Ending a summer concert with a blinding display of fireworks is a widespread tradition, but Friday’s (August 24) grand finale of the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2012 kept all of the dramatic fireworks on the Sherwood Auditorium stage. Under the demanding baton of guest conductor Kent Nagano, the festival chamber orchestra tore into what could have been just another neat program of standard repertory and kept us alert with consistently exhilarating playing.
From the breakneck tempo of Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville, a felicitous program-opener, Nagano pushed his 40-member ensemble beyond their evident comfort zone. He demanded not only blistering tempos, but precise articulation, unrelenting clarity, and intense emotional commitment. Given the caliber of these instrumentalists—soloists from the SummerFest roster, augmented with a select number of San Diego Symphony musicians—it was not surprising that they responded with alacrity to such a challenge.
Japanese-born and French-trained pianist Mari Kodama brought refreshing electricity and brio to Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, Op. 19. I was particularly impressed with the athletic radiance of her right hand performance, consistently burnishing the composer’s cornucopia of thematic invention in the piano’s upper ranges, and with her dazzling but deftly nuanced first-movement cadenza. If only her left hand had given firmer bass support in the concerto’s more exuberant sections, it would have been a performance worthy of recording.
Ludwig Maurer’s “Sinfonia Concertante in A Minor for Four Violins in A Minor,” the program’s sole curiosity, proved an amusing diversion. Like many B-list composers of the late classical period (he was a few years older than Schubert, but outlived him by 50 years), Maurer crafted entertaining spectacles overflowing with charming themes, but lacking clear organization or thematic development.
The Sinfonia did give us a chance to hear four of SummerFest’s most winning violinists, Music Director Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint, Andrew Wan, and Michelle Kim, who also served as the orchestra’s concertmaster. And we heard these fluent fiddlers in every possible combination: individually, in pairs (both harmoniously and combatively), and all together. Perhaps the most original aspect of Maurer’s Sinfonia was its amazing cadenza for all four violinists, a sizzling tour de force that almost redeemed the piece. But most of the time it reminded me of listening to the three tenors singing their pumped-up version of “Nessun dorma.”
Nagano closed the program with Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony (“Italian”), an effervescent but classically balanced work that suited his personality well. His conducting style is spare but hardly minimal. He appears always to be shaping the big picture—he does not beat every single measure—and his vivid gestures outline the character of each movement. Little time is spent cuing individual entrances and telegraphing his ideas about every single phrase.
It has been 19 years since Nagano last appeared on the SummerFest podium. Let’s hope his next invitation will not require another 19-year interval.