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REVIEW: SummerFest’s Synergy Series Follows the Musical Road Not Taken

San Diego Story

Ken Herman
August 21, 2023


The Louis Cato Trio opened SummerFest’s Synergy Series Thursday with an urbane, gratifying jazz concert in the JAI. You don’t have to be a seasoned jazz aficionado to recognize Cato, who has played guitar in the band of television’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert for nearly a decade and was recently named bandleader of The Late Show Band.

With his equally sophisticated colleagues bassist Michael Thurber and percussionist Otis Brown III, Cato served up insightful jazz interpretations of a wide range of American music: from romantic hits by Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern plucked from the Great American Songbook to the civil rights gospel anthem “Keep on Pushin’.”

The trio covered Miles Davis’ “Milestones,” Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” Chuck Wicks’ “Starting Now,” and Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” And they gave consolation to disappointed lovers with R & B singer R. Kelly’s “Back and Forth” and Twin Shadow’s more recent “Old Love.”

As the trio’s understated vocalist, Cato brought surprising power to Winwood’s folk rock ballad, yet his laid-back insouciance deftly deconstructed Kern’s “All the Things You Are.” But there was never a scintilla of doubt about his deep conviction for every song he sang. Thurber’s athletic bass improvisations and Brown’s inspired percussion riffs complemented Cato’s approach at every turn.

I’m willing to wager that not many individuals listening to Camille Saint-Saëns’ instrumental suite Carnival of the Animals would connect its amusing depictions of the animal kingdom to the January 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington D.C. But on Friday‘s Synergy adventure at The Conrad, accomplished writer and actor Marc Bamuthi Joseph used Saint-Saëns’ suite as the blueprint from which to construct a mock-heroic poem that narrated and commented on that unprecedented violent attempt to reverse a national election.

To turn Joseph’s perceptive and unabashedly political poetry into an hour-long work of performance art, Joseph enlisted dancer Wendy Whelan and choreographer Francesca Harper to physically interpret his words on stage, and he engaged four SummerFest musicians to play ten musical interludes that alternated with sections of the poem like a towering club sandwich. Pianists Joyce Yang and Inon Barnatan played from matching concert grands, ably assisted by violinist Geneva Lewis and cellist Gabriel Martins.


Adding to four selected movements from the Saint-Saëns Carnival, composer Sugar Vendil wrote or arranged six other short compositions. Vendil’s flashy Overture bristled with vibrant tremolos, expectant ostinatos, and glissandos to set the stage. Among the other musical offerings, I was impressed by Lewis’ bravura account of a striking movement from Heinrich Biber’s Baroque gem Sonata “Representativa,” the strings’ and Barnatan’s probing communication of Dmitri Shostakovich’s austere, mysterious slow movement from his Second Piano Trio (the entire work is scheduled on SummerFest’s August 25 program), and Martins’ transcendent, soaring cello cantilena in Saint-Saëns’ evergreen “The Swan.”

Lewis and Martins provided a charming, transparent pizzicato transcription of C.P.E. Bach’s short keyboard Presto in C Minor, H. 230, and the musical quartet emphasized the playful spirit of Saint-Saëns “The Cuckoo.” Considering the sharp focus of Joseph’s writing, I don’t think the eclectic assortment of musical styles chosen for this production sufficiently matches his depth and conviction. Perhaps Sugar Vendil needs to compose a few more interludes with some contemporary musical edge.

Given the size and scope of a mob attack on the Capitol, assigning a single dancer to interpret this event on a stage already compromised by the presence of pianos, musicians, and the speaker’s podium is a daunting challenge to say the least, so kudos to Wendy Whelan for realizing Harper’s succinct choreography with such graceful conviction. The dramatic and varied lighting design of John E. D. Bass helped unify the production’s components.

The La Jolla Music Society was one of the several commissioners of this new take on Carnival of the Animals, and the SummerFest program book makes the quizzical announcement that the world première of this Carnival of the Animals production will take place in Seattle, WA, in April 2024. So what did the audience at The Conrad on Friday experience? A dress rehearsal?

If you had a spacious, comfortable living room and invited Louis Cato, Mark Dover, Tessa Lark and Michael Thurber over to spend the evening with your friends and neighbors, these four musicians might have improvised the sort of relaxed jam session they played at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall Saturdayevening, the final program of SummerFest’s Synergy Series.

A baker’s dozen of pieces from popular and traditional sources announced from the stage served as the launching pad for unusually bravura solo and ensemble interpretation. The group started their program with James F. Hanley’s tin pan alley hit “Back Home in Indiana,” giving Mark Dover the opportunity to explore at length the extreme upper range of his clarinet. An abstract, cadenza-like instrumental prelude suddenly turned into George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” expounded in a slow swagger that ended with yet another cadenza. Tessa Lark livened the room with her acrobatic dash through “Boy in the Gap,” a traditional Irish fiddle tune recently popularized by the Martin Hays Quartet, as well as her soaring descant in Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” the country song Glen Campbell made a hit in 1968. Louis Cato shared his own confessional song “Unsightly Room,” and Paul McCartney’s icon “Blackbird” benefitted from a virtuoso solo introduction to the ensemble’s heartfelt performance.

There were a few classical moments on the program: Inon Barnatan joined the ensemble to tear into some of Gershwin’s own bold piano variations on his “I Got Rhythm,” and Tessa Lark offered an impressive solo account of the “Finale” from Eugéne Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 4. Lark and Thurber gave their agile take on the J.S. Bach Two-Part Invention in C Major, followed by their own update of the piece.

The La Jolla Music Society presented these three concerts at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center August 17 to 19, 2023. The SummerFest 2023 runs through August 26, 2023, in the same venue.