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MUSIC REVIEW : Chamber Music Con Brio

August 16, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

LA JOLLA — SummerFest, a.k.a. the La Jolla Chamber Music Festival, which began its ninth ambitious season this weekend, isn't the most glamorous endeavor of its kind. It certainly isn't the most pretentious. The music is the thing.

Thank goodness.

The director, Heichiro Ohyama, is remarkably sophisticated, intrinsically serious and extraordinarily self-effacing. It may be significant that the festival program prints his name among the administrative credits in the same type-size afforded the resident page-turner.

Los Angeles audiences may best remember Ohyama as first violist and assistant conductor under Andre Previn at the Philharmonic. His more recent activities include leadership of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (which bears close ties to La Jolla), the Japan America Symphony and the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra.

The sprawling La Jolla agenda this year embraces 11 subscription concerts, numerous educational events, open rehearsals, lectures, master classes and backstage seminars. All this plus social receptions, an art exhibit, a children's concert and something sweetly intriguing billed as an "ice-cream fest."

The central participants are 23 potential soloists with imposing national credentials (the roster includes pianist Ruth Laredo, violinists Ani Kavafian, Pamela Frank and Julie Rosenfeld, cellist Nathanial Rosen, oboist Allan Vogel and flutist Carol Wincenc). The supporting ensemble enlists 16 students euphemistically billed as "Rising Stars."

The SummerFest normally takes place at Sherwood Auditorium, but that venue has been closed while the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, to which it is attached, undergoes architectural renovation. Ohyama and friends have found temporary refuge in Parker Community Auditorium, an all-purpose 475-seat hall at the outer edge of the local high-school campus.

Parker isn't exactly a dream showcase for the loftiest muses. The acoustics are dry. The atmosphere exudes little beyond no-nonsense efficiency. The aesthetic embellishments are modest.

Still, the ambience is appropriately intimate, the location is convenient, the seats are comfortable, the air-conditioning is welcome, and, mirabile dictu , there isn't a graffito in sight. Compared to blackboard jungles in other locales, this must be paradise.

The La Jolla festival has never been noted for an adventurous spirit as regards repertory. The healthy dissonances associated with 20th-Century ear-stretching are not at home here. "Our audience," Ohyama conceded with wry exaggeration during an intermission, "still thinks Boccherini is modern."

Under the circumstances, a stranger approached the SummerFest on Sunday afternoon with special curiosity. The climax of the program was supposed to be a potentially abrasive concerto grosso by a heroic avant-gardist from Russia, Alfred Schnittke.

As it turned out, there was a changing of the avant-garde. Ohyama suffered second thoughts about Schnittke's accessibility in this performing context. Reluctantly, the maestro withdrew the dangerous novelty in favor of Shostakovich's C-minor Chamber Symphony, Opus 110a.

Although one had to regret the inherent caution, one certainly could find compensatory comfort in the brooding Shostakovich essay, which isn't exactly standard repertory.

The music was inspired by the composer's visit to Dresden in 1960. Reportedly horrified at the devastation of the city, Shostakovich spent three feverish days writing his String Quartet No. 8, which is officially dedicated to "the memory of the victims of fascism and war." The composer's biographers insist that the score--replete with self-quotation--concerns Shostakovich's private agonies as much as his sociopolitical concerns. Making only minimal changes, Rudolf Barshai arranged the string-orchestra version that became the Chamber Symphony.

It is a work of shattering impact, all the more poignant for its economy. The somber outer movements frame a wildly hysterical allegro and an eerily macabre waltz. The final largo offers no resolution, only a cadence of tragic desperation.

Ohyama, a minimalist who can get along nicely with neither baton nor podium, led his youthful charges in a performance equally notable for sensitivity and clarity. The pathos was enhanced by understatement.

Earlier in the program, he used the same forces to luxuriate in another orchestral enlargement. The vehicle in this case, however, presented nothing more complex than the innocent lyricism of the andante from Schubert's "Rosamunde" Quartet.

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