Mainly Mozart’s Michael Francis Era: the First Installment Considered

Michael Francis climaxed his first Mainly Mozart Festival with a rousing program that had Saturday’s (June 20) sold-out Balboa Theatre patrons on their feet cheering. Like his pedal-to-the-metal Beethoven Seventh than concluded his opening night concert two weeks ago, his Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor crossed the finish line with the unrelenting determination of an Olympic runner going for the gold.

Simone Lamsma [photo (c) Otto van den Toom]

Simone Lamsma [photo (c) Otto van den Toom]

Now that Francis has dwelt among us a fortnight and practiced his craft, we are allowed a few preliminary conclusions about his musicianship and his vision for the festival orchestra that first opened with nine concerts in the Old Globe Theatre’s outdoor stage in 1989 and has grown into the year round, multiple site festival of 2015.

Francis’ zeal for the music of Mozart and his era explodes into vibrant tempos that test the mettle of his players, but, for the most part, not at the expense of attention to the finer points and myriad details of the score that make this music rewarding. For example, in the opening movement of the Mozart Symphony—marked Molto allegro and Francis was relishing the molto—he brought out with equal precision all of those gorgeous counter melodies that balance the shorter motifs that propel this exciting movement.

In the brisk Menuetto, he stressed the subtle cross rhythms that pepper the movement, and stepped back to allow the Trio its elegant allure. On the podium, Francis consistently rewards the attentive listener and invites a closer inspection of pieces we think we know well.

Francis also brings in unfamiliar works that he believes will provide context for understanding Mozart. On this program, for example, he offered Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony No. 6 in G Minor, a short, three-movment Italianate sinfonia that bristled with those nervous Sturm und Drang effects that swept European music after the high drama of Baroque counterpoint fell out of favor.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s youngest and most widely acclaimed son, Johann Christian Bach, wrote and produced Italian operas in London, and, when Leopold Mozart paraded his 8-year-old prodigy to that worldly music capital, he welcomed the young Mozart, and the two musicians improvised together on the harpsichord. Now that would have been a jam session worthy of recording! And contemporary musicologists tell us that Mozart’s early symphonies have J.C. Bach’s stylistic fingerprints all over them.

In my opinion, J.C. Bach’s sinfonia concertantes are more ingratiating works than his symphonies, but this G Minor Symphony clearly demonstrated a modicum of stylistic influence from a composer Mozart admired at an early stage of his development. Bach’s liberal use of string tremolandos in his last movement may have originally expressed sinister implications, but these effects strike us as slightly humorous: think Vivaldi on an acid trip. I don’t expect to run into this J. C. Bach Symphony again soon, however.

Although the young Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma arrived with an impressive resumé of performances with major orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic, I had not encountered her before this concert. I was impressed by the purity of her ample sonority and by her restrained, aristocratic approach to nuances of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Her middle movement lines cast a hypnotic spell over the pizzicato string section, as did her ardent duet with Principal Bassoon Whitney Crockett.

Francis and the festival orchestra supplied a most attentive accompaniment throughout, although more leadership from the podium in the opening movement could have brought its contours into clearer focus. Lamsma saved her fire for the final cadenza, which gave the jaunty Rondo a fitting climax.

As long as Francis is conducting, the festival orchestra upholds the best Mainly Mozart standards, with the bonus of a slightly more buoyant, less constrained musical profile. I await programming from him that will lift the fog of predictable, repetitive choices that have beset this festival in recent years.

Mainly Mozart  program and bios

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  1. KMW on June 21, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    An outstanding concert, as was the 6:15 pm Overture Concert, during which 15 string players ranging in age from 8-18 (can this be correct–the string quartet playing Mozart included a violinist whose feet were at least 12 inches from the floor?) playing with their coaches, who are members of the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra.

    Please include contemporary music in future festivals.

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