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REVIEW: THE NEW ROMANTICS at The Conrad's Baker-Baum Concert Hall

Broadway World

Ron Bierman
August 18, 2022


The La Jolla Music Society continues to bring some of the world’s finest musicians to The Conrad’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall. Although The Conrad is open year-round, summers are a special treat because of the Society’s Summerfest series, this year upped to four weeks packed with 15 concerts.

Music Director Inon Barnatan chose the theme of “Under the Influence,” and many of the concerts were designed to evoke the feelings and emotions associated with the cities or eras in which famous composers lived. This concert was dubbed “The New Romantics.”

Romantic Era composers sought beautiful melodies, exciting rhythms, and gorgeous textures to evoke emotions from sorrow to elation. Barnatan’s well-chosen programming of Schubert, Hamelin and Dvorak did exactly that.

The program opened with Schubert’s Quartettsatz. The piece was written as the first movement of a quartet’s usual four, but Schubert abandoned the project. Why? Many have speculated; no one knows. Though a single movement, the piece is catalogued as his 12th quartet, an earlier cousin of his better known “Unfinished” symphony. The Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee violins, Milena Pajaro-Van De Stadt viola and Camden Shaw cello) provided lush full sound in the ensembles, solos clear and accurate, perfect balances, and dynamics often surging to the peak of passionate romanticism.

Though a short piece, for those of us who value melody above all else, it’s a tough act to follow. And that was the assignment for the premiere of contemporary composer-pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s piano quintet in what he calls a “completed version.” The pianist cites the influence of Liszt and Wagner, but I was more often reminded of the harmonies and string writing of Ravel and Debussy in the first movement and magical, playful Mendelssohn in the final fourth. A somber second rivals the ominous “funeral” movement of Chopin’s second piano sonata, while the third’s austere spooky bitonality brings us firmly into the 20th Century.

The Dover quartet joined Hamelin in a performance I doubt could be bettered. There were rousing climaxes, delicious string playing, poignant slower passages and perhaps the most technically brilliant pianist since Liszt. Emotions from “sorrow to elation” justify its place in a program of “New Romantics.” But–

The quintet doesn’t have the immediately appealing melodies of popular romantic composers such as Schubert and Dvořák. Perhaps additional hearings would convince me its substantial intellectual appeal is enough compensation. Certainly, it fascinates with an unusual mix of styles and a piano that often seems more a disassociated wry commentator than an integral part of the texture. I’d welcome a recording to see if familiarity breeds affection.

Violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Clive Greensmith and pianist Barnatan completed the evening with Dvořák’s Piano Trio in F Minor. I’m usually on the negative side when it comes to applause between movements but applauded as loudly as anyone in praise of a joyfully exuberant first movement. Barnatan couldn’t hide a bit of a pleased smile as the audience expressed its enthusiastic approval. The trio’s outstanding performance marked the close of an exceptional concert, an experience enhanced by the musician’s obvious pleasure in bringing the music to life.

Those who didn’t attend the concert prelude featuring barefoot violinist Tessa Lark missed an enjoyable half hour recital with a laughter-inducing personal anecdote about one of the pieces. Lark excels at both classical violin and bluegrass fiddling which she delights in calling “Stradgrass.” Amidst a few bluegrass examples, some of them her own work, she gave impressive performances of Bach’s third Partita, a Telemann jig, and the difficult finale of Ysaye’s 4th sonata.

Her casual barefoot entrance was eventually explained when she tore into John Corigliano’s STOMP with a performance enhanced by the bluegrass-influenced rhythmic stomping of a bare right foot on the hall’s wooden-floored stage. Yee Haw!

Lark said Corigliano wrote the piece for a 2011 Tchaikovsky competition as a challenge for participants including her, but she didn’t get to play it because she was knocked out in the first round.

When she later won a New York competition for which Corigliano was also a judge, not recognizing her from the Russian competition, he said her unusual style was perfect for a piece he’d written called STOMP. Was she familiar with it? Somewhat embarrassed about Russia, she fibbed and said no. Long story short, she was the soloist on the work’s first recording.

Summerfest continues through August 26th. Visit La Jolla Music Society’s website for schedule and ticket information.

The performance reviewed took place August 12, 2022.