Monterey Symphony

michaeldavidman_342_pianoBy Scott MacClelland

MOZART-LOVERS flocked to Sunset Center for a Sunday matinee to indulge exclusively in their favorite composer and to hear two young artists, precociously gifted 21-year-old pianist Michael Davidman and guest conductor Conner Gray Covington, the new assistant conductor of the Utah Symphony. The two came here as a package deal the Monterey Symphony has with the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Yet strange twists happened. The popular Concerto No. 21 in C got a glitzy but superficial interpretation from both the soloist and the conductor—one assumes by some mutual plan—and the real highlight of the concert, the “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41, got only a moderate response from the audience. (The latter probably from not recognizing the unprecedented virtuosity and power of the piece in its time, which can likely be blamed on the breakdown of public school music education.)

Of course any concerto, including Mozart’s C Major, opens the door to personal interpretation—‘personality’ is probably a better descriptor—and this performance was literal, clean, efficient and forgettable. Mozart’s late piano concertos rewrote the game and gave Beethoven exactly the challenge he needed. With the advantage of historical hindsight, we now know where the opportunities lie. Primarily they open up in the development section of the first movement, the seductively romantic second movement—which filmmaker Bo Widerberg appropriated for his popular but tragic 1967 film Elvira Madigan—and the solo cadenzas at the ends of the first and last movements. Davidman had a big opportunity to leave a lasting personal impression on the audience, but that evaporated under a flurry of facile fingering. That impression therefore fell to the encore, his own (very impressive) solo piano paraphrase of Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s eponymous operatic melodrama.

I love Mozart’s music and I get cranky when it is reduced to superficiality. Having confessed that, I credit Covington with an effective account of the Don Giovanni overture, with its spooky, creepy anticipations of the title character’s Trump-like indecency and the comedic inevitability of his foibles.

The second half opened with Mozart’s nine-minute Symphony No. 1 in E-flat, a novelty in the context by an 8-year-old child obviously guided by his father’s hand, yet which certainly did outline the classical sonata forms perfected by Haydn.

Even more credit to Covington for the “Jupiter” Symphony. Perhaps some in the audience did not recognize the uniqueness of the breathtaking final movement in which four themes vie for attention in a riotous counterpoint that can’t seem to make up its mind to be a classical sonata or Baroque fugue but manages to be both. There is nothing else like it in Western classical music. (Not even Beethoven could surpass it.) And nothing glorifies Mozart’s singular transcendence with greater force or brilliance. At the end of the afternoon this was the performance to remember.