Mainly Mozart and Michael Francis make magic at Surf Sports Park

Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra performs on a tented stage.
The opening night concert of the Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra Festival on Thursday, June 15, at the Del Mar Surf Sports Park.
(Courtesy of J. Kat Photography)

Whitney Crockett was the dexterous soloist in Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto at all-star festival, which continues through June 24


The annual return of the Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra Festival is always a happy occasion, and Thursday evening’s opening outdoor concert at the Surf Sports Park in Del Mar was no exception.

Take concertmasters and principal players across North America to form an All-Star Orchestra. Hire a music director with an engaging stage personality and penetrating musical insight that can energize tired old warhorses. Program some unusual 18th and 19th century compositions to mix in with the Mozart and Beethoven. It’s been their formula for 35 years now, and it still works well. The festival continues through June 24.

The bone-rattling ride over unpaved roads from Via de la Valle to the parking lot is still the same, and parking has jumped up to $15. However, food trucks wait outside the performance area and the bars are well stocked. The VIP tables and chairs are covered in fabric to fend off dampness. The amplification this year sounds better than ever.

Music Director Michael Francis conducts the Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra.
Music Director Michael Francis leads the opening night concert of the Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra Festival on Thursday, June 15, at the Del Mar Surf Sports Park.
(Courtesy of Ken Jacques)

The rarity opening Thursday’s concert was the “Symphony in 17 Parts” by François-Joseph Gossec. He was one of the most successful composers in France in his prime. Born in 1839 at the end of the Baroque era, he apprenticed with Jean-Philippe Rameau. By the time he died in 1829, the Romantic period of music was in full swing.

Gossec was well known for his musical activities after the French Revolution, where he specialized in spectacular “civic music” scored for huge orchestras and choruses of over 1000 singers. His wind symphonies, scored for hundreds of performers, were a clear influence on Berlioz’s “Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale.” Gossec’s legacy today, however, is chiefly as the bane of parents of Suzuki violin students, forced to endure endless repetitions of his “Gavotte.”

“Symphony in 17 Parts” is a curious work, full of unexpected harmonic shifts. The title refers not to 17 different movements, but rather to the number of instrumental lines. Gossec loved winds and brass, and this symphony provides lots of sparkling passages for them. The Minuet movement took the very unusual form of a fugue.

Music Director Michael Francis oversaw a performance that highlighted both the oddities and the rousing drama of this work. It may never unseat Mozart or Haydn in the concert hall, but it was a pleasant way to kick off this season.

Bassoonist Whitney Crockett plays in concert.
Bassoonist Whitney Crockett, with music director and conductor Michael Francis in the background, during the opening night concert of the Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra Festival on Thursday, June 15, at the Del Mar Surf Sports Park.
(Courtesy of J. Kat Photography)

Whitney Crockett was the soloist in Mozart’s only surviving Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra, a jovial work by the then-teenged composer. Crockett is the principal bassoon for the L.A. Philharmonic. In the first movement his fluid, dexterous turns in the midst of rapid passagework impressed. Mozart left no cadenzas for this concerto; Crockett’s were sufficiently composed, and notably well played. Francis and the orchestra engaged in sublime musical dialogue with Crockett. It was a handsome reading of a charming piece.

Francis has a knack for finding new insights into standard repertory. He brought this talent to his interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. Beethoven’s 8th is typically treated as a fun, lightweight work, but Francis sees it as an architectural marvel like the 5th or 7th Symphonies — only on a smaller scale. Francis led the orchestra in a gritty performance that brought out Beethoven’s serious musical thought lurking beneath the pleasant surfaces.

At the top of the concert, mixed in with the usual opening remarks, was the announcement that Francis had just signed another five-year contract. Happy news indeed for those tired of business-as-usual performances of Beethoven and Mozart.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.

Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra Festival

All performances are at 7:30pm. and last 75 minutes each, with no intermission.

Saturday: “Mozart & Brahms” — Surf Sports Park, 14989 Via De La Valle, Del Mar.

Tuesday: “Mahler 4” — Baker-Baum Concert Hall, Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla.

Thursday: “Shostakovich & Mozart” — Epstein Family Amphitheater, UC San Diego, 9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla

June 24:  “Beethoven 9th” — Epstein Family Amphitheater

Tickets: $30 and up