Review: Mainly Mozart thrills with a rare Mozart cantata and a well-known violinist


What comes first, the music or the lyrics?

It’s a valid enough question to ask popular songwriters, but for classical music, the answer is almost always a text. Composers react to a poem or libretto, take those words and turn them into songs or operas.

On rare occasions, words are overlaid on a pre-existing composition. Mozart’s “Davide Penitente” (“The Penitent David”) is such a work, and on Saturday evening, San Diegans had an unusual opportunity to hear it.

Michael Francis conducted the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra, joined by sopranos Ellie Dehn and Erica Petrocelli, tenor Randall Bills and the San Diego Master Chorale in an elegant and heartfelt performance at the Balboa Theatre.

In 1782, Mozart began to write a mass. He never completed the “Great Mass in C minor,” but there’s still 50 minutes’ worth of music that can be performed.

Mozart arranged a 1783 performance in Salzburg — the only one he heard in his lifetime. Several years later, he received a commission in Vienna that needed to be composed quickly. Mozart took eight sections from his “Great Mass” and replaced the liturgical texts with an Italian translation of Psalms and the Book of Samuel dealing with penitential prayer.

He did write two new arias for the commission, making “Davide Penitente” worthwhile to hear today. However, it has never had the popularity of the “Great Mass,” even though most of the music is the same.

And what glorious music it is.

In Vienna, Mozart discovered Bach and Handel. Their contrapuntal skills and choral writing inspired Mozart. You can hear Bach in the falling chromatic line in the choral number “Se vuoi, puniscimi” (“If you punish me”), and Handel’s oratorios influenced the final choral number, with its triumphant fugue.

The solo soprano parts of “Davide Penitente” boldly leap from high to low registers, the lowest notes almost pushing into mezzo-soprano territory. Dehn agilely navigated her part with a fullness in her lower register that made the jumps all the more exciting. Petrocelli had equal facility with a darker voice and more pronounced vibrato. Bills’ profound tone suggested a baritone matched with the range of a tenor. His solo, “A te, fra tanti affanni” (“To You, amidst untold sorrows”) was thrilling.

The Master Chorale, under the direction of John K. Russell, sang with good ensemble and fine intonation.

With minimal rehearsal, the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra plays as well as the best chamber orchestras. Francis highlighted all the drama in Mozart’s cantata and never allowed the pace to drag.

Violinist Augustin Hadelich is well known and loved in San Diego. (By my count, this was his fourth separate concert appearance this year, and he’ll be at SummerFest in two months). He played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with grace and beauty, his cantabile tones connected with an almost supernatural legato, like a gorgeous voice that never needed to pause for breath.

We usually hear this with a full string section, but the chamber orchestra proportions worked well, and also allowed Hadelich and the musicians to achieve a breathtaking softness untenable in Copley Symphony Hall.

Francis and the musicians provided admirable support to Hadelich, capturing the drama and joy of Beethoven’s music when Hadelich rested.

A standing ovation and loud cheers at the concerto’s conclusion persuaded Hadelich to give an encore, Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24 in A minor.” His pyrotechnical playing brought the evening to a heady close.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.