Review: SummerFest’s elegant kick-off concert a promising overture for the monthlong series

Conductor Alan Gilbert, right, and pianist Inon Barnatan look at each other during a concert.
Conductor Alan Gilbert, right, and pianist Inon Barnatan in La Jolla Music Society’s opening concert for the 2023 SummerFest season on Friday, July 28, at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Music Society)

La Jolla Music Society’s marathon concert featured 400 years of musical compositions that each referenced other music


The musicologist Paul Henry Lang wrote, “A musician is a historian.” He meant that musical works and their performances connect, implicitly or explicitly, to other music — that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

La Jolla Music Society’s concert Friday night at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall took this idea and ran an elegant marathon with it, launching this year’s season of Summerfest, whose monthlong offerings boast a diverse group of performers and imaginative programming.

Director Inon Barnatan’s selections for the concert were savvy and smart, perfect for Summerfest’s opening salvo, in that all the works, interesting in themselves, referred in some way to other music, creating a narrative fabric that wove together chronology, genre, and geography in a promising stylistic overture to the entire series.

Opening night serves as a grand announcement of the festival as a whole, and so it was fitting to begin with an offstage brass ensemble fanfare with 17th-century music by Thomas Simpson and Bastian Chilese. Trumpeters Brandon Ridenour and Eduardo Ruiz brought late-Renaissance transparency and support to melodic lines.

György Ligeti’s early “Bagatelles for Wind Quintet” date from 1953. Nos. 1, 3, and 6, heard Friday, are a bit different from the wild essays in sonority most listeners associate with the mature works, focusing instead on reference, rhetorical gesture, and style. Even at this stage in his career, Ligeti shows his ability to do just about anything, and the deft, knowing stylistic nods in his language were matched by shining, visceral performances by Rose Lombardo, flute; Marc Lachat, oboe; Anton Rist, clarinet; Eleni Katz, Bassoon; and Kaylet Torrez, horn, whose upper-register playing was especially impressive.

Percussionists Dustin Donahue and Sidney Hopson explained that the rhythmic pattern in Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” came from his hearing of Flamenco musicians’ clapped, interlocking rhythms. “Clapping Music” is an early minimalist classic, normally requiring only two performers to play. Donahue and Hopson were joined for a precise, exciting performance by six other musicians, making Reich’s work considerably bigger than the original.

While Ukrainian composer Dmitri Klebanov may not be familiar to most concert-goers, the opening gambit of his Fourth String Quartet certainly is. The work was dedicated, in 1946, to Russian composer and folk-song collector Mykola Leontovych, who, in 1906, found and arranged a Ukrainian New Year’s song called “Shchedryk” that we have come to know as “Carol of the Bells.” Klebanov’s setting of this melody is active and light, with bits of other tunes added in. A fleet and balanced approach was taken by Blake Pouliot and Diana Cohen, violins, Masumi Per Rostad, viola, and Oliver Herbert, cello, perfect for Klebanov’s mid-century musical optimism, which existed despite the looming threat of Soviet censorship.

Pouliot remained and was joined onstage by violinist Steven Copes for a rousing and virtuosic duet arrangement by Bruce Dukov of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” complete with piccolo solo. The two sounded as if they’ve played together for years, absolutely selling this most famous of Sousa’s marches.

The Baker-Baum is not a huge space; large groups really do fill the stage. The Summerfest Chamber Orchestra is roughly 30 players, and their performance of Franz Schreker’s single movement “Kammersymphonie” (or “Chamber Symphony”) was galvanizing. Shreker is an unsung denizen of Fin-de-siècle Vienna. Kin with Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg, his work combines late Romantic chromatic harmony with the burning, mystical psychology one finds in the paintings of Klimt and Schiele.

Conductor Alan Gilbert made poetic sense of Shreker’s swirling and luminous textures. The work is truly a large chamber piece, and wonderful solo performances were turned in by bassoonist Eleni Katz, trombonist Eric Starr, and pianist Roman Rabinovich.

Bohuslav Martinu, like Schreker, straddles older and newer directions in European music in the first half of the 20th Century. His one-act ballet from 1927, “La revue de cuisine,” blends the melodies and rhythms of Jazz (extremely popular in France at the time) with his own gift for sonority and inventive instrumental writing. Four movements from Martinu’s ballet were played Friday, with dazzling chamber ensemble playing and fine individual work by Brandon Ridenour, trumpet; Oliver Herbert cello; Eleni Katz bassoon; Roman Rabinovich, piano; Blake Pouliot, violin; and Anton Rist, clarinet.

Barnatan joined the ensemble as soloist for Shostakovich’s “Concerto in C Minor for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings.”

While Shostakovich’s own pianistic expertise is often overlooked, his writing for piano shows his deep understanding of the instrument and its possibilities. From the opening, which briefly quotes Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, Barnatan brought a thrilling ability and deep understanding to the piano part, blending polish and control with Shostakovich’s unshaven and insistent virtuosity.

Ridenour emerged from thick textures with power and clarity, shaping repeated-note phrases and maximizing the emotional characters in the trumpet’s commentary.

If the level of programming and performances of this concert are any indication of the rest of the festival, San Diego is in for an exciting several weeks.

Schulze is a freelance writer.