By Dennis D. Rooney
The conclusion of the Mainly Mozart Festival’s 25th season, held July 8 at the University of Miami’s Gusman Auditorium, was a gallimaufry masquerading as a concept program. It would have been better dubbed “a bit of Mozart, but mostly Shostakovich.”
The subtitle was “The Soul of Celebration” and included video accompanying the music, credited to Ali Habashi. It seemed to me better to call it “The Soul of Pretentiousness.” The narrator, Frank Cooper, is also the festival’s president. His opening remarks compounded burbling enthusiasm with the unfortunate habit of laughing at his own lame jokes while using an over-amplified microphone.
In the video, featuring a mysterious masked figure of uncertain identity wandering through several historical periods, Cooper’s narration was poorly recorded, emphasizing his mouth noises both unattractively and so intrusively as to detract from intelligibility.
Although this “frame” was an irritating distraction, it did not affect the quality of the music performed. Two talented string players were featured: violinist Francisco Fullana and cellist Joshua Roman were joined by pianist and artistic director Marina Radiushina for all the works on the program except the first, the famous Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in G minor (HWV 432) as freely arranged for violin and viola in 1893 by the Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen.
Made famous by such teams as Sammons and Tertis, Heifetz and Feurmann, and Perlman and Zukerman, the cello has of late been co-opting the viola part, as in this performance. It can work either way, particularly when the cellist’s playing has the personality and tonal suavity that Roman displayed. I found Fullana’s phrasing often mannered and his softer dynamics too delicate, but both players were well-focused on putting the work through its paces smartly.
The single work by Mozart on the program came next. The Trio in C (K. 548) dates from the eventful summer of 1788 when Mozart’s final three symphonies were written, as well as an earlier Trio in E (K. 542). Whereas that trio is deeply serious, K. 548 is mostly cheerful and often playful. It rarely departs from its C major tonality and then only briefly. Radiushina, Fullana and Roman were responsive to its moods and played a pleasing account.
Inexplicably, they followed it with a trio arrangement of Richard Strauss’s song “Morgen!” It’s a pretty melody but needs the text to be anything more. Couldn’t they have engaged a singer? As I pondered that question I suddenly had the sound of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf singing it at one of her final recitals, intensifying my wish for a singer.
To schedule “Winter” and “Spring” from Astor Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires on a hot July afternoon was perhaps intended to highlight the seasonal inversion of the hemispheres. Even so, an arrangement for string trio had to do without the electric guitar and bandoneón so beloved of the composer. The resulting textures were often thick and lacking in tonal variety. But the fault was not with the players, who were more successful in the second of them than in the first, bringing the program’s first half to a close.
The second half was all Shostakovich and very strange indeed. One major work, the Trio No. 2 (in E minor, Op. 67), was represented only by its finale. Excerpts from the 1935 ballet The Limpid Stream (Op. 35) were memorable only insofar as that score and the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District from the same year were the two works condemned in Pravda that made the composer suddenly an outcast.
The Gadfly (Op. 97a), music for an eponymous 1955 film, was arranged as a suite by Levon Atovmian and not the composer. This program of excerpts closed with the Waltz No. 2 from a Suite for Variety Orchestra, assembled by Shostakovich sometime after 1956 and drawn from earlier compositions. With the exception of the Op. 67 Trio movement, everything was entertainment music of the lightest character, model Socialist Realism. Was it more important to hear than one of the composer’s greatest and most challenging works in its entirety?