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Pianist Marc-André Hamelin, featured in Wednesday’s (August 24) La Jolla SummerFest concert, is no stranger to San Diego audiences. In January of this year, he gave winning accounts of piano concertos by Ravel and Gershwin with the San Diego Symphony, and this marked his third visit to La Jolla, by my counting. Not surprisingly, Sherwood Auditorium was filled, and I sensed an air of anticipation for this program, which presented Hamelin in three roles: composer, piano soloist, and ensemble pianist.

Marc-André Hamelin [photo (c) Fran Kaufman]

Marc-André Hamelin [photo (c) Fran Kaufman]

Easily dominating this rich program, Hamelin’s larger than life traversal of Franz Liszt’s B Minor Sonata proved breathtaking in its vision and visceral appeal. From the first notes, Hamelin suggested a wild improvisation in which he was unafraid to pound thunderous bass passages that filled the room with raucous overtones that blurred the fundamental pitches but properly released the tonal furor the composer intended in this revolutionary, single movement “sonata.”

At the other end of the dynamic spectrum, Hamelin conjured mystical reveries, airy, lyrical themes that hovered in cathedral silence. His formidable technique took us confidently from blazing octave passages to rhapsodic chordal explosions to introspective dalliances with utter assurance, seamless transitions, and an unfailing sense of forward movement.

Hamelin’s “Four Perspectives,” a cello and piano duo commissioned by La Jolla Music Society SummerFest, displayed none of Liszt’s flamboyant rhetoric, but these etudes tapped similar deep emotional currents. Hamelin crafted spare, ascetic textures that deftly mined the lower range of both piano and cello, slowly building the density and intensity of each etude to engage the complete compass of each instrument in the concluding movement.

Using dense clusters to temper a generally modal vocabulary, Hamelin favored shorter, condensed motifs, and, like many composers of the last century, he used ostinatos to extend scope of his carefully defined syntax. The work lasted just under 15 minutes, but it is one I would eagerly hear again. Kudos to cellist Hai-Ye Ni, who brought her dark, penetrating sonority to this equally dark work with understated elegance. With the composer at the piano, could his part have been anything less than authoritative?

Given its rapturous themes and symphonic aspirations, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. Russian-trained cellist Mischa Maisky ensured the success of this performance: his broad, sweeping phrases, vibrant sound, and luxurious rhythmic freedom found welcome release in this arch-Romantic idiom. I am tempted to observe that Maisky’s sense of rubato is so innate that I sensed it even in his rests!

Although the piano’s role in this trio is less extroverted than the composer’s trademark style encountered in his piano concertos, when not merely accompanying the strings, the piano emerges with many winning solo opportunities, especially in the extensive Tema con variazioni. Hamelin executed his part with aplomb, infusing even the more boisterous moments with polished sonic allure. Although I admired the power and beautifully finished sound of violinist Paul Huang, I kept wishing he could enjoy more of the freedom of expression in phrasing and articulation that his colleagues lavished on this enthralling work.

Is it asking too much that every SummerFest performance be this good? Given the number of musicians assembled for a festival, is it asking too much for new music—or at least lesser known works from the recent past—be part of every SummerFest program? Will SummerFest be brave enough to stop fencing off most of the new music in a single program that can easily be avoided? SummerFest is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season. Is it asking too much for SummerFest to grow up and act its age?

[themify_box style=”shadow” ]This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on Wednesday, August 24, 2016, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s Sherwood Auditorium. La Jolla SummerFest’s final concert will be presented in this same venue on Friday, August 26, 2016, at 8:00 p.m.[/themify_box]

Marc-André Hamelin program

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Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar KMW on August 25, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Perhaps it would be asking too much of current subscivers and sponsors

  2. Ken Herman Ken Herman on August 27, 2016 at 8:40 pm

    I believe that challenging the comfort level of subscribers and sponsors is the responsibility of a Music Director, especially when it means growing the musical scope of the organization. Doing the same thing over and over again is a sign of decline, no matter how “happy” the donors are. Jimmy Lin has been at the helm long enough to challenge SummerFest to grow. At the moment, the festival is just treading water.

  3. Avatar KMW on August 28, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    Given the decline in attendance this summer, who knows. I, for one, have greatly enjoyed Jimmy Lin’s sterling programming.

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