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REVIEW: SummerFest’s ‘Unsilenced Voices’ an understated and accomplished evening of music

San Diego Union-Tribune

Luke Shulze
August 28, 2023


SummerFest continued Friday evening with a diverse program titled “Unsilenced Voices,” an understated, if apt, headline for the scope of the evening’s music.

Friday’s works dealt with numerous ideas relating to silencing — erasure, imprisonment, loss and apocalypse — just as they testified for survival through their musical quality and the force of the performances.

Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s stylistic language is broad and bold, and his 1924 “Five Pieces for String Quartet” make an ideal anthology of Weimar Republic musical tendencies. All manner of string gestures — percussive battuto bowing, aggressive glissandi, fierce rhythmic pizzicato — were rendered in the most vivid detail by violinists Andrew Wan and Augustin Hadelich, violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Clive Greensmith. The ensemble playing was brilliant and natural; Greensmith and Vinocour stirred dissonant harmonies around in the second movement like smoldering coals in a fire tin, while Hadelich and Wan brought a riotous drive to the third movement “Alla Czeca.”


“Blue/s Forms,” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (named after Samuel Coleridge-Taylor) is a sophisticated work that pays homage to Bach’s solo violin music (as in the first chord, the same that opens Bach’s famous Chaconne) while giving voice to African American musical elements, from the blues progression which almost hides beneath the surface to melodic devices like blues scales and slides. Hadelich played it just right, blending a masterful technique and rich sonority with a quasi-improvisational energy that lent authenticity to Perkinson’s multifaceted musical voice.

Over the past generation, the music of Fanny Mendelssohn has come, thankfully, into clearer view, helped along by the substance of works like her “String Quartet in E-Flat Major,” played Friday. This is a fairly new work as far as the repertoire is concerned, only published in 1986. Hadelich and Wan were joined here by violist Matthew Lipman and cellist Julie Albers. This is a terse work, without the far-ranging development of other works by Mendelssohn; ideas come and go quickly, and the provocative brevity becomes a theme in itself. Albers and Lipman were decisive and engaged in controlling the plastic tempi in the third movement; Lipman plays with a supple tone and handsomely- shaped bowed phrases, and Albers lent a lyrical gravity as she anchored the ensemble.

Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” was written and premiered in 1941, during the composer’s internment in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Anthony McGill played the solo clarinet movement, “The Abyss of Time,” with a grippingly beautiful take on Messiaen’s eschatological visions. McGill is a master of physicality and timbre, and he sculpted the sonic distance of Messaien’s materials, moving the music from near to far. McGill was joined onstage by pianist Conrad Tao, who sat quietly during the Messiaen before joining McGill for Jessie Montgomery’s “Peace.” Originally written for violin and piano, “Peace” is a rich, moving work that deals with the loss and isolation brought on by the COVID pandemic. Earnest and melodic like many of Coltrane’s meditations, the work combines aspects of jazz harmonies with a dramatic and original melodic sense. McGill and Tao shared a deep and deliberate unity, and brought an arresting timelessness to their playing.

Tao was joined by cellist Sterling Elliott and violinist Stefan Jackiw for Shostakovich’s “Piano Trio no. 2 in e minor.” While many of Shostakovich’s works articulate the composer’s struggle with the repression of the Stalinist regime, his second trio is almost singular in the level of catastrophe that characterizes its myriad ideas. Throughout, with the possible exception of the deceptively arcadian opening fugue, there is the sense of crisis and calamity, and the three presided over an astounding, urtext reading of the piece, teetering on a terrifying edge between the music’s almost maniacal gestural language and their own considerable virtuosities.

Elliott’s playing is both muscular and refined; his delicate astral harmonics at the outset sang out an important early starting point. He and violinist Jackiw brought a painful intensity and breakneck energy to their mutual moments. Conrad Tao is a magical pianist, with a scholar’s mind wrapped in an almost impossible technique. Alternatively ecstatic, logical, monstrous, his playing conveyed all the complexity and terror of the work, set into relief through an unflinching attention to every disturbing detail and an unflagging musical stamina.

Schulze is a freelance writer.