Mainly Mozart Is Mainly Astounding in San Diego

TIMES MUSIC WRITER

Exhilarating in every way, David Atherton's sixth concert with the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra this June--two more remain, and the festival closes Sunday--was an ear-opener as well as a delight. Immaculate, buoyant and probing Mozart is always unexpected; this splendid performance, Tuesday night in the Spreckels Theatre in downtown San Diego, practically took one's breath away.

Now in its 13th summer incarnation, Mainly Mozart, founded by conductor Atherton in 1989, remains an oasis of repertory-quality programming in the otherwise pops-oriented parade of American summer concerts.

Its distinguished orchestra, made up of top-flight instrumentalists--including important first-desk players--from symphonic ensembles around the United States, performs with high energy and stunning precision; its string and wind components are polished and blended to a shine, and their dynamic range is broad, their command of detail exquisite. The 2001 roster of personnel, not all of them playing in every event of the two-week festival, includes names familiar in Los Angeles--Martin Chalifour and Jerry Folsom from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and violist Roland Kato from L.A. Chamber Orchestra, among others.

Only a master conductor and a deeply resourceful ensemble can do what Atherton and his Festival Orchestra achieved at the start of both Mozart's Symphony No. 29 and Beethoven's First Piano Concerto--bookends of this solid program--a really quiet, full-voiced and attention-getting beginning. In both cases, this opening led the way to a highly detailed and expansive reading of movements to come--this was not grandstanding, but a real wielding of interpretive powers.

Mozart 29 has seldom flowed so naturally or sounded its subtle charms so compellingly. At the other end of the evening, Ilya Itin, the multiple-prize-winning Russian pianist who has lived in this country since 1990, gave a respectable but understated performance of the concerto, assisted with finesse by Atherton and the orchestra.

At mid-program, the unheralded star of the evening appeared. That was bassoonist Steven Dibner, an associate principal of the San Francisco Symphony, who played Mozart's Bassoon Concerto, K. 191, with a combination of personality, virtuosity and probing articulation perfectly thrilling in its integration of musical and personal charms.

An early masterpiece by Mozart, written when he was 18 (before he wrote any violin concertos), this is a work of irresistible appeal--brilliant and tuneful and inventive. Dibner's playing was nothing less than charismatic, and Atherton and the Festival Orchestra gave keen, full-blooded and witty support.* The Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra plays in Tijuana, Baja, Mexico, Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 8 p.m. Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, San Diego. $26. The festival closes with two performances by the Cuarteto Latinoamericano Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Westgate Hotel, 1055 2nd Ave., San Diego, and at 8 p.m. at the Neurosciences Institute, 10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive, San Diego. (619) 239-0100.

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