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La Jolla Music Society soars with outdoor concert by Inon Barnatan, Alisa Weilerstein, Philippe Quint

Alisa Weilerstein, Inon Barnatan and Philippe Quint
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein (left), pianist Inon Barnatan and violinist Philippe Quint teamed up for a pair of tantalizing concerts Saturday in the Wu Tsai Courtyard of the La Jolla Music Society’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.
(Landon Akiyama / La Jolla Music Socety)

Socially distanced, with masked attendees, the first concert of the year in the society’s courtyard was cause for celebration

There wasn’t a cloud visible above the Wu Tsai Courtyard at La Jolla Music Society’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center Saturday morning when Inon Barnatan and Alisa Weilerstein began their sublime performance of César Franck’s Sonata in A Major for Cello and Piano.

Yet, as the two began the gentle opening movement of Franck’s efficacious 1866 composition, it felt and sounded like the calm after a storm — or, at the very least, a much-needed prelude to the calm after a storm.

The storm in this case is the coronavirus pandemic, which has shuttered concert halls and live event venues of all kinds across the nation and around the world for the past 13 months. It is a storm that has not yet subsided, alas, as COVID-19 cases are again surging everywhere from Michigan to France, India to Brazil.

At least for now, happily, San Diego appears to be incrementally emerging from the pandemic. On April 5, county health officials announced a move into the second-least-restrictive orange tier of COVID-fueled restrictions. If hospitalization rates decline sufficiently and vaccination availability is ample enough, all restrictions will be lifted in California on June 15.

These signs of hope and progress provided a celebratory air at Saturday’s concert in La Jolla. It was the nonprofit society’s first event of 2021 to be held in front of a live audience and attendance was limited to 99 masked and socially distanced attendees. But nothing could dampen the opportunity to hear live music, performed in real time, by superior artists whose instrumental mastery did not appear to be dulled one iota by the yearlong concert shutdown.

“You are the first audience in a very long time,” new society CEO and President Todd J. Schultz said in his welcoming remarks. “You are the reason we’ve been able to sustain ourselves over the past year.”

Esteemed cellist Weilerstein and pianist Barnatan — who is also the music director of the society’s annual SummerFest — then took the stage and launched into Franck’s luminous sonata.

The two longtime collaborators deftly shifted from slow, graceful passages into rapid fire melodies, gentle ruminations, ebulliently cascading lines and back again. Each was delivered with seamless élan and deeply felt conviction to create a triumphant musical pas de deux. Weilerstein’s gloriously vibrant tone and pinpoint execution were matched by Barnatan’s alternately supple and soaring piano work. Both listened as intently as they played, the better to imbue the notes with grace and exhilaration.

The unamplified music was full and rich, with the large canopy over the courtyard producing a welcome reverberation. The periodic calls of seagulls gliding overhead and cars driving by might have been a distraction under different circumstances. On Saturday morning — a second courtyard concert was held that afternoon and also drew a near-capacity crowd — the ambient sounds were a welcome reminder that performances can (and should) exist outside concert halls and that the courtyard is the welcome gateway to a return to indoor concerts.

“I can’t tell you how good it is to hear applause,” Barnatan told the appreciative audience after sonata concluded. “It’s so moving to me that we’re all here experiencing this music for the first time in so long.”

A similar degree of instrumental excellence and wonderfully empathic interplay were showcased during the second half of the concert, for which Weilerstein and Barnatan were joined by Russian-born violinist Philippe Quint. Together, they delivered a compelling performance of Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Opus 32.

One of Russia’s least revered composers, both during and after his brief lifetime (1861-1906), Arensky reached his apex with his 1894 piano trio. A sequentially constructed piece in four movements, it is essentially a musical circle dance that features increasingly fleet call-and-response exchanges between violin and cello, both bowed and pizzicato, and piano. (A livestreamed concert of Saturday’s performance, recorded Sunday inside the audience-free Baker Baum Concert Hall can be accessed on the society’s website, along with Quint’s Saturday solo tribute to the music of Charlie Chaplin.)

While not a major work — the lack of harmonic adventure is especially pronounced — Barnatan, Weilerstein and Quint dove into the Arensky composition with infectious verve and skill. What resulted was a master class in how exemplary musicianship can elevate and transform a so-so piece into something special.

Even more special was the concert itself, for which multiple precautions were taken to ensure the safety of patrons and artists alike. With 11 more courtyard concerts scheduled between April 24 and June 24, three of which are already sold out, La Jolla Music Society is clearly — to invoke the title of a 1964 Herman’s Hermits’ hit — into something good as it readies a return to indoor concerts.

Until then, its courtyard offers a welcome interim destination worth visiting more than once.

Upcoming La Jolla Music Society Wu Tsai Courtyard concerts

April 24: Christian Sands Trio, 5 (sold out) and 8 p.m. *

Tuesday, May 11: Yefim Bronfman performs music by Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin, 4:30 and 7 p.m. (both concerts are sold out)

Sunday, May 16: Sonia De Los Santos, 10 a.m.

Saturday, June 5: Zlatomir Fung and Richard Fu perform music by Beethoven, Sgambati and Servais, 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Friday, June 11: Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, featuring Jimmy James and Dan Weiss, 5 and 8 p.m. *

Monday, June 24: Pedrito Martinez Group, 5 and 8 p.m. *

Tickets: $70 and $80 (concerts marked with a star include a $10 beverage voucher)

Phone: (858) 459-3728

Online: ljms.org/events/


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