Many music-lovers deem Johann Sebastian Bach’s music to be the wellspring of the great catalogue of western music that is performed and enjoyed today. Although such an assertion can be the start of a lively debate, SummerFest Music Director Cho-Liang Lin put himself firmly in the Bach camp both in his introductory remarks from the Sherwood Auditorium stage Wednesday (August 7) and in the program that followed.
Starting with the familiar Bach Second Orchestral Suite in B Minor for Flute and Strings, BWV 1067, Lin leaped into the late 20th century to Alfred Schnittke’s audacious 1985 Concerto Grosso No. 3, a post modern homage to one of Bach’s favorite musical forms, then slipped back to less controversial contrapuntal salutes by Mozart and Mendelssohn. Lin then took one of the solo roles in Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043, bringing the circle back to the Leipzig master.
In the progression of Russian music, Schnittke is the successor to Dmitri Shostakovich, both in the scope of his output and his mastery of the large musical genres—he composed 10 symphonies and 22 concertos! The expansive historian Richard Taruskin has described Schnittke’s approach as traditional-sounding music distorted by avant-garde techniques, and the Concerto Grosso No. 3 made that case eloquently. Opening with a frothy salvo of faux Baroque string iterations worthy of P.D.Q. Bach on a really good day, instead of quoting something corny (the P.D.Q. Bach formula), the Concerto Grosso delivered a thundering bolt of chordal dissonance and alarming clangs from tubular chimes.
Soon the violin soloists, Michelle Kim and Philippe Quint launched sometimes serious, sometimes eyebrow-raising virtuoso duets, gleefully engaging their complementary bright timbres and muscular strokes through the composer’s catalogue of tweaked Baroque conventions: falling sequences, strings of sweetly resolving dissonances, bizarre imitations. Their flare and immaculate intonation provided both musical and theatrical satisfaction of a very high order.
Yet Schnittke was not merely audacious. At times he veered into quiet eddies of mystical reverie or ethereal, simulated electonic landscapes—with acoustic instruments, of course. Steven Lin hopped gracefully from piano to harpsichord to celeste to facilitate the work’s kaleidoscopic mood alterations, and Joseph Swenson kept everyone on track with precise, supportive direction from the podium.
San Diego audiences depend on Lin and SummerFest to bring us these thrilling adventures. I am not holding my breath for a Schnittke symphony or opera to be offered downtown at Symphony Hall or Civic Theatre in the near future.
Discovering the Linden String Quartet proved the other delight of this concert. Started in 2009 at the Cleveland Institute of Music, this young ensemble vigorously attacked Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C Minor for String Quartet, K. 546, and rendered that angular fugue with apt daemonic dread. With equal zest they dispatched Felix Mendelssohn’s Capriccio in E Minor for String Quartet, Op. 81, No. 3, allowing Mendelssohn’s supple themes to reveal the quartet’s more ingratiating timbres and deft exchanges. Violinists Sarah McElravy and Catherine Cosbey projected beautifully matched lines, and cellist Felix Umansky and violist Eric Wong sculpted imposing support from below. This is a string quartet to watch.
Joseph Swenson joined Cho-Liang Lin in the solo roles of the Bach D Minor Concerto for Two Violins. Although first violin Swenson was precise and thoughtful throughout the concerto, Lin consistently gave us soulful poetry to his colleague’s polite prose. In the program opening Bach Orchestral Suite, flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly braved Anthony Newman’s unrelenting, breathless tempos and flat dynamics—he directed from the harpsichord—but was not able to overcome such stasis or the overpowering dynamics of the low strings. This was not a fair fight, and I felt we were denied a more nuanced hearing of this great vehicle for solo flute.