Last night in Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Midsummer Mozart Festival presented the only program prepared for its 2017 season. The ensemble consisted of an appropriately reduced string section joined by two oboes (Laura Griffiths and Ruth Stuart) and two horns (Glen Swarts and David Goldklang). In the absence of a conductor, the group was led by Concertmaster Robin Hansen.
Hansen was also one of the two soloists in the major work on the program, the K. 364 sinfonia concertante in E-flat major with solo parts for violin and viola. Hansen was joined by Principal Viola Elizabeth Prior. Both Hansen and Prior joined in the ensemble parts when they were not serving as soloists.
Old St. Mary’s Cathedral is a rather cavernous space, but its acoustics have a reputation for being conducive to both small ensembles and chamber music. One could thus close one’s eyes to escape the physical properties of the space and appreciate the intimacy of last night’s interpretation of K. 364. This was evident as much from the relationship between ensemble and soloists as it was in the give-and-take of a playful conversation between the two soloists. This was a reading that evoked how the late Director of the Festival, George Cleve, felt the spirit of Mozart should be experienced; and the result was an account of this familiar composition that served both Mozart and Cleve in equal measure.
All of the string Principals participated in solo work in the performance of the K. 251 divertimento in D major. The scoring also includes two horns and a single oboe part (Griffiths) with abundant opportunities for solo work. Over the years of Midsummer Mozart seasons and preview concerts at Old St. Mary’s, I have enjoyed a series of opportunities to enjoy Griffiths performing this piece. Her rhetoric has run the gamut from prankish to refined, giving convincing accounts of both extremes. Last night she opted for the latter with an exquisitely polished delivery of the full gamut of solo work allotted to her instrument. Given that Mozart may have written this piece for his sister’s birthday, the prankish approach is definitely justified; but Griffiths’ rhetorical stance definitely fit well into the overall tenor of the evening.
Contrary to usual planning, the program began with the symphony selection, K. 201 in A major. This symphony has a killer opening, which almost feels as if it is suggested, rather than stated. Yet that subtlety has to contend with an octave leap as the opening interval:
The opening measures of K. 201 (from IMSLP, public domain)
Under Hansen’s leadership, the group confidently rose to the challenge that Mozart had set; and, having established the stance that this symphony would take, it pursued the opposition of energy and refinement over the course of all four movements, each of which cast that opposition in a different light.
We should all be glad that the Midsummer Mozart Festival is still alive and well, even if it is a bit more modest than it used to be.