Schubert the prodigy
I’ve been touting the quality of the Mainly Mozart Festival for a few years now, and as I was unable to attend the Wednesday night concert I sent Stanwell Andersen in my place. I would consider this confirmation of the stratospheric quality of the festival. — Garrett Harris
We pause, for a break from your regularly scheduled reviewer who, as he was unable to attend Wednesday night’s Mainly Mozart concert, thrust upon me the responsibility of imparting to you my inmost impressions.
The ostensible point of tonight's concert was to draw similarities between the prodigy Mozart and the prodigy Schubert, through Mozart's Symphony No. 7, composed when he was 12, the more mature Symphony K141 in D Major, and the Violin Concerto No. 1, composed at the ripe old age of 19; contrasted with the Rondo in A Major for Violin and Orchestra D439, composed by Schubert at the age of 19, and the astonishing Symphony No. 1, written at the age of 16.
Symphony No. 1, D major — Maazel Bavarian RSO
I'm going to say right off, that between the two pieces written as 16 year olds, it is Schubert who comes off as the more strikingly original and fully developed at that age. It is true that he had the benefit of Haydn in his Romantic style to build upon, but the level of his counterpoint in the fourth movement is breathtaking, and my breath was surely taken away by the virtuosity of the MMF Orchestra, and their dapper, elegant, and gesticulationally eloquent conductor, Michael Francis.
During the first portion of the evening, I was seated in row K, on the left aisle, and forward of the balcony. An introductory appeal was given before the empty seats of the orchestra, and was followed by a voice announcing "And now..." (I was half expecting to please rise, remove my hat, and join in singing our national anthem) "...please welcome the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra!" This particular moment could, I think, be massaged a little more subtly, but I digress.
As the orchestra was seated I took a non-flash picture of the stage, which I intended to share on Facebook, but I was quickly collared by a senior usher, who admonished me that "No photographs are to be taken during the performance."
Maybe the Seating of the Orchestra is a piece by John Cage, but I didn't think the performance had started yet. And as only the Loge of the balcony was used for seating at this mid-week performance, I would think that they could use all the free social media presence that they could get.
It's a small point, but one that should be considered. In the modern age it is commonplace to take a moment to advertise to your acquaintances where you are and what you are attending, but perhaps the festival is still a bit stuffy on that point? I wonder if the producers of Hamilton would feel the same?
My first impression of the stage setting was that it was rather gaudily, even cornilly lit, with very bright red light, glowing from behind the wooden sound panels. But I warmed to it in the context of the Spanish fantasy of the Balboa Theatre. Even in their dimmed state, the theater chandeliers glowed softly with red, lime, and orange lights, which played upon the plaster Azulejo patterns and the massive, decorated vigas that support the ceiling.
During the violin concerto these would merge with the lights on the backdrop and the proscenium curtain, to add a sea-blue teal, a Hispano-Oceanic fantasy worthy of a production of ETA Hoffman's undersea fantasy Undine but rendered in Old Madrid.
It struck me that this ambiance and decorative scheme was as much a fantasy in this day and age as Mozart's porcelain-figured music, and therefore, in this culture, both serving each other, as both are just as exquisitely artificial. And yet genuine, as culture is always an artifice, a construct that must be worked at, fought for, and defended, as the veneer of civilization — as we have so recently seen — is a thin one, easily scratched, and in constant need of polishing. And tonight's polishing session was a successful one.
The youthful K51 Symphony is a slight piece, of little note in fact, and of less satisfaction outside the context of the larger program, and there was a note out of place, in the violas, I think, on the penultimate note of the piece. There was another, from the horns, in the slow movement of the K141, but even concertmasters and principals must be allowed their humanity. Does this sound nit-picky? It's meant to, because I'm about to gush...
During the last movement of K141 we began to hear something of the Haydn influence, in the way Mozart was handling his cadential gestures. But again, this youthful piece offered comparatively little of interest outside comparison with what was to come. The orchestra was only just warming up, and was about to catch fire.
As James Ehnes began the Violin Concerto No. 1 K207, there were in fact three performers in play on the stage: Mr. Ehnes, the Festival Orchestra, and the Balboa acoustic itself. During the cadenza of the slow movement of the concerto we were treated to the most delicate of examples of the theatre's sound, a crystal clear acoustic with a perfect reverberation and not a hint of echo or bounce.
The first notes of the violin part, which occur in the mid-range, and every descent into that and the lower range, revealed the wood of the instrument ever more clearly. Ehnes's sound was never coarse, but rather a rich, substantial tone that seemed to allow us to feel, even smell and taste the sound; it had a scent like old, polished oak, and the texture of sugarcane in our mouths.
The calls and responses of the third movement brought eyebrow-raising smiles, like facial choreography. I'm sure I wasn't alone in that. We were dancing to the master's tune. Again, the clarity of each down-bowed attack made the chiff of hair and rosin on string sound almost percussive in the hall, but in the best, most revealing way.
The instrument was coming to us, rather than we being uncomfortably close to the instrument. Truly, this was the highlight of the Mozart portion of the evening, and a memorable performance from the artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.
It is thrilling to hear music of this quality in a hall of such simple beauty, and acoustical excellence. If you haven't yet been, you are missing something very special.
For the Schubert Rondo D438, Ehnes's playing was as crisp and elegant as in the Mozart, but as I had moved upstairs into the very center of the balcony, I was treated to a fuller and more present upper-range of the instrument, which soared about me and before me, rather than above me and behind me.
If the lower register of Ehnes's violin was somewhat less obvious from my new vantage point, the upper range was even fuller, clearer, and brighter rising into the voluminously rectangular height of the hall; and the lower strings of the orchestra were, from upstairs, an embarrassment of richness.
If Schubert’s Symphony No. 1 can be said to be Haydnesque, this is where Papa Haydn gets a brand new bag! If this is Haydn-influenced, it is in the sense of Haydn post Symphony No. 104: London.
It is the Haydn which influenced Beethoven, and in it I perceived pre-echoes of Mendelsohn, and even pre-pre-echoes of Sullivan's Mendelsohnesque delicacy of humour a la Iolanthe. This is an extraordinary musical utterance for a 16 year old.
Given all that I have said heretofore about the Balboa Theatre hall, there were moments in the last parts of the first movement when I realized that I was so involuntarily focused on the players that I was quite unconscious of the ornateness of the architecture around me; just lost sight of my surroundings entirely.
Loving the hall as I do, perhaps that is a useful measure of the playing we were hearing. Nevertheless, when the music stopped, it yet seemed to linger on, audibly and perceptible in the filagree, like the afterglow of romance, so perhaps that is likewise a useful measure of the value of the architecture!
Again, the slow movement shows more than anything else the debt Mendelsohn owes to Schubert, even the early Schubert; and the way the movement ends, rising to a quiet conclusion of a phrase, without formal cadence, is eloquent in its simplicity.
In the exposition of the third movement, the interplay of the woodwinds, combined with occasional diminished chords, produced phrases right out of Tchaikovsky. Was I hearing the genesis of the Serenade for Strings? And the third movement ends with the same unannounced simplicity of the second, but this belies the oncoming contrapuntal steam-engine of the roaring fourth-movement.
I was the first to shout Bravi! but I was not the last.
And so, dear Reader, in my humble opinion, the hottest ticket in America right now is not Hamilton, but the Mainly Mozart concert series in San Diego, with the unfortunate difference that you can get a ticket to the latter.
Now if that's not a gush, I don't know what is; and given that, whatever incidental imperfections I may have brought to your attention, they are perfectly allowable in the context of this assembly of masters at play. Tonight wasn't just a tale of two geniuses, I assure you.
And now, we return you to your regularly scheduled reviewer...