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Elite musicians from all over the world meet in San Diego every year for the Mainly Mozart Festival

The Mainly Mozart Festival, now in its 31st year, begins May 30.
The Mainly Mozart Festival, now in its 31st year, kicks off May 30 with a special opening concert featuring pianist Derek Paravicini at the Conrad Prebsy Performing Arts Center in La Jolla.
(U-T illustration/Getty Images)

Now in its 31st year, San Diego’s Mainly Mozart Festival was co-founded by David Atherton, who served as music director until 2013, and Nancy Laturno, who continues as the organization’s CEO

A gathering of high-caliber musicians from prestigious orchestras from around the world is a treat for both audiences and musicians. It also raises the level of the performance, which makes everyone involved even happier.

This synergistic dynamic is a big reason behind the Mainly Mozart Festival’s success and longevity.

“Musicians are inspired playing with musicians they don’t normally play with,” said Nathan Hughes, principal oboist of the Metropolitan Opera and a regular Mainly Mozart orchestra member since 2007. “It becomes a melting pot of ideas that are shared at the festival. It creates inspired music-making that audiences and musicians alike enjoy.”

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Michael Francis, conductor and music director of the Mainly Mozart Festival
(Photo by Christian Kleiner)

While the Mainly Mozart Festival kicks off Thursday at the The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center with an opening concert featuring pianist Derek Paravicini, the festival orchestra — led by Michael Francis, its music director — will launch its series of concerts June 8 at the Balboa Theatre.

Of the 18 violinists playing this year, 10 are concertmasters in their respective orchestras — first-chair violinists, second only to their orchestras’ conductors. Of the remaining 56 musicians, more than half are principals — leaders of their instrument sections.

The San Diego Symphony players include concertmaster Jeff Thayer and such principals as trumpeter John Wilds and harpist Julie Smith Phillips.

Among the other many top-notch orchestras represented at Mainly Mozart are the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland, Philadelphia and Chicago orchestras.

Now in its 31st year, San Diego’s Mainly Mozart Festival was co-founded by David Atherton, who served as music director until 2013, and Nancy Laturno, who continues as the organization’s CEO.

Anne-Marie McDermott (see box) first played at the Mainly Mozart Festival in 1996. A pianist with Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Society in New York, she tours throughout the year and performs at many festivals.

“David and Nancy wanted to create a festival of the highest quality,” McDermott said. “No other orchestra in the country is like this one.

“These musicians are hand-picked from all over. This is an excellent group of deeply committed musicians who like each other and egg each other on. Like the saying goes, the result is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Audience participation

To achieve the synergy between orchestra and audience, Mainly Mozart Festival CEO Laturno has created several programs to encourage the two often-separated camps to get personally acquainted.

“We provide deep relationships for our patrons by connecting them to our artists,” Laturno noted. “We have many ways to make connections.”

Free dress rehearsals and post-concert talk-backs are vehicles for the audience to get closer to the musicians.

Active throughout the year, Club Amadeus hosts concerts in private homes and small venues. The performances often include talks by the musicians.

During the festival, Salon Experiences will feature music director Francis cooking with musicians or the hosts in private homes. He and the musicians will then perform music.

The Adopt-an-Artist program pairs an orchestra member with a sponsor. In the middle of the festival each year, Laturno throws a party at her home where the sponsors and musicians share food and drink in a casual setting.

Oboist Hughes said he’s gotten to know a few of his sponsors through the years. At least three different times, he has had visits from sponsor groups and shown them around the Metropolitan Opera House, where he works.

“A few ingredients go into an amazing ensemble and captivating performances,” said Hughes, a faculty member of New York’s Juilliard School. “Number one is to bring in high-level musicians. Mainly Mozart is extremely careful on who is selected to come. That’s a crucial element.

“Number two is once the musicians get there, we’re playing great music. Mainly Mozart is filled with that. When you get a great group of musicians together playing spectacular music and you have a positive culture surrounding it, it makes for a great festival.

“Community support makes the whole thing a good experience. And with a wonderful music director, you know the festival is going to flourish.”

Hughes credits co-founder Atherton for recruiting excellent musicians to Mainly Mozart. Francis became music director in 2015.

“Michael has taken the ball and totally run with it,” Hughes said. “He’s extremely thoughtful. His abilities and musical depth brings an orchestra of this caliber to play at a very high level. And, he is very energetic!”

Musicians by invitation only

Mainly Mozart and its Spotlight Chamber Music series, curated by McDermott, do not hold auditions for musicians. McDermott said relationships built over the years make it easy to identify musicians who can work well together.

“It’s important to achieve the right chemistry and dynamic,” she said. “Nancy and I know so many of the top players. Then we have Michael — who is younger and has a lot of relationships.”

Orchestra members are also asked for feedback on choosing newcomers. When openings are created, recommendations are sought and invitations follow.

“We never audition for a position because the musicians need to fit in beyond musical talent,” Laturno said. “Our success comes from the fact that the musicians are playing with people they want to play with. They’re compatible. We build from within.”

A notable newcomer to this year’s festival is violinist David Radzynski, who in 2015 was named concertmaster of the acclaimed Israel Philharmonic at the age of 28. He will play in the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s violin section twice and serve as concertmaster for its final concert.

Because his sister and her family live in San Diego, Radzynski had extra incentive to play here. But it wasn’t on his radar until the invitation arrived.

“I had no idea!” he said via email. “I was very happy and surprised to be invited to participate in this festival. I’ve heard it’s wonderful! It will be my first time so I’m super excited to experience it for myself.”

Under Francis’ guidance, the orchestra has been on a six-year exploration of Mozart’s music and life. This, the fourth year, will highlight the beginning of the composer’s “golden years” in Vienna.

For musicians, playing works by Mozart and other masters in the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra has many benefits.

“The intimate size of the chamber orchestra and the repertoire that we focus on is in stark contrast to the grand opera genre that I perform at the Metropolitan Opera,” oboist Hughes said. “Variety as a musician, both in terms of the types of ensembles, as well as repertoire, is something I find very rewarding and stimulating artistically.”

Pianist Anne-Marie McDermot, curator of chamber music at Mainly Mozart
Pianist Anne-Marie McDermot
(Courtesy photo by Matteo Trisolini)

Anne-Marie McDermott

Anne-Marie McDermott, first and foremost a recording and touring classical pianist, is involved with many musical ventures. The curator of Mainly Mozart’s Spotlight Chamber Music series since 2011, she helps create intimate chamber-music concerts in the months before and during the festival.

This year, she is the featured soloist at the June 13 Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra concert.

McDermott is also the artistic director of Bravo! Vail and several smaller festivals. A native and resident of New York City, she met her husband, Mike Lubin, in San Diego. Both travel for their professions, but their home is Manhattan.

“I have two sisters and a brother in New York,” she said. “I always love the people I work with in San Diego. It’s the best of both worlds.”

McDermott’s constant travel companion may like San Diego even more than the pianist does. Lola, a Maltese, much prefers walking here.

Lola sits by the piano during rehearsals and waits backstage for her human during actual performances.

The seasoned pianist admits to being “incredibly excited” to play two Mozart concertos under the baton of Michael Francis.

“At the Mainly Mozart festival, there’s an electric vibe,” she said. “It’s incredible how enthusiastic the audience is and how they embrace the musicians. You feel the love when you’re on stage.”

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Oboist Nathan Hughes
(Courtesy of Mainly Mozart Festival)

Mainly Mozart Festival

When: May 30 to June 23

Phone: (619) 239-0100, ext. 2

Online: mainlymozart.org

Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra concerts

When: All performances at 8 p.m.

Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter (unless otherwise indicated)

Tickets: $15-$88 (single performance); $60-$400 (series packages).

June 8: “The Spark of Genius”: Handel: Royal Fireworks Music, HWV 351; Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 19, K. 459, F Major, Jeremy Denk, piano; Mozart: Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music), K. 447; Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5, Op. 107, D Major (Reformation).

June 13: “Passion and Progression”: Haydn: Symphony No. 49, F minor (La passione); Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 14, K. 449, E-flat Major, Anne-Marie McDermott, piano; Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22, K. 482, E-flat Major, Anne-Marie McDermott, piano.

June 15: “Sublime Penitent”: Mozart: Davidde penitente, K. 469, Ellie Dehn (soprano), Erica Petrocelli (soprano), Randall Bills (tenor), San Diego Master Chorale; Beethoven: Violin Concerto, Op. 61, D Major, Augustin Hadelich, violin.

June 16: Festival Orchestra at Rancho Santa Fe: Handel: Royal Fireworks Music, HWV 351; Mozart: Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music), K. 447; Beethoven: Violin Concerto, Op. 61, D Major, Augustin Hadelich, violin. This performance will be held 4 p.m. June 16, The Village Church, 6225 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe.

June 20: “Love, Life, Loss”: Wagner: Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103; Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez, Milos Karadaglic, guitar; Ravel: Ma mere l’Oye (Mother Goose) – Suite; Mozart: Symphony No. 36, K. 425, C Major (Linz).

June 22: “Elemental Drama”: Mozart: Symphony No. 38 K. 504, D Major (Prague); Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, D minor, Conrad Tao, piano; Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, Op. 68, F Major (Pastoral).

Spotlight Chamber Music

What: Mozart: Gran Partita: Serenade in B-flat major, K.361/370a, performed by members of the Festival Orchestra.

When: 6 p.m. June 21

Where: TSRI Auditorium, 10620 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla.

Tickets: $65

Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra Showcase

What: Performance by musicians ages 3-23 with diverse background and abilities.

When: 6 p.m. June 9

Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter.

Tickets: $25

Mainly Mozart Festival’s Special Concerts

May 30: 8 p.m. Festival opening concert, featuring pianist Derek Paravicini. The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla.

June 23: 8 p.m. The Voice of the Guitar, featuring Milos Karadaglic. The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla.

Tickets: $50

Mozart & the Mind

What: Series exploring autism and music. Of Mainly Mozart’s many components, the series Mozart & the Mind is the most distinctive. Two events will feature scientist, activist and author Temple Grandin, one of the highest-profile people on the autism spectrum. With more than 30 artists and presenters, the series is a wide-reaching exploration of autism and a celebration of extraordinary performing and visual artists on the spectrum.

May 31: 7 p.m. Showcase featuring keynote speaker Temple Grandin, pianist Derek Paravicini and other musicians and visual artists on the autism spectrum. Allen Airways Flying Museum, 2020 N. Marshall Avenue, El Cajon.

June 1: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Symposium, expo and concert featuring keynote speaker Temple Grandin and pianist Derek Paravicini, along with noted speakers from across the autism spectrum. Qualcomm Hall, 5775 Morehouse Drive, San Diego.

June 2: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Symposium and expo featuring keynote speaker Dr. Susan Baum, along with noted speakers from across the autism spectrum. TSRI Auditorium, 10620 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla.

June 8: 2 p.m. Free Sensory-friendly Concert designed for people on the autism spectrum and their families. Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, 404 Euclid Ave., San Diego.

Tickets: $50 - $250

Wood is a freelance writer.