After a week of La Jolla SummerFest concerts that included the spiritual depths of Olivier Messiaen and the empyrean rewards of J. S. Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, the festival’s Music Director Cho-Liang Lin told Sunday’s (August 21) audience they deserved some comic relief. So he opened the concert with William Bolcom’s charming, droll “Three Rags for String Quartet.”A sly part of the humor stemmed, Lin noted parenthetically, from beginning a concert titled “Great Quintets” with music for string quartet. Bolcom’s first rag, “Poltergeist,” cavorted eerily in a minor mode, sporting delicate close harmonies filled with dissonances the rag pioneer Scott Joplin would never have sanctioned. But Bolcom retained the rag’s characteristic form and rhythmic patterns in his “Three Rags,” which started out in 1970 as piano pieces but were later arranged for string quartet.
“Graceful Ghost,” the more genteel second rag, exhibited a sunnier, major mode disposition, while the scrappy “Incinoratorag” closed the set with good-natured boisterous antics. Violinist Paul Huang joined Lin for the treble strings, while violist Robert Brophy and cellist Rainer Crosett took the lower voices. This quartet’s clean ensemble playing and comfort with Bolcom’s clever pastiche style delivered a winning performance.
Mozart’s String Quintet in E-flat Major, K. 614, brought the musical humor to a close, although some of the composer’s writing in this late chamber work does exhibit a playful ease. In the vivacious first movement, the paired violins and violas engaged in lively alternation that could be likened to a witty conversation.
I quickly surmised that the primary reason for paying attention to this ensemble’s respectable but otherwise unremarkable account of Mozart’s String Quintet was simply to enjoy the suave, aristocratic lead of first violinist Andrew Wan, who serves as the (very young) Concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony. Energetic and brilliant—although Wan did not overwhelm his colleagues dynamically—he made me imagine as the Mozart quintet plodded forward how much more exciting the concert could have been had Wan played a violin sonata instead! Perhaps we will hear him in a solo recital next SummerFest season. In my book, THAT would be something to anticipate eagerly.
Robert Schumann’s Quintet for Strings and Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 44, may be the composer’s most successful chamber work, as program annotator Eric Bromberger observed, but it is also mercilessly over programmed. As the heart of this chamber work, pianist Shai Wosner did everything the score required of him with great facility, but I did not detect great conviction from his playing, nor did I sense he was bringing something fresh to this well-worn score.
Although this ensemble’s flashy opening movement, the Allegro brillante, aimed for brilliance, it landed closer to brash. As the work progressed, however, the ensemble unity did improve. Fortunately, individual roles offered ample rewards, especially the finesse of first violinist Sheryl Staples and the burnished, sensitively sculpted phrasing of violist Robert Brophy.