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Vibrant Start to Midsummer Mozart Festival

July 16, 2010

Midsummer Mozart Festival

The Midsummer Mozart Festival has never been about the kind of easy-listening, check-your-brain-at-the-door fare that plagues many summer concerts. Music Director George Cleve wasted no time making that point Friday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as he and the orchestra got the annual Mozart bash off to a characteristically vibrant start.

Over the years, Cleve has built programs highlighting various aspects of Mozart’s output, and the results are reliably well-conceived, stylish, and often brilliantly executed.

Friday’s excellent program — the first of two in Midsummer Mozart’s 36th anniversary season — was a fine example of Cleve’s approach, with two symphonies and two concertos representing a significant span of the composer’s career.

Along with the late-life Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, and the youthful Symphony No. 15 in G Major, K. 124, Cleve balanced the familiar Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467, with the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218. While no two-hour program can begin to reveal the sum total of this composer’s vast and varied genius, Cleve — with a full house in attendance — managed to suggest a suitably panoramic view.

The performance of the G-minor Symphony was particularly fine. Cleve, who made his San Francisco debut 50 years ago with this autumnal score, drew urgent playing from the orchestra. The opening Molto allegro movement — briskly scored, and bracingly polyphonic — unfolded as pure drama: gripping and turbulent, with Cleve articulating the incisive dialogue between violins and woodwinds in crisp strokes. The Andante, introduced by the violas, afforded a slight relaxation; Cleve, who can summon marvels with the slightest gesture, graciously painted the movement’s sighing figures and rich textures. The horns emerged valiantly in the Menuetto, and the finale registered with potency.

For youthful exuberance, the Symphony No. 15 served beautifully. Conducting this compact 1772 work, written when Mozart was just 16, Cleve adopted an expansive stance; the orchestra seemed to burst through the gate in the opening Allegro. Cleve set firm, buoyant tempos in each movement; if the horns’ intonation wasn’t always up to par, the strings made fervent contributions and the woodwinds voiced with poise and allure. Cleve articulated Mozart’s impish wit in the boisterous finale.

Before intermission, the Piano Concerto No. 21 featured Audrey Vardanega as soloist. At 14, the Oakland-based pianist is prodigiously gifted — technically secure, with a deft, understated approach to Mozart’s sparkling passagework. Vardanega navigated the concerto with restraint, particularly in the central Adagio; if her performance occasionally sounded the work of a diligent student rather than a mature interpreter, she abjured histrionics. For his part, Cleve held the performance together handsomely; the orchestra seemed an extension of the conductor’s will, playing with appealing charm and deference throughout.

Robin Hansen, Midsummer Mozart’s concertmaster for 16 seasons, was the soloist for Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4. The violinist brought secure tone and agile technique to the assignment; her playing in the central Adagio movement was an appealing blend of rhythmic assurance and patrician grace. Cleve had a bit of trouble balancing dynamics, particularly in the first movement, but it’s clear that he and Hansen are of one mind about this concerto’s attributes. Vardanega, who is also a violinist, was seated in Hansen’s section as assistant concertmaster for the performance.

Later this week, Cleve returns with the festival’s second and final program. The featured works are two Mozart piano concertos — the No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, and No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, with pianist Seymour Lipkin as soloist for both. The program also includes Ballet Music for Idomeneo, K. 367, and the concert arias “Alcandro, Lo Confesso … Non so d’onde viene,” K. 512, and “Mentre ti lascio,” K. 513, with bass Jeremy Galyon as soloist. Performances are July 22 at Mission Santa Clara, July 23 at the S.F. Conservatory of Music, July 24 at Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, and July 25 at First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.