SummerFest Pairs the Polar Joys of Adès and Schubert in Saturday’s Concert at the Conrad

Saturday’s SummerFest concert kept the spotlight on Composer-in-residence Thomas Adès. The opening half of the program featured the U. S. premiere of his recent clarinet quintet Alchymia, and after intermission the composer performed the demanding piano part in Franz Schubert’s beloved “Trout” Quintet.

Mark Simpson plays Thomas Adès [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

Fortunately, as Mae West once observed about an important non-musical topic—too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

Appreciating Adès’ Alchymia is not, however, a challenge for the faint-hearted. Its four movements unfold intense, inward journeys based on a four-note descending diatonic theme that European composers have traditionally employed for mournful or melancholic music. At Alchymia’s beginning, the clarinet presents this theme simply in mid-range before Adès expands it into a very slow serpentine melody that engages contrapuntally with the four strings throughout this movement.

In this quintet, Adès requires a basset clarinet, an unusual member of the clarinet family that is capable of a slightly lower range than the usual B-flat clarinet. Mark Simpson drew a rich sonority from this instrument’s baritonal range, which aptly cultivated the work’s darker moods, although Alchymia’s second movement opened with some of the nervous, high-pitched filigree we encountered on Wednesday in Adès’ Märchentänze, and I noted in that same movement a few klezmer squeals similar to those we heard in yesterday’s Dreams and Prayers by Golijov.

In the clarinet quintet’s final movement, the emotional fog lifts, and Adès provides a set of lilting variations on a lute-song from that popular opera buffa from the last century, Alban Berg’s Lulu.

The other musicians who made this clarinet quintet rewarding: violinists Alexi Kenney and Anthony Marwood; violist Rebecca Albers, and cellist Coleman Itzkoff.

(l. to r.) Timothy Cobb, Tessa Lark, Thomas Adès, Maiya Papach and Efe Baltacigil [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

If Adès’ Alchymia made strenuous demands on the audience’s attention, perhaps Music Director Inon Barnatan selected Schubert’s “Trout” Piano Quintet, a familiar Romantic work overstuffed with mellifluous themes and extravagant ornamentation, as a piece that could be enjoyed with one’s mind set on cruise control.

Of course, with Adès realizing the piano score with such command and radiant phrasing bathed in a ravishing kaleidoscope of color, I was riveted to every measure of this “Trout.” Bassist Timothy Cobb provided uncommonly supple, burnished support of the bass line that grounded yet propelled each movement at the exuberant pace Adès set. Violist Maiya Papach and cellist Efe Baltacigil offered stirring, substantial themes that admirably filled out the center of this robust texture, but I would have appreciated from violinist Tessa Lark a more substantial sonority and drive to better match her colleagues.

This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on Saturday, August 5, 2023, at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.

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