Michael Francis and Mainly Mozart Orchestra Illuminate Superb Mendelssohn Fifth Symphony

To headline Saturday’s opening concert of Mainly Mozart’s 2019 Festival Orchestra series, Music Director Michael Francis sagely featured pianist Jeremy Denk in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major, K. 467. The highly lauded Denk easily fulfilled justifiably high expectations as soloist in this familiar Mozart concerto, brilliantly delivering the composer’s florid score with technical finesse that always illuminated but never preened. And Denk’s own cadenzas (we have no cadenzas from the composer for this concerto) offered just enough harmonic surprises and thematic juxtapositions to keep his audience on the edge of its seat.

Pianist Jeremy Denk and the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

But to my surprise, I came away with even greater satisfaction from the festival orchestra’s account of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, titled “Reformation.” Francis conducted a compelling and impressively insightful interpretation of the “Reformation” Symphony, elegantly delineating its many deftly scored contrapuntal sections—even in the opening movement’s bustling Allegro con fuoco—with refreshing clarity. He danced through the ebullient second movement, and empathetically shaped the cantabile themes of the Andante.

Michael Francis [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

In Francis’ remarks to the audience about this symphony, the conductor explained that the  Andante’s opening theme quoted a Jewish liturgical theme, allowing the composer to acknowledge his family’s Jewish roots in a work celebrating the Lutheran tradition, a faith into which the young Felix and his sister had been baptized at the insistence of the Mendelssohn family in order to save their talented youngsters from Prussian anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, some conductors hurry through this short movement, seeing it as  merely transitional as its concluding solo flute arabesque quickly modulates into Martin Luther’s chorale “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” the main theme of the symphony’s expansive closing movement. Francis and the orchestra gave the Andante its due, and Principal Flute Erik Gratton’s radiant solo crowned the movement.

And because Francis saved the potent musical muscle of this unusually accomplished chamber orchestra for the final movement’s radiant full-orchestra harmonization of Luther’s chorale, its effect proved majestically conclusive.

Mozart’s “Masonic Funeral Music,” K. 447, a charming, infrequently played short work that allows the woodwinds to set a solemn, mysterious mood before the strings come sweeping in, was not intended for a funeral, according to Francis, but was composed to accompany a Masonic initiation ritual. Of course, since Masonic rituals of any kind are revealed only to actual members of the order, these distinctions remain of modest value. Nevertheless, the orchestra gave an alert, well-defined account of K. 447.

To open the program and the festival with suitable conviviality, Francis chose G. F. Handel’s ever-popular Music for the Royal Fireworks. Setting aside much of what we know about period performance practice, Francis and the orchestra gave a majestic, exhilarating account of its Overture and varied dance movements. Kudos to the brass sections for their reliable brilliance and polish, but most especially to Principal Trumpet Craig Morris, whose immaculately tuned, stratospheric solos soared through the Balboa Theatre.

The Mainly Mozart Festival 2019 presented this concert on June 8, 2019, in the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego. The festival continues through June 23, 2019, in several San Diego venues.

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Balboa Theatre
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