Review: A joyful return for La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest
The July 30 opening concert, ‘Ode to Joy,’ was a sold-out affair at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall. The series continues through Aug. 20.
At last year’s opening concert of the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, musicians played to an empty Baker-Baum Concert Hall. Seats were vacant because the concert was streamed over the internet to keep performers and listeners safe amid the COVID-19 epidemic.
For this year’s opening SummerFest concert July 30, Baker-Baum was sold out, filled with fully vaccinated patrons. The concert was titled “Ode to Joy,” and happiness was contagious.
You couldn’t see the smiles beneath the masks that most audience members donned, but eyes twinkled and voices were buoyed with excitement.
The program began with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Although rarely heard in concert, Franz Liszt effectively arranged Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 for two pianos. From this, the opening instrumental statements of the famous tune were extracted, lovingly performed by SummerFest Musical Director Inon Barnatan and Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich.
Rabinovich is a newcomer to SummerFest and shares many of the piano sensibilities of Barnatan: clarity of line, an expressive cantabile tone and a respect for the composer’s intentions. They made a well-matched, genial pair.
Mozart’s charming Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545, is one of those works that every piano student with enough skill tackles sooner or later. Due to this overfamiliarity, it’s rarely programmed by famous pianists. What a delight then to hear Barnatan play it, but with a significant wrinkle — Grieg added a more difficult part for a second pianist.
That second part harmonizes the original in a more 19th-century way and adds additional melodies to Mozart’s original. The most Griegian moments occur in the final movement, where to Mozart’s dainty, staccato melody the second piano adds full-bodied chords on the offbeats, transforming the tune into a Scandinavian folk stomp.
Violinist Paul Huang played Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of the old Irish tune best known as “Danny Boy.” Kreisler’s performance style of slides and rich, throbbing vibrato isn’t fashionable these days. Huang played in a more straightforward manner, sweetly accompanied by Rabinovich.
Festival newcomer Blake Pouliot joined Rabinovich in the last movement of John Adams’ violin and piano romp “Road Movies.” Short melodic fragments repeated and evolved in a driving yet unpredictable way. Pouliot confidently threaded his way through Adams’ music while Rabinovich dug into his challenging part. To borrow from another Adams title, it was a short ride in a fast machine.
Cellist extraordinaire Alisa Weilerstein brought her usual verve and technical excellence to De Falla’s “Suite Populaire Espagnole,” accompanied with equal gusto and lyricism by Barnatan. Introducing the work, they revealed that this was the first piece they played together 13 years ago and that Weilerstein had first performed this with her mother when she was 8 years old.
You probably haven’t encountered the music of Norwegian-American Ola Gjeilo unless you’re a fan of contemporary choral music. His “Ubi Caritas” is cut from the same risk-averse cloth as Eric Whitacre: consonant harmonies and easy-to-hear melodies and soon forgotten when one leaves the concert hall.
Originally written for men’s chorus, it was given a goose-bump-inducing performance by Kings Return, a vocal quartet whose YouTube videos in a stairwell first caught Barnatan’s attention.
Much more musically startling was the four gentlemen’s arrangement of Walter Hawkins’ gospel classic “Until I Found the Lord.” They bottled the excitement of Hawkins’ Love Center Church Chorale and released it in Baker-Baum to the audience’s loud approval.
The second half featured another ecstatic barn-burner, Mendelssohn’s String Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20. It’s worth remembering that Mainly Mozart’s first concert during the pandemic last year featured the octet, and for good reason: It’s one of the most exuberant pieces of chamber music ever written. From its opening melody climbing ever upward to the giddy energy of its conclusion, the octet is suffused with unalloyed joy.
Violinists Huang and Jun Iwasaki, violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Weilerstein joined the Calidore String Quartet for a thrilling performance. The eight musicians were excitingly in tune with one another, emotionally and technically. Unison and octave lines sounded pitch perfect, and the ensemble work throughout was ideal.
It had been more than a year and a half since I’d heard anything in the Baker-Baum Concert Hall, and I’d forgotten what an acoustically magnificent venue it is. A livestreamed performance doesn’t really convey that. You have to be there to hear how the hall makes string ensembles glow.
When: Through Aug. 20. All concerts are at 7:30 p.m. The full schedule is available on the La Jolla Music Society website.
Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall and The JAI at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla
Cost: $45-$95 per concert. As part of SummerFest, there are free public events including lectures, open rehearsals and coaching sessions.
Information: (858) 459-3728, ljms.org ◆
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