Symphony Review: Sublime opener launches Mozaic

Whether you think of it as Festival Mozaic or The San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival, 2010 marks the 40th year of this annual bounty. If Thursday’s sublime opening concert was any indication, this summer might be the most adventurous music festival in recent memory.

Two ambitious chamber works by Rachmaninoff and a wild ride by Polish modernist Witold Lutoslawski left the opening night’s near-capacity audience at the Cuesta College Cultural and Performing Arts Center with a lot to think about and feel grateful for.

We’ve come to expect intelligent programming from Music Director Scott Yoo, along with his unpretentious and informative introductory remarks. He took the stage Thursday night and explained that the 20-year-old Rachmaninoff had written his “Trio Elegiaque No. 2” in memory of his mentor Tchaikovsky, whose sudden death at age 53 caused a crisis in the younger man’s heart.

The piece, scored for piano, violin and cello, perfectly enacts the obsessive thought patterns that characterize grief. Each new melodic idea in the opening movement bends into the dominant theme as though the composer’s varying thoughts were being magnetically pulled in one direction by the force of his feeling.

Cellist Trevor Handy, familiar to Festival Mozaic audiences, produced a controlled sobbing sound that guest violinist Tim Fain continued seamlessly. Rubenstein Gold Medalist Hung-Kuan Chen, the evening’s pianist, played the virtuoso passages in the second movement with rich tone and liquid ease.

In the last movement, the tempo brightens as the theme starts to suggest the heroic rather than the sorrowful. The piano carries the momentum, and Chen showed a nearly ideal blend of power and fluidity.

Chen is married to Tema Blackstone, another piano virtuoso (she was Yoo’s piano teacher).

The second half of the concert explored the two-piano repertoire with Rachmaninoff’s “Suite No. 2 in C major” and Lutoslawski’s wild Paganini variations.

The 1901 suite is structured symphonically and maintains an optimistic mood in contrast to the dark sorrows of the trio. The second movement, a waltz, sped along as brightly as it does under the hands of Argerich and Meyer in their celebrated recording.

Cuesta’s new performance space proved nearly ideal for chamber music. The balances among violin, cello and piano were transparent, and for the two-piano half of the concert, both instruments deepened each other without muddiness.

The concert was sponsored by Ron and Ann Alers. The festival continues through Sunday.