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A Resilient Mainly Mozart Festival Struts Its Stuff

September 14, 2020

Mainly Mozart Festival

As a smoke-filtered, blood-red sun set Friday over the dirt parking lot adjacent to the Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds, a drive-in-audience of 80 cars gathered for the second night of Mainly Mozart’s four-day festival — Resilience — almost certainly the first multiconcert live event of its kind in the country.

Curated and headlined by violinist Zach DePue (former concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony), the pops-oriented programs were conceived with a lighter crossover repertory in mind, combining pieces by Bach, Mozart, and Purcell with songs by Billy Joel and Elton John, country classics by Bill Monroe and Charlie Daniels, original arrangements, and jazz improvisation.  

Like everything the San Diego-based company has done, beginning with its first drive-in concert on July 11, Resilience represented a risk — especially since it was the first time audiences were being asked to pay admission: $100 per car (with no limit on occupancy) or a package price of $300 for all four concerts. But by the time the festival ended on Sunday, according to Mainly Mozart’s statistics, the total number of cars in attendance for each of the four days was: 62, 80, 98, and 92 with an estimated audience of nearly 1,000.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and nearly every classical musical organization turned to the Internet, Mainly Mozart said no.

“We are committed to presenting live classical music,” CEO Nancy Laturno told the crowd Friday. “Streaming and studio work was not going to be our focus. We came up with a perfect plan to put ourselves out of business in a minute. But here we are!”

Since July 11, Mainly Mozart presented six more free concerts. Learning as they went, the amplifying sound system was enhanced; the availability of in-car radio reception was switched from AM to FM; and the umbrellas that initially shaded the musicians were replaced by a permanent covered stage, all while following COVID-19 health protocols.

Friday’s concert, “Roots,” featured Zach and Alex DePue (on violins), Conrad Jones (principal trumpet of the Indianapolis Symphony), Ranaan Meyer on double bass, Josh Fobare (on electric keyboards), and Matthew Scarano on drums. Having all tested negative for the virus, they made the decision to perform without masks, although they had worn them the night before.

The program’s limited classical offerings consisted of scaled-down performances of the Allegro from Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor for Two Violins and a sonata for trumpet by Henry Purcell that showcased Jones on the piccolo trumpet.

A major exception (in honor of 9/11) was an emotionally charged performance by Zach DePue of the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004, by J.S. Bach. Almost 15 minutes in length, this deeply emotional movement, with its intricate melodic lines, rhythmic shifts, and thematic variations, stood out in bold relief against the lighter tone of the rest of the program. It should have opened the program on this day of national remembrance.

“American Wake,” with its back and forth violin parts and pulsating Irish flavor brought images of Riverdance to mind, while Bill Monroe’s bluegrass mandolin tune, “Jerusalem Ridge,” gave the brothers DePue another chance to show off their dueling violins.

A gentle rendition of Billy Joel’s “Summer, Highland Falls” featured Fobare as vocalist and everybody got to riff and crank up the volume on Meyer’s original composition, “Summer Fusion.” It all ended with a hell-bent rendition of Charlie Daniels’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which seemed to fit with the nearby fairgrounds. The audience showed their appreciation with multiple honking ovations.

More Concerts Ahead

Mainly Mozart will return to its traditional programming of classical music Oct. 17–24 when Music Director Michael Francis returns to lead a series of drive-in chamber orchestra concerts (on a greatly enlarged stage) that are currently listed to include the Vivaldi/Piazzola Four Seasons, Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto.

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).