SummerFest Boldly Mixes George Crumb and Maurice Ravel with Rachmaninoff on Sunday’s Program

When former Music Director Cho-Liang (aka “Jimmy”) Lin programmed music for La Jolla SummerFest, he carefully gathered each season’s new, challenging music into one or two concerts devoted exclusively to this repertory. It was the equivalent of putting yellow tape across the front of the Sherwood Auditorium entrance and posting a large “Danger” sign on the doors. Patrons stayed away in droves from these concerts, but Lin could still boast that he supported new music.

Susanna Phillips [photo (c.) Zachary Maxwell Sterz]

Sunday (August 4) afternoon’s SummerFest concert at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center demonstrated that his successor Inon Barnatan has ended that policy. Although he book-ended this concert with a dulcet chamber music arrangement of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s virtuoso, arch-Romantic Sonata in G Minor for Piano and Cello, Op. 19, the program’s center featured George Crumb’s rarely performed 1971 “Vox Balaenae” (“Voice of the Whale”) for amplified flute, cello and piano, and Maurice Ravel’s “Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé,” an equally obscure cycle of esoteric poetry for soprano and large chamber ensemble.

For Crumb’s austerely beautiful 30-minute aquatic tone poem “Vox Balaenae,” the composer adapted actual whale songs for the flutist and cellist to elaborate, creating mysterious serpentine themes accompanied by explosive piano clusters or eerily dampened glissandos plucked from the piano’s interior. SumerFest followed all of Crumb’s performance instructions: a darkened room restricted to only blue light over the performers; face masks for the performers, and projections of large sea animals slowly swimming in murky water projected on a screen behind the musicians. Such trendy 1970’s-era special effects might cause reflexive eye-rolling from some readers, but I will attest that the staging helped focus Crumb’s highly abstract structures.

San Diego Symphony Principal Flute Rose Lombardo adroitly took the lead in this piece; she was also required to simultaneously sing and play the flute much of the time to more closely simulate the whale sounds. Alisa Weilerstein handled the complex cello part with expected finesse, and she occasionally struck a few small bright bells when not bowing. Conrad Tao nimbly executed both the keyboard flashes and the interior manipulation of the piano’s strings.

A mixed octet of winds and strings plus piano accompanied soprano Susanna Phillips in her set of Ravel songs. Her dusky mid-range and gleaming upper register gave Ravel’s unpredictable melodies unusual strength; her limpid phrasing, glowing French articulation, and dynamic nuances could not have been more stylish. While the string quartet provided a gossamer sonic cloud that buoyed her softer passages, the colorful winds formed a richer accompaniment in the lively sections of these three settings of Mallarmé’s dense Symbolist poetry.

Because Debussy’s own orchestration of “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” is so magnificently transparent, this adaptation for string quintet, three winds, and two keyboards by Bruno Sachs and Arnold Schoenberg offers no spectacular insights. Balancing the score’s Impressionist languor with occasional urgency, Osmo Vänskä deftly conducted this charming ensemble that filled the Baker-Baum Concert Hall with winning pastel harmonies.

The Rachmaninoff G Minor Sonata, Op. 19, has become a splashy calling card for cellist Weilerstein and pianist Barnatan, and their arresting, impeccable performance reflected their command of this virtuoso vehicle. It is the kind of demanding showpiece SummerFest audiences have come to expect from their festival musicians.

But Barnatan was not about to serve the Cherries Jubilee unless his audience had finished its spinach—the George Crumb. Thus, his Sunday afternoon audience left both edified and satisfied.

The La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2019 presented this concert on Sunday, August 4, 2019, in the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla. SummerFest 2019 continues in this venue through August 23, 2019.

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