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REVIEW: At SummerFest opening concert, four pianos raise a racket, but four violins sweetly seduce

San Diego Union-Tribune

Christian Hertzog
August 1, 2022

 

The La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest has returned, bigger than ever with 90 events in the span of four weeks.

For Friday’s opening concert, bigger was not necessarily better, but those present will not forget the spectacle of four concert grand pianos on stage at Baker-Baum Concert Hall, played by Garrick Ohlsson, Joyce Yang, Wynona Yinuo Wang and SummerFest Music Director Inon Barnatan.

These gifted pianists lavished their exceptional techniques and musicality on the “Quatuor Concertant No. 1, Opus 230” by Carl Czerny.

Czerny was Beethoven’s best piano student and became a renowned performer. His piano exercises — over 100 volumes — are still heard in practice rooms today.

He was a very influential piano instructor. Among his students were Franz Liszt and Theodor Leschetizky; Barnatan and Ohlsson can trace their pianistic pedigrees back to Czerny.

“Quatuor Concertant” was written for four of Czerny’s students, each a countess or noblewoman. It is a flamboyant medley of once-popular operatic arias and a theme from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Each pianist was given their own tune and the opportunity to take the lead, at times embellished by fusillades of runs and arpeggios from the others.

It is challenging to synchronize four pianos, but Barnatan and company played with precision. Wang, a young artist in residence, held her own against her celebrated colleagues. At one point, she stepped aside of her keyboard to play a triangle part. Yang milked a trill for comedy. A rollicking good time was had by all.

The concert, titled “Side By Side,” began with “Variations in A Major on a Russian Theme” by Rimsky-Korsakov and six other St. Petersburg composers, most of them forgotten today. Originally written for piano, violinists Blake Pouliot and Tessa Lark, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Jay Campbell played an idiomatic arrangement (uncredited in the program) that went down as smoothly as pricey vodka.

Next came a little-performed collaboration by Chopin and his cellist friend, Auguste Franchomme, the “Grand Duo Concertante on Themes from ‘Robert le diable.’” Meyerbeer’s opera captivated Paris at the time. The Grand Duo flaunts its virtuosity in a way that Chopin never pursued again. It’s hard to reconcile this piece of florid salon music with the innovative mazurkas and nocturnes that he composed around the same time.

SummerFest newcomer Johannes Moser played the cello with aplomb, and Yang effortlessly navigated her elaborately showy piano part.

Sandwiched in the middle of these busy doo-dads were the “Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56b” for two pianos by Brahms and the Quartet for Four Violins by Grazyna Bacewicz.

Bacewicz is experiencing if not a revival, then at least a reconsideration. Her Quartet is from 1949, when socialist realism — “music for the masses” — was the policy of the Polish Ministry of Art. In three movements, it suggests folk harmonies and dances — not unlike the music of her better-known contemporary, Lutoslawski. Bacewicz was a violinist, and her intimate knowledge of the instrument permeates the Quartet. Simone Porter on first violin was exhilarating, buoyed by the sprightly playing of Lark, Pouliot and Sophia Stoyanovich.

Where would SummerFest — indeed, all chamber music — be without Brahms? His Variations ended the first half, as if to show those Russian composers, “This is how you write a theme and variations!” Warm and stately, yet chockfull of craft, the Variations were masterfully played by Ohlsson and Barnatan. Well matched in tone with perfect coordination, theirs was a joyful performance.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.