Pianist Marc-André Hamelin, featured in Wednesday’s (August 24) La Jolla SummerFest concert, is no stranger to San Diego audiences. In January of this year, he gave winning accounts of piano concertos by Ravel and Gershwin with the San Diego Symphony, and this marked his third visit to La Jolla, by my counting. Not surprisingly, Sherwood Auditorium was filled, and I sensed an air of anticipation for this program, which presented Hamelin in three roles: composer, piano soloist, and ensemble pianist.Easily dominating this rich program, Hamelin’s larger than life traversal of Franz Liszt’s B Minor Sonata proved breathtaking in its vision and visceral appeal. From the first notes, Hamelin suggested a wild improvisation in which he was unafraid to pound thunderous bass passages that filled the room with raucous overtones that blurred the fundamental pitches but properly released the tonal furor the composer intended in this revolutionary, single movement “sonata.”
At the other end of the dynamic spectrum, Hamelin conjured mystical reveries, airy, lyrical themes that hovered in cathedral silence. His formidable technique took us confidently from blazing octave passages to rhapsodic chordal explosions to introspective dalliances with utter assurance, seamless transitions, and an unfailing sense of forward movement.
Hamelin’s “Four Perspectives,” a cello and piano duo commissioned by La Jolla Music Society SummerFest, displayed none of Liszt’s flamboyant rhetoric, but these etudes tapped similar deep emotional currents. Hamelin crafted spare, ascetic textures that deftly mined the lower range of both piano and cello, slowly building the density and intensity of each etude to engage the complete compass of each instrument in the concluding movement.
Using dense clusters to temper a generally modal vocabulary, Hamelin favored shorter, condensed motifs, and, like many composers of the last century, he used ostinatos to extend scope of his carefully defined syntax. The work lasted just under 15 minutes, but it is one I would eagerly hear again. Kudos to cellist Hai-Ye Ni, who brought her dark, penetrating sonority to this equally dark work with understated elegance. With the composer at the piano, could his part have been anything less than authoritative?
Given its rapturous themes and symphonic aspirations, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. Russian-trained cellist Mischa Maisky ensured the success of this performance: his broad, sweeping phrases, vibrant sound, and luxurious rhythmic freedom found welcome release in this arch-Romantic idiom. I am tempted to observe that Maisky’s sense of rubato is so innate that I sensed it even in his rests!
Although the piano’s role in this trio is less extroverted than the composer’s trademark style encountered in his piano concertos, when not merely accompanying the strings, the piano emerges with many winning solo opportunities, especially in the extensive Tema con variazioni. Hamelin executed his part with aplomb, infusing even the more boisterous moments with polished sonic allure. Although I admired the power and beautifully finished sound of violinist Paul Huang, I kept wishing he could enjoy more of the freedom of expression in phrasing and articulation that his colleagues lavished on this enthralling work.
Is it asking too much that every SummerFest performance be this good? Given the number of musicians assembled for a festival, is it asking too much for new music—or at least lesser known works from the recent past—be part of every SummerFest program? Will SummerFest be brave enough to stop fencing off most of the new music in a single program that can easily be avoided? SummerFest is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season. Is it asking too much for SummerFest to grow up and act its age?