Full disclosure first: the doors of music were opened for me with the first notes of Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” as I struggled to play the high-lying French horn passage that opened the orchestral transcription being rehearsed by a community orchestra in Rome, Georgia.
I was 15 years old. That wonderful musical landscape was expanded by Debussy and Fauré and, later, by Chausson and Saint-Saëns. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were all wonderful, when they came along, but when difficult times demand solace, it is French music that clears the mind and renews the spirit.
At its best, French music offers spring-water clarity, emotional freshness, and an opportunity for performers to create and sustain an atmosphere of balance, repose and restraint.
All those virtues, and more, were on rich display in La Jolla Music Society SummerFest’s “Midnight in Paris” concert Tuesday evening in UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall.
Charles Gounod’s “Petite Symphonie” for nine wind instruments opened the concert, and a small parade of virtuosos played it: Catherine Ransom Karoly, flute; Liang Wang and Laura Griffiths, oboes; John Bruce Yeh and Teresa Reilly, clarinets; Keith Buncke and Ryan Simmons, bassoons; Eric Ralske and Dylan Hart, horns. One thing was occasionally missing and that was precision, particularly in phrase endings. That could have been quickly remedied if the players had arranged themselves as French musicians usually do, in a wide semi-circle so that the horns and bassoons could have maintained eye contact with the flute, oboes and clarinets.
The New Orford String Quartet — Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan, violins; Eric Nowlin, viola; and Brian Manker, cello — made its SummerFest debut in this concert playing Ravel’s F-Major String Quartet. To master this music is the achievement of those who have raised craft to art.
In this performance, it was as if an entirely new work were being heard for the first time. The players seemed to have traced every musical idea and gesture to their roots and brought that understanding back to the listener clothed in glistening form for the first time.
Within minutes of beginning, the players — whose remarkable unanimity of execution was like a current flowing among them — had brought the audience to a state of intense, bated-breath concentration.
One French word will do: superbe.
After intermission, the Quartet was joined by Lin and pianist Orion Weiss for Ernest Chausson’s “Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet.” Perhaps it was inevitable that any music would come as a letdown after the Ravel. But the choice to use the La Jolla Music Society’s Hamburg Steinway instead of its American Steinway — and the further decision to open the lid fully — swamped both Lin’s violin and the Quartet in a billowing storm of piano sound and turned what should have been interwoven textures into clotted tangles. Lin’s urgent, impassioned playing in the last movement’s rush was, for the moment, thrilling before the entire enterprise sank beneath the Steinway’s waves.
Tuesday evening’s pre-concert program featured the Cambridge Trio — pianist Saetbyol Kim, violinist Anna Lee and cellist Max Geissler, all members of the festival’s Fellowship Artist program, in which young artists receive intense coaching from established professionals. They performed, splendidly, another Ravel masterpiece, the A Minor Piano Trio.
SummerFest is almost over, and with it, Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin’s 18-year tenure as its remarkable music director. There may still be some tickets for Friday night’s big finale, with a chamber orchestra led by conductor David Zinman. Get one if you can.
Overton is a freelance writer.