Music Performance and the Visual Arts Collide Creatively at SummerFest

In the third chapter of the book of Ecclesiates we are told “there is a season for everything.” And it is clear that Inon Barnatan has decided that his first year as Music Director of the La Jolla SummerFest is the season for shaking things up in that storied festival.

Thursday’s theme at The Conrad in downtown La Jolla –Music at an Exhibition—endeavored to explore the connection between the visual arts and music performance. And thank heaven no one gave a lecture on that subject!

Zach Smithey with Callisto Quartet [photo (c.) SanDiegoStory]

Rather, Barnatan and Synergy Series sponsor Clara Wu Tsai set up performance encounters in which music and visual art creatively collided. In the JAI, painter Zack Smithey created long mural-like paintings while a cadre of musicians on stage played different styles of music. In the Atkinson Room, patrons viewed short films made on musical subjects, and, in the Baum–Baker Concert Hall, Barnatan gave a thrilling solo piano performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s iconic mating of the visual and musical, Pictures at an Exhibition, while Doug Fitch and his crew created live video effects to reflect each movement of the piece.

Anyone who has ever attended La Jolla SummerFest will immediately conclude this was far from business as usual at the festival Thursday night!

In terms of a fruitful collaboration, I give high marks to Smithey’s swirling, curvey brushstrokes that boldly responded to the musical impulses of Heinrich Biber, Maurice Ravel, J.S. Bach, and Leos Janáček. Violinist Liza Ferschtman started this process with her vigorous account of a Biber Passacaglia for solo violin. When she was joined by cellist Carter Brey for the Allegro from Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, the crowd of observers—most of whom stood for the entire performance—quieted down and paid attention to their passionate musical duet and Smithey’s equally athletic painting.

Zach Smithey [Photo (c.) SanDiegoStory]

Callisto Quartet offered a tightly focused account of Thomas Adès’ “Nightfalls” from The Four Quarters, but the composer’s abstract sonic collages did not appear to connect as directly with Smithey’s brushstrokes.

At the second session in the JAI, Timo Andres played a sagely constructed set of excerpts from the first book of Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path for solo piano. Smithey appeared to connect with Andres’ dramatic, acerbic interpretation of the composer’s impulsive harmonic explosions that alternated with clipped, poignant melodies.

I have no credentials as an art critic, but I believe it is safe to say that Smithey’s approach to painting as observed in these demonstrations is more indebted to Jackson Pollock than to Andrew Wyeth. The audience appeared highly engaged observing the artist at work.

Inon Barnatan [Photo (c.) Marco Borggreve]

The pinnacle of this evening of rich music making was Barnatan’s exemplary Pictures at an Exhibition. Every pianist who performs this work today competes with the audience’s technicolored memories of the exquisite—if at times over the top—orchestral transcription of this work by Maurice Ravel. Above all, Barnatan’s bravura yet miraculously detailed account of Pictures made the case for the superiority of Mussorgsky’s original. From his shimmering articulation that elucidated the airy “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” to his account of the blistering yet immaculately executed ferocious octaves of “Baba-Yaga,” Barnatan demonstrated the genius of Mussorgsky’s imaginative exploitation of the piano’s conjuring potential.

Doug Fitch and his crew skillfully exploited contemporary technology—tight camera close-ups of images executed in various media immediately blown up on a large screen placed center stage—to augment or comment on each movement of the Mussorgsky. At best this proved occasionally illustrative, e.g. shadowy manipulation of architectural shapes during “The Old Castle,” but none of these efforts came close to the profound interpretive imagery coming from Barnatan and the concert grand stage right.

Barnatan and violinist Ferschtman set the mood for the Mussorgsky presentation with a serene performance of Arvo Pärt’s mystical “Spiegel im Spiegel.” Ferschtman played standing behind the translucent screen center stage, illuminated from behind, which meant that the audience saw only her silhouette as she played. I would not say this added anything to the composer’s striking work.

These events were presented by the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2019 at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla on Thursday, August 15, 2019. The festival continues through August 23, 2019, in this venue.

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