Offering two Mozart Piano Concertos and Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 on Thursday’s Mainly Mozart Festival concert at the Balboa Theatre, Music Director Michael Francis easily lived up to the claim of the festival’s clever title. But finding the right soloist to play two Mozart concertos back to back no doubt proved more challenging. Selecting pianist Anne-Marie McDermott for this demanding task, however, was the perfect choice.McDermott’s commanding performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 449, and his later Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 482, transcended mere stamina and impressive virtuosity. Especially in the more sophisticated later concerto, K. 482, as McDermott displayed Mozart’s exquisite structural architecture and relished his impetuous mood swings, she also revealed the composer’s soul.
In Francis’ opening words, he stressed the amazing leap in Mozart’s musical style from the predictable, well-mannered E-flat Concerto, K. 449, from February of 1784 to the far more complex E-flat Concerto, K. 482, premiered in December of 1785. And it is certainly true that even a genius such as Mozart had to cultivate his innate gifts and uncanny inspiration, and that these years in Vienna marked an incredibly fertile period of his musical development.
While Mozart wrote the first of these E-flat piano concertos, K. 449, for a talented pupil, Barbara Ployer, he wrote K. 482 for himself to play at lucrative subscription concerts he organized for wealthy Viennese patrons, and he was not shy about displaying his technical prowess at the keyboard! In K. 482 we hear Mozart impressing his social superiors with audacious panache, which McDermott delivered in spades, while maintaining an exquisite balance between exuberant, polished flourishes and delicate moments of hushed expectancy.
And it is equally notable that Mozart wrote K. 482 while he was in the midst of composing his first great opera with da Ponte, The Marriage of Figaro, infusing this concerto with relentless dramatic flair. It is easy to hear the busy piano part as operatic protagonists, the assertive woodwind and brass sections as the secondary characters, and the strings as the opera’s chorus and orchestra. In addition to Francis’ choice of breathtaking tempos, the maestro sustained a laudable balance of these components that fit together like a quartet from Figaro, simultaneously expounding their own ideas and emotional states without compromising the unity of harmonic progression.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 in F Minor, “La passione,” speaks the language of spiritual drama rather than Mozart’s realm of social and class drama. Especially in the symphony’s expansive slow opening movement, Francis discovered the power of understatement, and the orchestra responded with its most compelling sonority of the evening, shimmering yet tightly focused as it floated though the hall. Even the fiery second movement, Allegro di molto, retained this beauty and sonic unity, and the sense of confident exultation in the final movement was indeed thrilling.
The caliber of the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra has been its calling card for over 30 years. Consisting primarily of concertmasters and first chair players from orchestras across the continent, the quality of this festival ensemble’s playing has always been impressive. Perhaps because of Martin Chalifour’s leadership as Festival Orchestra Concertmaster this year—although Chalifour has been with the festival since the beginning—the accomplished Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Concertmaster has helped raise the orchestra’s playing to an even higher level. I cannot recall a more polished or moving Haydn symphony in my several decades of reviewing than this account of “La passione.”
This concert was presented by the Mainly Mozart Festival on Thursday, June 13, 2019, at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego. The Mainly Mozart Festival continues in various venues through June 22, 2019.