Midsummer Mozart Festival is professional yet frequently uninspired

July 22, 2015, 10:00 p.m.

The Midsummer Mozart Festival, an annual music festival in the Bay Area, returned to Bing Concert Hall on July 16 for its 41st season. The concert was, as always, performed by an orchestra of regional musicians and was directed and conducted by the celebrated George Cleve, who has previously conducted the New York Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic. This year, the festival welcomed to the stage a few promising young musicians as well as several guest artists, including oboist Laura Griffiths, soprano Christina Major and French hornist Glen Swarts. The festival boasted several enchanting moments among tedious periods, emerging a thoroughly comme ci comme ça affair.

The festival began with “Impresario Overture,” an enjoyable but rather unremarkable piece conducted by Cleve. The piece, though spirited, was fairly static in its mood, wallowing in the loud and fast sections for far too long. The movement’s inherent lack of range made it a rather poor choice for an opening piece. Although it failed to excite us, the overture was greeted with heavy applause from the audience. Cleve subsequently left the conductor’s podium, not to return until after the intermission, much to our dismay, as Cleve was the main draw for the concert.

Following the overture, Christina Major took to the stage with two pieces, “Non piu di fiore” from the opera “La Clemenza di Tito” and “Nehmt meinen Dank,” a concert aria. Her delivery demonstrated notable skill, and she held excellent control over the softer, higher notes. Her emotional commitment to the pieces was wonderfully engaging, though the potential for the undivided attention of the audience was diminished by a distracting and noticeably imperfect bass clarinet solo. Despite the shortcomings of her duettist, Major still navigated easily between the dramatic, intense sequences and the more buoyant sections and handled the complex dynamics with a nearly effortless ease. Though Major took full advantage of her impressive vocal range, her alto range was understandably limited, and it was in the powerful, robust high notes that the soprano truly soared.

“Nehmt meinen Dank” was succeeded by Oboe Concerto in C Major, featuring Laura Griffiths, who was undoubtedly the stand-out performer of the night. Griffiths stunned with a dynamic and scintillating oboe solo, during which she exhibited phenomenal breath control. With precise movements and pure notes, she conveyed the many moods of the concerto, transitioning seamlessly from hushed to lively, and then aggressive, tones. The accompanying orchestra was a perfect complement to Griffith’s virtuosity, accentuating her fine vibrato without intrusion.

Following an intermission, Glen Swarts took the soloist position on the French horn, where he presented Horn Concerto No.2 in Eb Major. While there may have been a few unfortunate sputters in the first few measures, possibly due to some instrument trouble, Swarts only seemed to improve as the piece — an admittedly unextraordinary composition — progressed. His notes became clearer and far more precise as the concerto pressed onward, and the orchestra picked up the power and more complex dynamics where Swarts could not. However, while technically solid, the horn concerto failed to inspire the same awe generated by the oboe concerto, as the piece itself seemed very simple, safe and conservative. While it could certainly have been no easy feat to follow Griffiths, Swarts delivered a satisfying, but perhaps forgettable, performance.

The Festival concluded with Symphony No. 41 in C Major,  conducted by Cleve, a fair — albeit tedious — performance comprising four movements. This extensive symphony made even the most enthusiastic concertgoers fidgety. Nevertheless, the performance was pleasant, and the “Menuetto: Allegretto” enlivened the somewhat humdrum symphony. The absence of a guest artist here actually worked to the orchestra’s favor, allowing the string section to shine. The violinists were especially moving, as they delivered the crescendos beautifully and effortlessly. The night finished with a standing ovation from audience members, but no calls for an encore.

The Festival returns to Bing on Thursday, July 23 with a new set of Mozart pieces sure to delight every avid fan of classical music. While the concertos and symphonies may seem somewhat tiresome to the untrained ear, there is absolutely no doubt that the orchestra, including its many soloists and captivating maestro, is an outstanding collection of talented musicians. Their sincere dedication to Mozart’s great works is palpable in every measure, even if more casual fans may find themselves periodically checking their watches.

Contact Gitika Nalwa at gitikanalwa ‘at’ gmail.com and Shannon O’Hara at shannonnohar16 ‘at’ mittymonarch.com.

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