La Jolla SummerFest opened Friday (August 7) with scintillating performances of Janáček and Mozart that took the breath away. After the youthful Escher String Quartet unleashed the Expressionist angst of Janáček’s First String Quartet (which he titled “The Kreutzer Sonata”), veteran pianist Joseph Kalichstein gave a luminous, exuberant account of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493, elegantly assisted by violinist Augustin Hadelich, violist Ori Kam, and cellist Andrew Shulman.
When the ushers opened the Sherwood Auditorium doors for intermission, however, all of the magic in the room escaped into the cool evening air. We returned to hear an under rehearsed, at times raucous, account of Tchaikovsky’s Sextet for Strings, Op. 70 (“Souvenir de Florence”).
Although some composers’ work tends to mellow in their senior years—Richard Strauss and Elliott Carter come immediately to mind—Leoš Janáček grew bolder in his last decade. Completed in 1923 at age 69, his First String Quartet is riddled with dissonant flashes that sear at what initially strikes the ear as complacent tonality. Escher plied these discordant motifs with unflinching determination, holding the audience hostage to the work’s raw emotional thrust, a bold, thrilling take on one of the overlooked gems of the string quartet repertory.
It is not easy to generalize about Escher’s sound because they employed such a broad palette for this work. I liked the vibrant colors violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd frequently chose, the lean, focused timbre of cellist Brook Speltz, and violist Pierre Lapointe’s ability to mutate his sonority to match his colleagues’ tone when responding to their themes. The players’ rapt attention to detail matched their zeal to communicate this quartet’s intense emotional meaning.
We don’t know what prompted Mozart to invent the Piano Quartet, but it can deliver all the thrills of a piano concerto with only a fraction of the musicians required. Kalichstein made every flourish and scale of the E-flat Major Piano Quartet shimmer with witty sophistication, as if to say, “Could Mozart have intended anything else?” Hadelich may not have his keyboard partner’s decades of experience, but he responded with an aristocratic refinement that complemented Kalichstein’s every nuance. The lower strings, busily insinuating an entire orchestra, had fewer solo opportunities, but each member of the quartet played with uncanny ensemble sensitivity that maintained the balance and equanimity of the work from first note to final cadence.
With the stellar roster of players assigned to Tchaikovsky’s familiar string sextet “Souvenir de Florence,” it was distressing to realize how little of that potential was realized Friday night. First violinist Kyoko Takezawa, no stranger to this festival, projected a passionate but polished approach to the composer’s sumptuous themes, but in the opening Allegro con spirito and other muscular sections of the work, the rest of the ensemble paid little attention to her lead. In particular, the vigor of cellists Gary Hoffman and Joshua Roman overpowered the sextet and gave the impression that this performance was an every man for himself contest.
In the quieter middle movements, notably when the other strings were reduced to lighter pizzicato accompaniment, the balance improved, and Takezawa and Hoffman traded suave solos, giving a more accurate depiction of Tchaikovsky’s valentine to his favorite Tuscan retreat. Worthy solos from violists Toby Hoffman and Heiichiro Ohyama added to the rewards of these movements. Long time San Diegans will recall Ohyama’s role in developing La Jolla SummerFest as its Artistic Director in the festival’s nascent years. Current SummerFest Music Director Cho-Liang Lin was the other violinist in this sextet.
Although the Sherwood audience responded enthusiastically to the energy of the sextet’s rousing finale, this was not a performance to cherish.