Classically Trained: Festival concert doesn't save best for last

Saturday night's performance was my first.

My first time, that is, of hearing a piece then meandering to the CD table to see if it's been recorded, pressed and made available. Turns out Edgar Meyer's "Trio No. 1" hadn't been.

A disappointment.

Still, such sorrow did not characterize how I felt about the rest of the Laguna Beach Music Festival's Feb. 11 concert in the Laguna Playhouse, whose onstage offerings of the eclectic violin of Joshua Bell and double bass of Meyer were indicative of a week of excellent programming.

The music festival, which just finished its 10th anniversary, provided concerts small and (relatively) large, free and paid-ticket-only. It was a project of Laguna Beach Live! and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, the county's premier music-centered nonprofit.

Saturday's program consisted of Meyer's "Trio No. 1," Mozart's String Quartet No. 19 in C major and Schubert's Piano Quintet in A major.

The Mozart came first and was played by the Los Angeles-based Calder Quartet, consisting of Benjamin Jacobson on first violin, Andrew Bulbrook on second violin, Jonathan Moerschel on viola and Eric Byers on cello. The group formed while at USC and also completed a residency together at Juilliard.

The group demonstrated a nicely taut sense of playing in the Mozart piece, nicknamed "Dissonance." So nice, in fact, to the point where it was clear that, as a seasoned ensemble, they could play off one another's energies.

I particularly loved how they were able to balance all four instrumental voices in even the most delicate of passages, allowing no one player to unnecessarily grandstand when not called for. The menuetto of the third movement danced nicely, as did the allegro molto where the quartet found the remarkable inner energies that the Mozart's 465th opus — yes, he was that prolific — is famous for.

Then came Meyer's trio, a four-movement piece of many stylistic flavors that proved to be the showstopper of the evening. Before the playing began, Meyer clarified that it was his first full-length piece — "Opus No. 1, if you will," he said — and was written in 1986 when he was around 25.

"Trio No. 1" — played by Meyer, Bell and Byers — exhibited a variety of influences, from a little Beethoven to a whole lot of bluegrass.

By Meyer's own description of his piece, the first movement is different than the last three. Its simplicity and dissonance didn't necessarily signify what was to come later.

By the second movement, I felt I heard hints of Beethoven — surely the classical influence Meyer notes is in the work — amid the ostinatos. The result was really quite stunning in all its understated beauty.

There was more for the ear to absorb in the Meyer than the Mozart before it. That fact was clearly noticeable from the audience, who sat quietly captivated by the infectious energy pouring from the stage to the seats. There was that invisible hint of music affecting people in the inexplicable way it does, when you're metaphorically moved by your heart in ways the feet cannot do.

By the third and fourth movements, both strikingly different than what preceded them, the toe-tapping rhythm took over. The fast fiddling led by Bell came to its inevitably awesome conclusion and the audience stood to its feet as fast as Bell fiddled.

That was how the first half ended.

The second half of Schubert's quintet, nicknamed "Trout" because a portion of it is derived from another song of his that translates to trout in German, couldn't keep the first half's energy going. Thus, it made for a lopsided concert, making the best not the last.

Still, the performance of "Trout" was everything a good performance should be: pleasant, harmonious, balanced, expressive. Bell, who sat on a piano bench rather than a normal chair with a back as not to restrict his movement, was fun to watch. He puts his whole body in his playing.

The downside to Saturday's concert, other than not ending with the best, was the acoustics of the Laguna Playhouse. Dry and with no reverb, they did the trick but didn't provide that little extra. Fortunately, the great players still sounded great in it.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Coastline Pilot and a classically trained musician. Email him story ideas at

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