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Brown's brilliant Beethoven

Shai Wosner
U-T San Diego

Justin Brown brings out the best in Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra

By James Chute

Before conducting Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony on Saturday’s concluding Mainly Mozart Festival concert at the Balboa Theatre, conductor Justin Brown told the near-capacity audience the Beethoven Fourth was his favorite symphony.

You couldn’t help thinking, what about 3, 9, 5, 6 and 7? For most concertgoers, the Fourth is their sixth favorite Beethoven Symphony, if they’ve even heard the Fourth Symphony.

But after hearing Brown and the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra perform the Fourth, you had to wonder why the Fourth wasn’t everybody’s favorite Beethoven symphony.

In an impressive guest-conducting debut with Mainly Mozart, Brown prompted a life-affirming interpretation of the Fourth that was full of joy and high spirits. But more than that, under Brown’s baton it was also a model of nuance and precision.

At times, he had the orchestra playing very softly, but without any loss of certainty or presence, and at other times, he opened things up.

The Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra is essentially a chamber orchestra, but the full, rich sound they produced was larger than the sum of the individual players.

Brown was equally convincing in Kodaly’s “Summer Evening” that opened the program and the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20, with pianist Shai Wosner, that followed.

Among the most telling aspects of Brown’s conducting is his command of musical styles. He brought an idiomatic approach to the Kodaly, which is nearly a study in Hungarian folk music. And in the Mozart concerto, he set clear parameters for the orchestra as regards Mozart’s style.

As good as this year’s Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra performances have been, some conductors have found it hard to resist the temptation to play Mozart as if he’s Beethoven. But not Brown, and not Wosner, who was equally impressive in an elegant, polished performance of the concerto.

This was not a case of Brown or Wosner accommodating each other. They were both on exactly the same page, as was the orchestra, as their shared commitment to clarity and transparency enlivened and energized the music. It was as if you could hear everything, whether some secondary viola line or a bassoon obbligato.

Wosner’s playing sounded effortless (as did the orchestra’s), and his approach so convincing it seemed inevitable. Even in the first movement cadenza, which was written later by Beethoven, Wosner managed to stay in bounds.

Because the Mozart concerto sounded like Mozart, when the second half Beethoven symphony arrived, it was all the more compelling as the concerto had set it up, rather than competed with it.

In the Beethoven, Brown’s gestures were larger, the orchestra’s sound bigger, the melodic lines longer and the musical narrative more dramatic, but Brown also had his limits.

Even at the top dynamic level the ensemble reached in the Beethoven, there was no stridency, no bombast. The tone in the strings and also the winds, still had a rounded, rather than edgy, quality.

In the fourth movement of the Beethoven, Brown all but ignored the “ma non troppo” (“not too much”) in the tempo marking “Allegro ma non troppo,” except in the movement’s more relaxed interludes. But Brown can be excused, given that Beethoven put a seemingly contradictory metronome indication on the fourth movement that at a half note equals 80 beats a minute, is also considerably faster than Allegro ma non trope.

The rhythmic verve, the dynamic contrasts, the interaction between the sections of the orchestra, and the ensemble cohesion that Brown, the orchestra and its concertmaster William Preucil brought to the Beethoven were thrilling, as was the music.

In fact, it’s is my new favorite symphony.