Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mozart, Ethan Bortnick and American Rhythm

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
Mainly Mozart Festival 2016 Concludes

Moving right along, circumstance dictated going alone to the June 15 Mainly Mozart Orchestra concert at the Balboa Theatre. I drove to Broadway Circle early in order to secure free street parking in advance of the 6:30 “Overture.” Most edifying, the concert preamble consisted of individual players from the Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra mixing it up with individual All-Star Orchestra players, such as concertmaster William Preucil, in chamber quintets, quartets and trios. A wonderful experience for the kids, whose families were present in the auditorium, which is perfect spot for chamber works.

William Preucil
In the concert that followed Maestro Michael Francis led the orchestra and guest soloist, the much acclaimed, much recorded Canadian violinist James Ehnes (in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major and Franz Schubert’s Rondo in A Major) and the orchestra in other early works by Mozart (Overture: “La finta semplice” and Symphony in D Major “Il Sogno di Scipone”) and Schubert (Symphony No. 1 in D Major). It was gratifying to see so many kids and families remain for the concert by this pre-eminent soloist and orchestra, which Mo. Francis proclaims the best in the world.
Maestro Michael Francis

Ehnes is on world tour in celebration of his 40th birthday this year. He is very fine, and he and Francis, of an age give or take a year, made an attractive duo when they took their bows, looking like two succulent peas from the same pod, tuxedo-clad and bursting from their confines. They and the orchestra were so attuned that there was no lag at all between Ehnes’ deliciously clean cadenzas and the ensuing orchestral entrances. It was a magical partnership to say the least between two enthusiastic, personality-filled colleagues.

Another of those rare suspension-of-breath moments came late in the orchestra’s rendering of the Schubert Symphony, which Schubert wrote in 1813 when he was 12. There’s a subtle, yet abrupt, change in time signature from a rather martial cadence to duple time, and at that moment and in the ensuing bars, the orchestra grew hushed and so did the audience: magic.

The inspired programming of this particular concert allows us to explore and compare the development of two prodigies, Mozart and Schubert, in works composed when they were 12-17 years of age.

Ethan Bortnick’s The Power of Music

Ethan Bortnick, who persuaded his parents that he needed piano lessons when he was only 3, is by now a very talented young man at an exceptionally awkward time in his life. At 15, his face has yet to grow into his jaw and many of his movements, especially when he bows, are ungainly, certainly common to one of his years, charming in its way, but irksome over the course of a self-hosted evening’s entertainment. I know he has a singing coach. I wonder if he would consider a movement coach. He also needs a script so that his patter is not so repetitive.

Ethan Bortnick
Right now Bortnick is much more the pianist and composer than the pop vocalist. Because his voice is changing, he isn’t able to engage in full-out vocalism that would allow him to sing as though he loves to sing. 

Nonetheless, he is much the showman – a segment where he calls audience members to the stage and composes from their ring tones was particularly enjoyable – and he is at ease with the audience, who seemed to have a rip-roaring good time. His four-member backup band (keyboard, percussion, guitar and bass) is excellent, and the three who sang have beautiful voices. Bortnick also utilized the San Diego North Coast Singers, with whom he performed the evening’s closing number, “We Are the World.”

The Closing Concert of the Orchestra Series

Gavin George
The final concert in the Mainly Mozart Festival featured impressive 12-year-old pianist Gavin George, whose playing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in D Major displayed mature aplomb. It was rife with facility as well as budding spiritual understanding. His encore – Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Opus 23, #5 – showed both unabashed bombast and a love of melodic beauty.

The program began with Maestro Francis and the orchestra’s amusing performance of Leopold Mozart’s Cassation in G Major (“Toy Symphony”), replete with airs by lovesick cuckoos and toy trumpets, a drum, bells and whistles and ratchet. Leopold was Mozart’s father. The performance was good-naturedly performed by soloists from the ranks of the orchestra.

Maestro Francis and the Festival Orchestra
Other explorations included Mozart Symphonies No. 2 (unprogrammed but included as what Maestro described as a “palate cleanser” prior to what followed the Cassation), Mozart’s symphonies No. 5 and No. 52. The program concluded with a thrilling reading of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor, written when he was 15. Here there was applause between movements, and as my learned friend observed, it was justified because the conclusions of each movement were electrifying.

American Rhythm

Seen Sunday afternoon (June 19) at Lamb’s Players Theatre, Coronado

The Company of American Rhythm
Photos by Ken Jacques

I remember this piece from 2000 when Lamb’s first presented it, a survey of everything living musical and historical thing (well, not quite) from Tin Pan Alley to the present. It aspires to tell the story of the last century in the U.S.A. up to the present without bias or comment, illustrated with music. Now, as originally, it changes its mind and becomes something else after bogging down in the Dust Bowl and the ensuing Great Depression, and at last becomes more of what it should have been all along – lots of talent, performing and dancing to music that spans the century and more.

American Rhythm was conceived originally by Lamb’s Artistic Director Robert Smyth and commissioned of Kerry Meads and Vanda Eggington, both involved still as director and musical director. It now has new choreography by Colleen Kollar Smith. At nearly three hours, it’s still way too much for one music lover to endure, even one with a generously padded rear. There’s no doubt about it, though, the assembled company of ten – familiar and new – plus a fine 7-piece band, the songs, and their intelligent execution and arrangements are a wondrous glut. Veterans include Sandy Campbell, Catie Grady, Siri Hafso, David S. Humphrey, Luke Harvey Jacobs, Benjamin Roy, Lance Arthur Smith and Joy Yandell. Those making their Lamb’s debuts are Kiana Bell and Michael Cusimano.

The production plays through August 7 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado. www.lambsplayers.org or 619-437-6000.

Introducing the 2016 Fringe

Monday night, I attended the press preview of the San Diego International Fringe Festival (June 23-July 3 at various locations), two-minute snippets of around 50 of the groups presenting more than 400 50-minute performances of plays, music and dance this year. Tickets are only $10, and a complete schedule may be found at www.sdfringe.org. Better yet, a public preview ($5) takes place tonight at 7-9pm at the Readers Spreckels Theatre, 923 First Avenue. https://sdfringe.ticketleap.com/festival-previews/

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