SummerFest, the La Jolla Music Society’s chamber music festival, always had a lot going for it, not least location. Who doesn’t want to be in La Jolla in August? Escaping the heat and humidity has been especially attractive to top East Coast and Midwest musicians, and the society seemed able to afford them, often to the consternation of equally impressive SoCal players.
The festival’s venue at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego added to the attraction. It felt like a destination, offering an often-striking exhibition with a concert. You entered the small theater via a balcony that dramatically looked down on the ocean.
The only problem was that the theater, obviously not designed for music, had institutional acoustics. Given that the society is a major classical music presenter during the winter season, it needed something better. Now, in some ways, it has that with the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, which opened in April near the museum (closed for renovations).
The village-like square designed by Epstein Joslin Architects of Cambridge, Mass., has a 513-seat formal concert hall along with two smaller, flexible venues. The acoustical design is by Yasuhisa Toyota, who has become the world’s leading acoustician in the 16 years since the opening of his masterpiece, Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Furthermore, SummerFest, which had its opening concerts last weekend and runs through Aug. 23, has new blood. This is the first festival under the music directorship of enterprising Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan.
With both a new hall and new artistic direction, kinks were certain to need working out. If there was promise, we owed patience, even if at Sunday’s matinee program (my first visit to the hall and third program of this year’s festival), that patience was tried, with mistakes old and new. The promise offered hope.
Architecturally, Baker-Baum, as the main hall is called, is a throwback. It is neither in Toyota’s groundbreaking vineyard style nor the spectacular new development that he and Frank Gehry produced with Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal, an oval with suspended balcony. Rather this is a traditional European design, with audience facing the stage. The walls are wooden lattice. The back of the stage can open up for a full-sized movie screen, as it was Sunday.
From where I sat in the small balcony, the theater had little sense of intimacy, visually or acoustically. Feng shui-clueless cup holders were strategically placed at the base of seat backs, just where you expected to put your foot and just where they will be the most annoying anytime someone bends down to pick up a drink during the performance. The sound, as is a Toyota hallmark, proved clear and noble, but it lacked corporeal immediacy or strong bass. Quiet passages had a lovely delicacy. But a flute or piano at forte could turn aurally glaring.
Separating acoustics from psycho-acoustics is always tricky with new halls, and it was especially so on Sunday. Barnatan used the screens for brief recorded video introductions to the afternoon’s four works. There the pianist and other performers were big, as if in a feature film, and the sound was amplified. Then when the musicians came onstage, seated behind a big, blank screen (used with video backdrop in only one piece), they appeared diminished physically and sonically. Plus, how much more personable it might have been for the pianist to address the audience himself?
Barnatan’s programming is a refinement of that of the previous director, violinist Cho-Liang Lin. Most of the repertory is standard, and most of the performers are from elsewhere, including the three distinguished ensembles that will play all of Beethoven’s string quartets over three concerts. New music is mostly segregated to two programs curated by David Lang. That’s where you find most of the younger composers, Californians and a 50-50 mix of men and women. The stage is large, and Barnatan has notably invited Mark Morris’ dance company to premiere work.
Still, this is a festival, in a border town and a village overlooking one of the great experimental music centers (at UC San Diego) that peers in one direction only, toward the East Coast and Europe.
The Sunday matinee appeared on paper a promising mixed bag. There were, along with Barnatan, such high-profile performers as cellist Alisa Weilerstein, conductor Osmo Vänskä and three prominent young players: violinist Stefan Jackiw, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Conrad Tao.
Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was performed in Bruno Sachs’ chamber version, for which Schoenberg gave a hand with orchestration. Much was made in Barnatan’s introduction and the program notes about this as the opening shot of the 20th musical revolution. Vänskä, who conducted, turned back the clock asking for romantic exaggeration.
Carefully sung by Susanna Phillips, Ravel’s “Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé” — which was unconducted and for which Vänskä played one of the two clarinet parts — proved, however, exquisite. Balances were perfect, the hall suddenly becoming an excellent place for concentrated listening.
The high points, though, were meant to be Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata, with Weilerstein rhapsodic and Barnatan respectfully understated, and George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae” (Voice of the Whale), The latter, written in 1970 and inspired by a recording of humpback whale song, is music to save the oceans by.
Flutist (Rose Lombardo), cellist (Weilerstein) and pianist (Tao) are masked and amplified. They perform as if in a ritual. The flutist sings along as she plays. In Debussy’s “Faun,” the flute portrays myth. Crumb’s flute evokes the sea before myth. The other instruments bring us up to date dramatizing geological eras. After around 20 minutes, the piece fades into meaningful timeless nothingness.
Here, though, the whale voice was trivialized, as though soundtrack to conventional underwater video imagery. The darkened stage undercut the ritualistic nature of the masked performers, who looked smaller than minnows against the screen. The amplification was grating rather than illuminating. Angelenos will take their turn with “Vox Balaenae ” at Monk Space on Oct. 1.
Adding to the artificiality of this performance, which swam principally on the fins of Weilerstein’s stunning cello harmonics, was the sense of disconnect from the actual environment, lack of context and occasion. This was after all, three days after Melville’s 200th birthday. How amazing a community concert, on a nearby cove or ocean rock, this might have been; it is amplified music after all. If SummerFest is going to bury its musical head in the sand, it might as well at least do it at the beach.