SummerFest Live @ the Loft, a concert of modernist chamber music staged in the intimate restaurant/performance space that is The Loft at UC San Diego, proved such a resounding success Friday (Aug. 9) that the only possible criticism would be the question, “Why didn’t someone think of trying this sooner?”
Seated at small tables clustered around the performance platform, audience members finished dinner or dessert and sipped a second glass of wine while the musicians played only a few feet away. The casually dressed performers described their music to the audience with humor and insight before each piece. Yet given this relaxed atmosphere, I have rarely sensed a more intensely involved and focused audience at a musical performance.
The concert began not with the dimming of lights and the obligatory welcoming announcements, but when Music Director Cho-Liang Lin and Philippe Quint simply took the stage and started playing one of the Béla Bartók Duos for Two Violins, Sz. 98. Instantly the room quieted, and the wait staff scurried off the floor. As Lin and Quint played their set of these prickly yet curiously beguiling short dances and peasant songs from Eastern Europe, the larger picture became clear: SummerFest had succeeded in putting the actual feel of chamber back into chamber music.
If the scale of the music-making was intimate—a mere one to three players per piece—the emotional scope was bold, and SummerFest Music Director Cho-Liang Lin selected the program with the stimulating variety of a tasting menu at a newly opened gourmet restaurant.
Charles Ives’ rollicking Scherzo from his 1911 Piano Trio was the earliest selection, and Joshua Roman’s recently premiered “Riding Light” for solo cello the newest. Violinist Philippe Quint, pianist Steven Lin and cellist Roman tore into Ives’ raucous medley of folk and parlor songs of his day with as much abandon as is possible while maintaining appropriate discipline to keep the ensemble together. Ives relished taking the starch out of “serious” music—some of the quotations in his Scherzo were “Turkey in the Straw,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Long, Long Ago”—and these players were cleary attuned to his humor. Oh, did I mention that Ives titled this movement of the Piano Trio “This Scherzo Is a Joke”?
We heard a touch of humor in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 1950 “Jet Whistle” for Flute and Cello, where the flutist executes some loud, jet-like high-pitched glissandos, but this mellifluous three-movement duo is one of the composer’s more elegantly proportioned essays in counterpoint and alternation. Flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly produced a rainbow of contrasting colors, from delicately breathy to brightly gleaming to conjure Villa-Lobos’ wide range of emotional contrasts, and cellist Roman partnered her with intuitive empathy.
The program’s surprise was Elliot Carter’s early “Elegy” for Cello and Piano, a glowing, almost mystical threnody that could have passed for the neo-romantic effusions of Samuel Barber. Roman and Steven Lin sensitively communicated Carter’s gentle ardor, an unusual mode for a serialist composer noted for his cerebral, dense constructions.
Karoly offered an adroitly nuanced account of Claude Debussy’s short but sensual “Syrinx,” a piece that needs an intimate venue to work its magic. Roman’s episodic “Riding Light” for solo cello may have been short on magic, but his Opus 1 did prove a generous catalogue of his instrument’s sonic possibilities. His lilting themes on dance rhythms and his deft weaving of a cantabile theme around pizzicato accompaniment showed promise.
Any program that starts and concludes with Bartók is golden in my playbook, and Bartók’s “Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin and Piano,” Sz 111, sent the audience home on a cloud. Commissioned in 1938 by the great violin virtuoso Joseph Szigeti and jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, “Contrasts” proves that music devised to display virtuoso ability can also be profound. Violinist Michelle Kim, clarinetist Burt Hara, and pianist Steven Lin astutely fused those characteristics at every turn. Their attention to detail, their balletic ensemble, and their keen sense of drama made this a memorable performance. Let me mention Hara’s deftly tapered clarinet lines in the opening movement, Lin’s gossamer high octaves in the eerie “Night Music” of the middle movement, and Kim’s stark, penetrating themes in her highest register in the concluding movement as just a few of the stellar points of their collaboration.[php snippet=1]
Their “Contrasts” deserves a review of its own, but this review is already over 700 words, which should suffice for a program that lasted just under an hour and one-half. Because The Loft has a modest seating capacity, this program was given twice on Friday evening. I attended the 9:30 p.m. concert.
Next to inviting these accomplished musicians to perform in your own living room or turning pages for the pianist at a Sherwood Auditorium performance, for the listener, hearing chamber music at The Loft is as authentic and rewarding as chamber music gets.