Compared to any of the 15 piano concertos Mozart wrote at the height of his powers in Vienna, his Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Major, K. 211, dashed off at age 19 in Salzburg, seems a decidely modest affair. Until, that is, the solo portion is performed by Cho-Liang Lin, SummerFest Music Director and violinist extraordinaire.
What is typically a pleasant journey through rococo traceries became on Friday (August 22) at Sherwood Auditorium a profound spiritual journey. Lin was certainly not the first violinist to apply a polished, lithe technique to Mozart’s nimble phrases and figurations, but Lin found poetry where others find mere decoration.
In the several cadenzas Mozart sprinked throughout this Concerto, Lin subtly lowered his dynamic level but increased the intensity of his interpretation: I do not recall a quieter Sherwood house as the audience savored Lin’s sublime playing,
Guest conductor Leonard Slatkin and the assembled SummerFest Chamber Orchestra stayed sharply attuned to Lin’s every gesture; their felicitous exchanges in the final movement, a scintillating Rondeau, crowned the Concerto with exuberant affection.
The orchestra’s main contribution to this final concert of SummerFest 2014, Alberto Ginastera’s colorful “Variaciones Concertantes,” Op. 23, offered juicy solos to almost every first-chair player, starting with the mysterious opening duo for harp and cello, delicately intoned by Julie Smith Phillips and Desmond Hoebig, respectively. For the numberless chamber orchestra concerts I have endured—at one time San Diego had several chamber orchestras—I do not recall hearing a live performance of this fine opus, no doubt due to the widespread North American indifference to South American classcial music.[php snippet=2]
Slatkin’s clean, no-nonsense conducting style produced a consistently unified and vibrant ensmble from the players, the stellar instrumentalists from SummerFest augmented by a few local professionals. Among the outstanding Ginastera soloists, allow me to cite violist Richard O’Neill for his virile, aptly ominous cadenza in the fourth variation; flutist Catharine Ransom Karoly for her exultant, penetrating solo in the first variation; horn player Andrew Bain for his gentle pastorale in the eighth variation, and bassist Nico Abondolo for his plaintive duo with the harp in the tenth variation. Written in 1953, Ginastera’s “Variaciones Concertantes” has nothing in common with the avant garde of that era, e.g. Pierre Boulez’s first two Piano Sonatas, but rather is bound by a conservative, essentially tonal harmonic language that falls somewhere between the lush progressions of Samuel Barber and the more chaste structures of Aaron Copland.
Unfortunately, Sérgio Assad’s newly commisioned work for chamber orchestra and two guitars, “Candido Scarecrow,” employed the same harmonic language as Ginastera did. Although this jaunty piece was tuneful and skillfully orchestrated, what was conservative 60 years ago is retrograde today.
Slatkin opened his concert with an alert, crackling account of Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. He also indulged in the programming of Alexander Glazunov’s “Five Novelettes,” Op. 15, originally written for string quartet but arranged by Slatkin for chamber orchestra. He told the audience that he recalled as a child hearing the string quartet in which his parents played rehearsing this Glazunov piece. I doubt anyone outside of Russia plays “Five Novelettes” these days because it is 25 minutes of academic noodling, relieved only occasionally by touches of non-western musical flourishes.