chamber music performances are dwindling: Birch North Park Theatre is now a memory, Sherwood Auditorium will soon be gone, and La Jolla Music Society’s new hall will not open until early January 2018. If the Festival can find ways to address – and remedy – the acoustic challenges that the Balboa poses, we can hope that concerts like this one will make ever-increasing appearances in its schedule.

Mozart C Minor Mass Program & bios

1 A B C D E G I J L M N O P Q R S T U W
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Balboa Theatre
868 Fourth Avenue San Diego CA 92101
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