In San Diego, resident chamber orchestras come and go. But they mainly go. The San Diego Chamber Orchestra, the Monteverdi Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra Nova—all are faded memories.
To hear chamber orchestras in recent years, we have relied on Mainly Mozart’s festival orchestra each June at the Balboa and the final concert of the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest in August.
Friday’s (August 28) SummerFest finale opened with a knockout performance of J. S. Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor, BWV 1060, featuring oboist Liang Wang and violinist David Chan. Exuberant without feeling rushed, joyous in spite of its minor mode, this account of Bach’s familiar concerto neatly balanced the deft phrasing of period style with the muscle of modern instruments.
Following 18th century custom, all the players stood (except the cellists, of course), and they dispensed with a conductor, taking their cues from the concertmaster. This posture seemed to increase the ensemble’s buoyancy, and since the players had to listen to each other more acutely—rather than following a conductor’s beat—the result yielded an uncanny rhythmic unanimity.
From Wang’s melting middle movement cantilena—accompanied by gentle pizzicato strings—to his vibrant figurations in the outer movements, his oboe’s suave shimmer dominated the concerto. Chan’s elegant solos displayed his customary virtuosity, but he did not match Wang’s electricity.
I cannot recall hearing a more robust, ravishing account of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major than the one 20 SummerFest strings gave Friday. Every phrase blossomed ardently and surged with propulsive energy. Like the Bach concerto that preceded it, the Serenade for Strings displayed a unity of gesture and resplendent sonic focus that refreshed even its most familiar tunes. And the elegiac tone of the third movement took on a more hopeful cast in the hands of this crew.
Kudos to the four violists, led by Che-Yen Chen, for their rich, sonorous solos—they made the typical symphony orchestra’s complete viola section (often three times their number) sound positively wimpy!
In his introductory remarks, SummerFest Music Director Cho-Liang Lin explained that the players wished to dedicate their performance of the Tchaikovsky Serenade to Christopher Beach, President and Artistic Director of the La Jolla Music Society, who would commence his retirement at the close of the festival. That intention could account for the added fervor of their performance.
How I wish the great energy of the concert’s first half could have resumed after the intermission, but the sentimental song arrangements by Edvard Grieg that started the second half, “Two Elegiac Melodies,” struck me as inconsequential filler.
Pianist Peter Serkin easily dispatched the challenges of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in F Major, K. 459, to close the concert and the 2015 festival. With Lin in the concertmaster’s role, the interplay between Serkin and the orchestra resembled an animated conversation between longtime friends.
But I sensed a detachment in Serkin’s performance, in spite of the aristocratic clarity of his lines and his lively articulations. Only in the slightly stormy development sections of the outer movements did I sense the urgency and deeper conviction that could have made the entire concerto the crowning conclusion to this season’s SummerFest.
At the piano concerto’s final cadence, the Sherwood Auditorium audience offered generous applause, although I took this gesture as a response to the 2015 SummerFest as a whole as well as to the Mozart.