Even a long-running festival as successful as La Jolla SummerFest can use the occasional makeover. Embarking on its 28th season Friday (August 2) at Sherwood Auditorium, SummerFest Music Director Cho-Liang Lin kept the usual Beethoven, Brahms and Dvorak staples on the shelf and instead greeted the expectant opening-night crowd with Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy 2005 commission “Letters from Argentina” as well as a smattering of gems from the early years of the last century by Stravinsky, Ravel and De Falla.
Dance was Lin’s unifying theme, from Schifrin’s sexy tangos to parodied waltzes by Stravinsky and Ravel, a theme that kept the pulse lively for an audience whose memories of dancing wildly into the early morning hours are no doubt beginning to fade. In terms of performers, it proved a gratifying mix of familiar faces, including violinist Lin, violist Cynthia Phelps and clarinetist David Schifrin, who have played with the festival since its earliest years, and some impressive newcomers, including the youngTaiwanese-American pianist Steven Lin, bandoneón maestro Héctor Del Curto, and Argentine pianist Octavio Brunetti.
For me, the program’s greatest reward was Maurice Ravel’s two-piano version of “La Valse,” given a dazzling yet exquisitely articulate performance by Steven Lin and Inon Barnantan. Only two weeks ago in Gustavo Romero’s La Jolla Athenaeum recital, the former San Diegan gave a warm, graceful account of the composer’s solo piano transcription of “La Valse,” so it was a luxury to hear the two-piano version in such close temporal proximity.
Lin and Barnantan brought out the dark, foreboding undercurrents we experience in Ravel’s orchestral “La Valse,” a facet the composer had to compromise when reducing his dense orchestration into a playable two-hand version. Barnantan’s steely bass rumblings were the perfect foil to Lin’s treble lyrical traceries, but the pianists’ passionate surges and elegant rubatos came together in immaculate unanimity.
Barnantan was also key to the lucid realization of Igor Stravinsky’s three-musician version of a suite of dances from his acerbic morality play, “The Soldier’s Tale.” Violinist Augustin Hadelich brought ample sardonic snap to his role as the hapless soldier, employing deftly clipped phrasing and a flinty timbre that did not totally eclipse his trademark bright sonority. Schifrin’s clarinet countermelodies ranged from plaintive to suave, providing ingratiating balm to the set. Their concluding “Devil’s Dance” crackled with aggressive, ironic humor.
Lalo Schifrin’s “Letters from Argentina,” a sprawling eight-movement suite that alternates assertive tangos with compact tone poems, struck me as fully notated jazz in the guise of classical chamber music. The insistent rhythms and vivid colors of this Argentine tango ensemble—piano, bandoneón, violin, clarinet, upright bass and percussion—defy merely casual attention from the listener.
Brunetti’s percussive, muscular, accomplished pianism stood out even on that stage of virtuosos. In addition to bassist Pablo Aslan’s steadfast but pliable foundation for the ensemble, the Buenos Aires-born musician provided insightful topical commentary between the movements. Satoshi Takeishi’s nimble, precise percussion intensified the composer’s rhythmic rhetoric, and David Schifrin and Cho-Liang Lin infused their thematic forays with passion and finesse.
Given such a rich offering of music of the dance, opening the concert with a set of Franz Schubert “German Dances,” D. 90, and two short chamber excerpts from Manuel De Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” was too much of a good thing. When a chamber concert goes longer than 2 and ½ hours, you are testing your audience.
“Always leave them wanting more,” is the golden rule on any stage.
Tickets ($45 – 70) available at 858.459.3728 and www.ljms.org.