While the Cat Was Away, the Mice Played—Poorly

Some 20 minutes into Wednesday’s Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra program, an unsettling thought appeared. As the strings assembled on the Balboa Theatre stage were struggling to keep their ensemble together and regain their heretofore refined sonority in works by Mozart and Vivaldi, I wondered if Music Director Michael Francis had encouraged this concert without a conductor as a means of demonstrating just how necessary he was to the success of the enterprise.

His leadership on the podium was sorely missed.

Hearing the Festival Orchestra’s June 6 opening program, I worried that Francis may have overemphasized dynamic contrasts, but that approach is more desirable than Concertmaster William Preucil’s static, unvarying dynamic level that becalmed most of Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 137. In the 18th century, it was standard practice for the first violin player to lead in performance, but every member of this Festival Orchestra comes from an orchestra that relies on a conductor.

The handful of North American orchestras that regularly perform without conductor—only New York City’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra come immediately to mind—do so all season long. To expect a festival orchestra that plays together for only a few weeks out of the year to work together cohesively without the director on the podium was betting against the odds.

A clear example of this problem surfaced in the Vivaldi Concerto for Three Violins in F Major, RV 551. The charming middle movement called for two of the violins, Juliana Athayde and Jun Iwasaki, to carry out Mozart’s prolific melodic ideas, while violinist Zachary DePue plucked a mandolin-like accompaniment over the basso continuo of cello and harpsichord. None of the three violinists agreed with the pulse set up by the basso continuo players, and the violins did not agree among themselves on how to subdivide their beats. So Athayde’s bright, assertive lines and DePue’s articulate pizzicato playing were compromised by the fuzzy ensemble and lack of metrical precision.

In Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor, Op. 3, No. 10, I was pleased to hear some soloists I had not previously experienced, including Alexandra Preucil, Jeffrey Zehngut, and Sonja Braaten Molloy. Each displayed a sure sense of cleanly articulated Baroque style, as well as that impetuous flourish that makes Vivaldi’s music so winning. Unfortunately, William Preucil, the fourth member of this solo group, vainly attempted to hide his imprecise articulation, blurred figures and out-of-tune playing behind mere flourish.

Collaborating with Mainly Mozart founding Music Director David Atherton at the orchestra’s birth, Preucil has been Mainly Mozart’s sole Concertmaster. Like Atherton’s tepid programming in later years, the brilliance of Preucil’s performance has also waned in recent years. Atherton gracefully retired from Mainly Mozart in 2013–perhaps it is time for the founding Concertmaster to follow the path of the founding Music Director.

Jeffrey Khaner [photo courtesy of Mainly Mozart Festival]

Jeffrey Khaner [photo courtesy of Mainly Mozart Festival]

For the most part, flutists adore Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major, K. 313, even though in the middle of an argument with his father (documented in their correspondence),  young Mozart claimed he could not abide the flute. Ordinarily the charm and grace of this mellifluous flute concerto easily wins over an audience, but I found soloist Jeffrey Khaner’s overly conscientious account bland and emotionally cool to the point of pedantic. Especially compared to Jon Kimura Parker’s vibrant Mozart Piano Concert in C Major, K. 467, on opening night, Khaner was just sleepwalking.

The program concluded with Symphony No. 23 in D Major, K 181, a compact three movements played as one, something that Mozart polished off at age 17. Rapturous solos by Principal Oboe Nathan Hughes crowned the sparkling, well-tuned contributions of all the winds in this fresh, cocky symphony. Music Directors should consider using Mozart’s Symphony No. 23 as a program opener in lieu of reprising another hackneyed Rossini opera overture.

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