String Quartets Rule at Thursday’s SummerFest 2021 Concert

Thursday’s SummerFest 2021 program offered two autobiographical string quartets, Bedřich Smetana’s E Minor Quartet “From My Life” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110. Although these quartets could hardly be more different in their musical style and outlook, they grounded the evening at La Jolla’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall with undeniable gravitas and scope.

Attaca Quartet: Amy Schroeder, Domenic Salerni, Andrew Yee & Nathan Schram [photo (c.) David Goddard]

The New York-based Attacca Quartet gave a deftly-shaped, deeply probing account of the Shostakovich C Minor Quartet, the composer’s searing confessional of angst while striving to create art in spite of his government’s ideological straight jacket. Attacca, an ensemble that devotes most of its performance time to avant-garde repertory, relished the astonishing beauty just under the surface of this ostensibly austere composition. From the opening Largo movement, first violinist Amy Schroeder’s luminous, plaintive lines stood out from this brooding, tension-filled work, setting a high standard her colleagues consistently met.

In the work’s quiet sections, the players used vibrato sparingly and created elegant dynamic arcs even in extended pianissimo passages. In the Allegro molto, of course, all hell broke loose, as the composer intended, and Attacca’s disciplined ferocity won the day. If you want to experience Attacca in full ballistic mode, check out their online accounts of selections from John Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances, notably “Toot Nipple.”

Schroeder captured the eerie exuberance of the strange waltz that propels the middle movement, marked Allegretto, but violist Nathan Schram offered telling, vibrant counter themes. Cellist Andrew Yee coaxed delicate but potent solos from his instrument’s highest range, and second violin Domenic Salerni’s taut, shapely lines completed the critical balance of this centerpiece movement

Perhaps only Shostakovich could complete such a powerful string quartet with two Largo movements, and to its great credit Attacca sustained both the composer’s emotional tension and his more than smoldering anger with unrelenting focus and crystalline balance that were nothing short of breathtaking. In 2015, SummerFest devoted three entire concerts to Shostakovich. Perhaps I am simply whistling in the wind to hope for a return to such in-depth concentration on a single composer in festival programming.

For Smetana’s First Quartet in E Minor, “From My Life,” SummerFest assembled a quartet from this season’s roster: Benjamin Beilman and Tessa Lark, violins; Masumi Per Rostad, viola, and Efe Baltacigil. Per Rostad’s suave sonority and graceful phrasing aptly incarnated the composer’s persona in various moments throughout the quartet. Beilman’s assertive leadership gave the dance-drenched second movement—“Allegro moderato à la Polka”— ravishing allure, and cellist Baltacigli’s expressive expressive lament in the Largo sostenuto proved irresistible. The players unleashed their exuberance in the final “Vivace,” suggesting a village fair of Czech dances and folk melodies chasing each other until the abrupt, stark denouement, symbolizing the end of the composer’s career in isolating deafness.

This concert opened with another festive pageant of spirited nationalist melodies penned by the young Jean Sibelius, En Saga. Written as a large, muscular orchestral tone poem, contemporary Finnish composer Jaako Kuusisto has recast the work as an octet for five strings and three winds. Bassoonist Brad Balliett, hornist Jennifer Montone, and clarinetist Anthony McGill confidently essayed most of the work’s rambunctious, appealing themes, while the strings earnestly attempted to create adequate sonic support for these powerful winds. I do not believe En Saga aspires to be a chamber work, but lacking a full orchestra, this arrangement agreeably reminded us of Sibelius’ prowess as symphonist.

Music Director Inon Barnatan was again joined by Roman Rabinovich in a stirring account of Schubert’s single movement Allegro in A Minor for Piano Four-Hands, D. 947. Schubert’s gift for exploiting the possibilities of four-hand piano music was indeed formidable, and this duo’s vigorous command of the Allegro clearly complemented his inventive contributions.

This program was presented by the La Jolla Music Society at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla on Thursday, August 5, 2021. The festival continues through August 20, 2021.

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