REVIEW: SummerFest 2023 Bids Farewell with Concert of Max Bruch and Tchaikovsky–and Freddie Mercury!
August 28, 2023
SummerFest’s final 2023 concert on Saturday brought a 17-member string orchestra to The Conrad’s stage to offer Max Bruch’s rarely encountered Concerto for Clarinet and Viola and Tchaikovsky’s frequently encountered Serenade for Strings. We also heard Ernst von Dohnányi’s Serenade for Violin, Viola, and Cello, as well as Inon Barnatan’s arrangement of Freddie Mercury’s iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” for piano and five cellos.
A congenial program played with virtuoso flair, it nevertheless felt rather anticlimactic after Friday’s more substantial program anchored by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2. Although Saturday’s program was labelled SummerFest Finale, I thought it was more like the SummerFest Coda.
Hearing clarinetist Anthony McGill illumine the Max Bruch Concerto with his gleaming, mellow timbre outlining the composer’s sumptuous Romantic phrases proved the highlight of the evening. His soloist colleague violist Jonathan Vinocour provided equal prowess and artistry, but his sound against the full string ensemble did not contrast and bloom the way that McGill’s lustrous reedy sonority so clearly projected.
Bruch’s three-movement double concerto abounds in the composer’s felicitous, ingratiating themes, although its lack of dramatic development does not make me particularly eager to hear it again soon. Concertmaster Andrew Wan skillfully directed the ensemble—everyone standing save the cellos—and I doubt that a conductor on the podium could have made a more convincing case for this concerto.
The Conrad audience audibly chuckled as they recognized the familiar themes of Freddie Mercury’s signature ballad “Bohemian Rhapsody” played either as soaring cello solos or anxious iterations on the piano. Clive Greensmith smartly delivered the most recognizable tunes, although each of the other cellists—Julie Albers, Sterling Elliott, Anri Tsukiji, and Julia Lee—had the opportunity to solo poignant and telling phrases from the song. Barnatan’s primary role at the Steinway was that of a very contemporary basso continuo, sweetly arpeggiating Mercury’s progressions.
The last time I remember SummerFest playing Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48, as the season finale was in 2015, so perhaps Music Director Inon Barnatan thought it was time to bring back this chestnut. With the exception of a suave, aptly reflective performance of the third movement “Elegie,” Saturday’s ensemble gave the Tchaikovsky a vigorous, driving interpretation, turning it into a “Toccata for Strings.” I would have gladly traded their high-speed chase for a more polished, graceful approach.
Was the audience’s standing ovation at the conclusion of the Tchaikovsky in response to the interpretation of the Serenade? To their enjoyment of the entire evening’s concert? Or to the success of SummerFest 2023? No doubt patrons have differing opinions, but I would vote to salute the breadth of programming and the stellar performance of the entire four-week festival.
This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on Saturday, August 26, 2023, in La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.