Review: Jeremy Denk adds joyful spontaneity in wonderful collaboration with Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra


For the past 30 years, concertmasters, assistant concertmasters, principal and assistant principal orchestra musicians have been invited to San Diego to play in a musical all-star team for the Mainly Mozart Festival.

Saturday evening at the Balboa Theatre, the 31st incarnation of the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra convened to turn out invigorating, passionate performances of Handel, Mendelssohn, and — of course — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

It’s the fourth year of musical director Michael Francis’ chronological survey of Mozart’s works, and we have arrived at the musical mother lode of Mozart’s output, the amazing stream of masterpieces that poured out of Mozart after his move to Vienna.

The Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major had been advertised, but pianist Jeremy Denk substituted the sublime Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.

Mozart left us no cadenzas for this concerto since he played it himself and improvised the solos. Taking his cue from Mozart, Denk created his own captivating cadenzas on the spot, inventive playing that referenced all of Mozart’s themes and developed them in surprising ways that nevertheless respected Mozart’s style. Call it stream-of-consciousness Mozart.

It was not only the cadenzas in which Denk’s creativity was apparent, but also in his embellishments of Mozart’s written-out part, adding delightful filigrees and elaborations.

Mozart’s melodies are so perfectly conceived, each note placed so well, that most pianists play exactly what Mozart wrote. However, Denk’s changes were so convincingly done that one had the impression that yes, this is how Mozart would have played the piece.

Denk’s playing was clean. His tempos in the outer movement were a little faster than usually taken, but worked very well. In the first movement, Denk at times goosed the beat by a few microseconds, not enough to sound careless, but just enough to create urgency or excitement.

Since Francis couldn’t rely on following a notated cadenza, he was especially alert to Denk. There were several significant glances from soloist to conductor signaling, “Take it away, Michael!”

The Balboa Theatre is probably the best place downtown to experience a chamber orchestra. It’s warmer than Spreckels, with better definition than Copley Symphony Hall. In the Balboa, Mozart’s opening staccato notes in the strings had a bite rarely encountered in other venues.

The orchestra was precise, responsive to Francis’ conducting, with an effortless beauty of tone.

The concert began with a spirited performance of Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks.” It’s always a treat to hear orchestral music by Handel that is not “The Messiah.” Francis and the musicians captured the regal pomp and joyful celebration of Handel’s score.

Mozart’s “Masonic Funeral Music” received a somber — but never dull — performance, anchored by the basset horn of Josh Ranz and the contrabassoon of Samantha Duckworth.

Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony has always struck me as a stodgy piece (second movement excepted), but Francis and his musicians made a persuasive case for it being a joyful, celebratory work.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.