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CHAMBER REVIEW
Napa Valley Music Associates / Sunday, January 11, 2015
Jassen Todorov, violin; Anna Combs Johnson, soprano; Kenn Gartner and Adrian Borcea, piano

Violinist Jassen Todorov

MOZART IN THE MIX

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, January 11, 2015

Napa Valley Music Associates 20th annual Mozart concert Jan. 11 was a mostly Mozart event at the Jamieson Ranch Vineyards, but five mostly romantic composers happily joined the musical mix.

Jassen Todorov was the featured violinist in two Sonatas, the F Major (K. 377) and the B Flat (K. 378), partnered with pianist Adrian Borcea. The acoustics of the winery party room were dead and the duo adopted a muscular approach to the overflowing energy of the K. 377 Allegro, the piano at times covering the violin’s sound. The best playing came in the D Minor Variations movement (Andante) where the violinist’s intonation settled down and the music moved from gloomy resignation to lyricism, with a lovely lightweight ending.

The finale was inspired and seemed to quietly vanish into the distance at the end. Throughout the concert the sub professional piano limited artistic playing from Mr. Borcea and subsequently Kenn Gartner, but on balance the Mozart was an adroit if not a telling performance.

Not hindered by the accompanying instrument was soprano Anna Combs Johnson, singing four works by Verdi and Rachmaninoff. From the opera Othello she sang a deliberate and shapely “Ave Maria,” followed by the sad “Salce, salce” (Desdemona’s “Willow’s Song”) with Mr. Gartner support and beguiling postlude. Her voice is even and strong throughout all registers, carrying well with judicious and intense high notes in Rachmaninoff’s “It Is Nice Here.” The popular “Vocalise” (from a group of Op. 34 songs) is performed without words and with one vowel of the singer’s choosing. Here the piano and vocal lines intertwined to fine effect, the music producing a serene blessing on the 75 listeners.

Closing the first half were four disparate piano nocturnes, each well known but each less than refined due to Mr. Gartner’s struggle with the piano. In Chopin’s E Flat Nocturne of Op. 9 he never found a stable tempo and Liszt’s Liebesträume suffered from memory lapses and lack of harmonic sustain. The concluding Scriabin Nocturne for the Left Hand (Op.9) and Respighi’s mellow Notturno were better, the latter a signature piece for the pianist and played with a soothing right-hand staccato and deft phrasing.

In Mozart’s B Flat sonata Mr. Todorov found a lighter bow and relaxed virtuosity that was not always in evidence earlier. He focused on the beguiling three-part melody of the Andantino, reminiscent of the church song “Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of All Nature,” and played with a wider vibrato and control of pianissimo. Mr. Borcea had plenty to do with the many right-hand scale passages in the Allegro, attempting to get an even legato from the instrument that seldom provided it.

Two lovely Mozart works closed the concert, “Porgi Amor” from the opera “The Marriage of Figaro,” and a reduction for piano and soprano of the wonderful “Alleluja” from Exultate Jubilate, K. 165. In the prayerful “Figaro” aria Ms. Combs was never strident and allowed the long phrases to unfold naturally. She has a penchant for this vocal drama where (in the opera) Countess Rosina laments fate and love. Quite the opposite was the lofty tessitura of Mozart’s florid three-minute Alleluja, sung with charm and joy.

A standing ovation ensued, a harbinger of the anticipated NV Music Associates “Spring Into Strings”
Concert March 22 in the same hall.