Sunday, September 10, 2006

PREMIERES://Kirchner, Sheng and Lindberg at La Jolla

Don't be fooled by all the lightness

By Mark Swed
From (LA Times) - August 10, 2006

"When I think of SummerFest, I think of parties," the lightweight New York composer Bruce Adolphe is quoted as saying in an article celebrating the 20th anniversary of the La Jolla chamber music festival in this summer's program book."The festival," he continues, "has more parties than any other music festival on the planet, and the evening Beach Party and outrageously sumptuous Sushi Party are in themselves reasons that musicians plan to be in La Jolla during the summer."An exclusive beach community of many millionaires, swank shops and tourist-trap restaurants with great views, La Jolla does not exude culture. Raymond Chandler called it "nothing but a climate" and, presumably starved for noir, drank himself to death in its sunshine.And so, you might conclude that a wealthy party town has the frivolous summer festival it deserves. Instead, thanks to the leadership of the popular violinist Cho-Liang Lin, La Jolla has a serious chamber music festival of exceptional quality, a festival so good that the town hardly knows what to do with it.

Sunday afternoon and Monday and Tuesday evenings, SummerFest 2006, which opened last week and continues through Aug. 20, presented the premieres of three works by internationally important composers — Leon Kirchner, Bright Sheng and Magnus Lindberg — that it had commissioned as part of the festivities for its 20th anniversary. Each premiere proved a rich, original, powerful piece, brilliantly performed. And each took place in an interesting cultural context that also included riveting, revelatory performances of well-known masterpieces.

Sunday's matinee, in the 492-seat Sherwood Auditorium, an acoustically acceptable if institutional hall attached to the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, sandwiched the world premiere of Kirchner's 11-minute String Quartet No. 4 between an intricate late Mozart quartet and Schubert's overwhelmingly lyric String Quintet in C.Kirchner, who studied with Schoenberg in Los Angeles in the '40s and taught for many years at Harvard, is now 87. Although his music is seldom played, he has been and continues to be a significant cultural force in America. He taught John Adams and Yo-Yo Ma. Both remain devoted, and Ma still turns to him for new music guidance.The Fourth Quartet — it has been 40 years since Kirchner's Third Quartet, which won a Pulitzer — looks back to his Schoenbergian roots. It is a prickly score, tightly condensed but with flashes of dramatic intensity and sudden, surprising, fleeting glimpses of stunning radiance.The Orion String Quartet, which opened the afternoon with a steely, hard-edged and generally unpleasant reading of Mozart's contrapuntally engrossing 16th quartet, K. 428, seemed like a different ensemble altogether in the Kirchner, to which it brought dramatic flair and luxuriant beauty.But the afternoon's true alpha-male music-making came from five women — Chee-Yun, Sheryl Staples, Cynthia Phelps, Alisa Weilerstein and Sumire Kudo — in a rapturous reading of Schubert's Quintet. Too often, chamber music festivals bring in a collection of players from all around (Chee-Yun and Weilerstein are young soloists; Staples, Phelps and Kudo members of the New York Philharmonic) and hope for the best. In this rare case, that was the result.

Monday night, the festival moved for the first time to the North Park Theatre, a recently renovated old movie house in a funky, racially mixed neighborhood of San Diego, where pizza and tattoo parlors are rapidly being joined by upscale restaurants and vegan Mexican food. The theme was the Pacific Rim for the context of Sheng's Three Fantasies for Violin and Piano, a co-commission with the Library of Congress, where Lin and André-Michel Schub gave the premiere in May. The fantasies are based on folk music that Sheng imagined in a dream or heard in Tibet and Kazakhstan. Curiously, the dream music begins like ordinary folk song, but by the time Sheng reaches Kazakhstan, he is in a musical dream world exquisitely all his own.Perhaps the most important aspect of this concert, though, was that its hands across the Pacific were also an extending of hands across San Diego. The audience was, unlike the regulars in La Jolla, economically, racially and generationally mixed. The musicians included percussionists from UC San Diego and Jahja Ling, the music director of the San Diego Symphony, who led a terrific performance of Lou Harrison's Suite for Violin and American Gamelan with Chee-Yun as the moving soloist.After intermission, David Cossin and Steven Schick played Steve Reich's "Nagoya Marimbas" and took part in Tan Dun's "Elegy: Snow in June" with Felix Fan as the eloquent cello soloist.One hand too many was involved, though.Allyson Green, also at UCSD, added choreography that trivialized Tan's restrained response to the Tiananmen Square massacre with obvious emotional gestures.

Tuesday night, back in Sherwood, Lindberg and the phenomenal Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen played a new work for cello and piano that is as yet untitled. It had its premiere last week at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, but Karttunen told the La Jolla audience that composer Lindberg had still been making changes Monday.Lindberg, who with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariho has been putting Finnish music on the map for a new generation, is a composer with a visceral sense of harmony. But the physical power of his sound has been softening of late. The new 15-minute work has thick chords and delicate trills that seem to fill the air with heady, languid sensuality.Yet it still has power, and the virtuosity on display was arresting, given that Lindberg is a superb pianist and Karttunen perhaps the most impressive cellist on the scene today. The program was mostly Finnish and full of Lindberg. He began it with an elegant small etude for solo piano, which was followed by the 1980 piano quintet " … de Tartuffe, je crois," a gripping work that was based on incidental music he wrote for a play about Molière and that launched Lindberg's career when he was 22.It would have been interesting to have heard Karttunen and Lindberg play Grieg's Cello Sonata, the one non-Finnish work on the program, but the pianist was Schub, whose sparkling tone stood in striking contrast to Karttunen's dark, restrained playing with its occasional volcanic eruptions.After the performance, I thought of Chandler dying in La Jolla, where not all is as light and breezy as it first appears but where real substance can survive the beating sun.

Fron (Union-Tribune) - August 21, 2006

Fresh sounds: SummerFest continued the La Jolla Music Society's commissioning tradition, adding to what may be the festival's most enduring legacy. There were new works by prominent innovators Bright Sheng, Wayne Shorter and 87-year-old contemporary music icon Leon Kirchner. And let's not forget Magnus Lindberg's throbbingly intense, still-untitled new work for cello and piano, with pianist Lindberg and cellist Anssi Karttunen showing exactly how the music should be played.

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