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Mozart, and Then Some 

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
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San Luis Obispo, known affectionately to its residents as ”SLO,“ has had its own Mozart Festival for 31 years. The genial and capable Clifton Swanson, who teaches conducting at Cal Poly -- the town’s major school and its major industry as well -- was the festival‘s co-founder and is still its musical bright light. I heard this summer’s opening concert: an early Mozart symphony, Beethoven‘s ”Eroica,“ and Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Percussion and Strings. I hear early Mozart all the time, especially if I stray too close to KUSC; the ”Eroica“ was still in my ears from the superb performance at the Hollywood Bowl a few days before; the Martinconcerto, therefore, stays with me the longest from that program. It called to mind an excellent composer (1890--1974) whom the world seems to be ignoring nowadays.

Martin was Swiss, and if you want to entertain images of clockwork and obsessive tidiness in connection with his music, you won‘t be far off. Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of his pupils, but your guess is as good as mine as to what that unruly visionary might have gleaned from this orderly, Calvinist neoclassicist. Martin’s most played work, at least in his lifetime, was the witty, charming Petite Symphonie Concertante of 1945; his most admired work currently -- among those few who keep his name alive at all -- is the oratorio Le Vin Herbe, a profound and intense setting of poetry about the Tristan and Isolde legend; it needs revival.

Despite its title, the SLO Mozart Festival‘s programming ranges far and wide, and the Martin concerto has been performed at least four times before this summer. Why not? It is a terrifically attractive piece; its exchanges among the solo instruments have a kind of Mozartian passion; its dissonances bristle but do not sting. At the end the timpani and percussion have their licks, and their outburst is both dazzling and hilarious. Overall, I felt myself really drawn to the piece; its interplay turns the entire orchestra into an argle-bargle through a wide emotional range. There was a good recording on Deutsche Grammophon by Thierry Fischer and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which you might find in the used-disc shops; a recent one by Mathias Bamert isn’t quite as high-spirited.

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The concert took place in the excellent acoustics of SLO‘s new Performing Arts Center on the Cal Poly campus, a masterwork of the Hideous-Moderne that looms over the town like a stranded spaceship. Other concerts are given in local churches, the SLO Mission and in less formal venues; over two weeks the whole area is immersed in serious music making. The orchestra is recruited partly from local folk, but draws on both Los Angeles and the Bay Area as well. (If you wonder what has happened to Ralph Morrison, who glares over the 110 freeway downtown in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra mural but no longer plays in that orchestra, he’s the SLO Festival Orchestra‘s concertmaster.) Under Swanson’s strong direction, the Mozart Symphony No. 32 went like the wind; the ”Eroica“ was similarly brisk and shapely, but, as I was saying, my ears that night belonged to another. That afternoon one of the Cal Poly profs, Craig Russell by name, lectured on -- no, actually, acted out -- some of Beethoven‘s sketches for the ”Eroica“: falling on the floor to illustrate the changes to the ”wrong“ key, doing an Elektra triumphal dance at the final vanquishment of the D-flat invaders, that sort of thing. (Whatever happened to Robert Winter?)

Meanwhile, back at the Pass . . . Leila Josefowicz was reason enough to spend an evening at the Bowl the night before SLO’s opening concert; she had laid me low, along with all of London, with her performance of John Adams‘ Violin Concerto during his big weekend there last January. But this time she was up against a more formidable obstacle, that decrepit hulk of a once respectable musician named Jaime Laredo, who was listed as the evening’s conductor and also as Josefowicz‘s partner in glorious works from the past that involve two string instruments in profound conversation with each other and with the orchestra behind them.

In Bach’s D-minor Concerto for Two Violins, and in Mozart‘s E-flat Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, the marvel is the depth and extent of those conversations, the tensions that build and then resolve as Violin One states a proposition, Violin Two (or Viola) answers but carries the argument forward by a subtle variation of the original line, and the orchestra comes in to refute or to praise what has just been said. In the Mozart especially, the depth of the discourse must move us all; the slow movement -- which Mozart himself describes in a letter as ”a lovers’ dialogue“ -- has always seemed to me the turning point in his own rise to expressive mastery. It is interesting, by the way, to compare Mozart‘s two historically adjacent works heard on successive classical concerts that week: the elegant, classically serene Two-Piano Concerto, No. 365 in Ludwig Kochel’s more or less chronological catalog, and this passionate, disturbing Sinfonia Concertante listed as K. 364.

Apparently, the evening‘s soloists chose different languages for their discourse on both K. 364 and the Bach Concerto: the sweet, beautifully contained yet human tones of Josefowicz’s violin against Laredo‘s groaning, self-indulgent overphrasing in both works -- as if he had chosen on purpose to ignore everything his talented partner had to say. In between Bach and Mozart had come Mendelssohn’s ”Italian“ Symphony, conducted by Laredo also in an unwelcoming, thudding manner -- with the prescribed repeats overlooked and the enchanting interplay between winds and strings made hoarse and drab. I once held Laredo‘s musicianship in reasonably high regard, but if this concert suggests the current level of that quality, I think it’s time to end inflicting himself -- on the music and on us.

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