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REVIEW: For La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, a joyful return

San Diego Union Tribune

Christian Hertzog
August 1, 2021

Friday’s opening SummerFest concert — titled ‘Ode to Joy — was a sold-out affair at Baker-Baum Concert Hall

At last year’s opening concert for the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, musicians played their hearts out to an empty Baker-Baum Concert Hall. Seats were vacant because the entire concert streamed over the internet, a necessity to keep performers and listeners safe in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic.

For Friday’s opening SummerFest concert, Baker-Baum Concert Hall was sold out, filled with fully vaccinated patrons. The concert was titled “Ode To Joy,” and — pardon the expression — 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. This was a glad return to a semblance of SummerFests past.

The myriad musicians onstage that evening were also elated. There is no worse feeling for any performing artist than to start the show to a sea of empty seats.

The program began as advertised with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” or as it known to many Americans, the “Theme from Die Hard.” 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 pianistic 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.

This 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 by 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 43-year-old 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 brought them to Barnatan’s attention.

Much more musically startling was their arrangement of Walter Hawkins’ gospel classic, “Until I Found The Lord.” These four gentlemen bottled the excitement of Hawkins’ Love Center Church Chorale and released it in Baker-Baum Hall 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, Jun Iwasaki, violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Weilerstein joined the Calidore String Quartet for a thrilling performance. These eight musicians were excitingly in tune with each other, emotionally and technically.

Sure, we expect the energy to be there in a SummerFest performance, but the execution was also astounding. Unison and octave lines sounded pitch perfect, and the ensemble work throughout was ideal.

It’s been over a year and a half since I’ve heard anything in Baker-Baum Concert Hall, and I’d forgotten what an acoustically magnificent venue it is. A livestreamed performance doesn’t really convey that. You’ve got to be there to hear how the hall makes string ensembles glow.

With COVID infections rising again, who knows when you might be able attend a chamber music concert in a beautiful space?