Conductor Nicholas McGegan Leads a Triumphal Orchestral Finale to La Jolla SummerFest 2019

Following longstanding tradition, the final La Jolla SummerFest program is a chamber orchestra concert. Music Director Inon Barnatan not only upheld the tradition but—as is his wont—improved upon it. For Friday’s SummerFest finale at The Conrad, Barnatan invited 18th-century period music specialist Nicholas McGegan to conduct the orchestra in the usual suspects—Bach, Vivaldi, and Mozart—but he spliced edgy contemporary works by Andrew Norman and Ellen Taafe Zwilich into the mix.

Nicholas McGegan [photo courtesy of the La Jolla Music Society]

Conducting the program’s Baroque works from the harpsichord, McGegan exhibited the zeal and insight into this repertory that has made his San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra internationally celebrated. Not surprisingly, he led the Mozart and Zwilich works with equal finesse and conviction.

The concert, however, was dominated by a host of brilliant soloists. From the three scintillating violinists, Cho-Liang Lin, James Ehnes, and Augustin Hadelich, who blazed through J. S. Bach’s Concerto in D Major for Three Violins, BWV 1064, to amazing pianists Jonathan Biss and Barnatan who duelled playfully through Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat Major for Two Pianos, K. 365, to the arresting cellists Clive Greensmith and Edward Arron who mastered Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos, RV 531, to Hadelich’s vibrant account of Handel’s Violin Sonata in D Major, HWV 371, the audience feasted on one virtuoso performance after another.

Because Mozart wrote K. 365 to perform with his sister Nannerl, an equally proficient pianist, this splashy concerto for two pianos is designed to amaze audiences rather than make them think deep thoughts. In the primo piano role, Biss communicated the work’s suave elation with a variety of attacks and lavishly detailed phrasing, while Barnatan relied on his consistent pearly articulation in the secondo role. McGegan chose bright tempos that carefully balanced panache with the elegant structure of Mozart’s clever dialogue between the two pianists.

San Diegans know that Barnatan favors the work of the young American composer Andrew Norman because Barnatan gave a compelling account of Norman’s unusual 2014 piano concerto “Suspend” when he performed with the San Diego Symphony in January, 2017. Barnatan’s selection of Norman’s “Gran Turismo” for eight virtuoso violins added welcome excitement and unpredictability wedged between the Bach and Mozart on Friday’s opening half of the program. A barrage of insistent, whirring violin roulades begins this piece, although it is probably too easy to equate such agitated figuration with the wheels of race cars careening at top speed. Soon the composer introduces a brisk conversation of clipped, spikey motifs among the instrumentalists that grows into a smart climax of fierce down-bows and vigorous tremolandos.

It would be difficult to imagine a more convincing performance of Norman’s work: the ensemble included the SummerFest Chamber Orchestra Concertmaster Andrew Wan, the three Bach Concerto soloists and four other members of the chamber orchestra.

On the program’s second half, Barnatan used Handel’s D Major Violin Sonata to set up Zwilich’s 1985 Concerto Grosso because this Handel sonata inspired Zwilich to write her piece. I should quickly add, however, that her engaging composition is nothing like that brand of “wrong-note” neo-Baroque style that Paul Hindemith and other European composers confected in the early decades of the last century. Rather, Zwilich used the shape of Handel’s striking opening theme to develop her own stark motivic permutations for chamber orchestra, constructing an impressive, satisfying arc of five well-crafted movements.

McGegan’s 26-member chamber orchestra proved an ideal size for the 500-plus seat Baker-Baum Concert Hall. Grand fortes filled the room with generous, warm sound without overpowering the listener, while pianissimo passages hovered cleanly and gently. These virtues graced the closing work, Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D Minor, Op. 11, No. 3, with aptly assertive solo definition provided by violinists Ehnes and Hadelich. J.S. Bach was no enamored with this Vivaldi concerto that he made an idiomatic organ arrangement of the work. He was no doubt particularly impressed with Vivaldi’s sprightly and well-constructed fugue in the second movement, which McGegan took at a most demanding tempo.

I was able to cover half of the SummerFest 2019 concerts, and I left each one elated by the level of performance—a SummerFest hallmark, to be certain—and the bolder choice of repertory of this new regime. New approaches, notably combining modern dance and the visual arts into the music performances, clearly refurbished the staid SummerFest brand, and the comfort and acoustical excellence of The Conrad also contributed greatly to this festival’s success. Let us hope the La Jolla Music Society continues to support Barnatan’s vision for the festival.

This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2019 on Friday, August 23, 2019, in the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla.

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