Putting the pizzazz in Piazzolla

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
U-T San Diego

Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra offers memorable concert at BalboaTheatre

By James Chute

Was Saturday’s performance by the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra at the Balboa Theatre the best Mainly Mozart concert in the festival’s 25-year history?

Not that I’ve heard all, or even most of those hundred-plus performances. In fact, I’ve only heard a small fraction.

But it’s hard to imagine a more successful Mainly Mozart program.

After sounding as if they were pressing in much of Thursday’s first Mainly Mozart performance at the Balboa, the musicians were at relaxed attention Saturday. The ensemble sounded more cohesive, more nuanced, and more musical.

In the two Mozart works on the program, the Clarinet Concerto (with Anthony McGill) and the Concert Rondo (with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott), conductor David Atherton and the orchestra offered a clinic in Mozart interpretation.

At the very the beginning of the concerto, they immediately defined the stylistic parameters in which they were going to work.

This wasn’t about finding the Beethoven in Mozart or looking back to discover the Haydn in Mozart, it was about finding the Mozart in Mozart, defining exactly what that is, and then using every element available within that definition to activate the music’s life force.

Unlike Thursday’s Mozart, there was not a moment of harshness or stridency. Everything flowed effortlessly.

Atherton and the ensemble had an ally in McGill. He somehow plays with both fire and finesse. In McDermott they had a co-conspirator, who seemed to delight in this too-rarely programmed work.

The Mozart works were framed by Lutoslawski’s “Dance Preludes,” in which a small ensemble showed the same ease and fluidity as the larger orchestra did in Mozart, and Piazzolla’s “ The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” which was something else altogether.

The performance of the Piazzolla was not about certain technique, excellent intonation and flawless ensemble (which was evident in the rest of the program, but shouldn’t be mistaken for the music).

With the irrepressible violinist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg as both soloist and conductor (for want of a better word), and with apparently relatively little rehearsal, everyone in the orchestra was in the present moment, hanging on for dear life and relishing every minute of it.

The result was a zesty, even exhilarating account that at times, seemed only a miscue away from going over the edge. But it never did, and the interpretation had a welcome sense of both joy and adventure (don’t try this at home with just any orchestra).

Peter Heidrich’s tacky variations on “Happy Birthday” served as an encore and it got the job done (even if Heidrich is no Peter Schickele).

May the festival have at least 25 more years, and many more concerts like this one.