Music : A Memorable Opening for SummerFest ’90

In music at least, a summer festival generally means something big and loud, of mass appeal and played outdoors. Put the words together, though, as SummerFest in La Jolla, and you have two weeks devoted to the intimate charms of chamber music . . . and actually in a chamber.

As if to prove a point, SummerFest ’90--fifth in the series and directed by founder Heiichiro Ohyama--opened Friday with an almost anti-festive program, and filled Sherwood Auditorium of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art to capacity, including sections of folding chairs on the stage.

There were no premieres, and only one popular blockbuster on an agenda that launched a French connection that runs through most of the festival. SummerFest scores its points through thoughtful, congenial programming and playing.

But if it is fireworks that one expects from a summer festival, well, SummerFest can provide that too. The Schumann Piano Quintet, all too often a blandly bronzed relic of faded traditions, seemed virtually new-made; melted down and recast in a blazing performance.


Ohyama, principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, emphasized his connections with that orchestra in the virtuosic, collegial cast he assembled. Joining him were pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Cho-Liang Lin, both recent soloists at Hollywood Bowl, Philharmonic principal cellist Ronald Leonard and violinist Robert Chen.

One of the glories of chamber music is the contradictory union of individuality and uniformity, and it crowned this performance in full measure. Each part could be heard with identifiable inflections, yet there was complete agreement in attacks and phrasing, dynamic and timbral variation and interpretive nuance. Balances were continually recalculated on behalf of thematic expression and rhythmic accord was unbreakable in the most heated passages.

For all the technical control constantly manifest, this was a living, fire-breathing performance. The risks taken here would make any musical underwriter faint, but the results proved memorable for all the right reasons.

The interpretation found its angry, impassioned heart in the slow movement. The ensemble produced the kind of harrowing intensity more commonly applied to the similar movements of Shostakovich’s string quartets--no quiet elegies here, but rather incandescent vehemence, even at the softest, most repressed levels.


The evening began in total contrast, with a cool and rather aloof reading of Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, played by Carol Wincenc, Toby Hoffman and Deborah Hoffman, respectively. There was nothing insubstantial about the approach, well-founded in the score, but little suggestion of its bittersweetness or ironies either.

Bridging these extremes were contrasting works for piano four- hands, Ravel’s “Ma Mere l’Oye” and Mozart’s Variations in G, K. 501, neither of which, incidentally, was listed in the printed program. Emanuel and Yoko Ax brought pertinent piquancy and coloristic variety to the Ravel, clarity and vigor to the Mozart.