For three weeks each summer, the seaside community
of La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya) becomes a mecca for chamber
music, drawing together musicians of fame and musicians of promise in
a celebration that has come to be known as Summerfest La Jolla. In 1998
the La Jolla Chamber Music Society brought in the husband-and-wife team
of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han as Summerfest's new artistic
directors, and with them a burst of youthful energy that has given the
festival a new spark of life.
Summerfest La Jolla '99 was, like the one before it, a musically enriching
and provocative experience for performers and audience members alike.
But what set it apart from previous festivals was its special celebration
of the 75th birthday of a living legend - JANOS
STARKER, virtuoso cellist and master teacher.
What a wonderful way
to open a music festival!
And to spend a weekend (Aug 6-8). In the intimate setting of a small
concert hall on a bluff overlooking the Pacific (otherwise known as
the Sherwood Auditorium in the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art).
In which the star of the show each evening was the honoree himself.
Janos Starker's birthday celebration began Friday with musical fare
that would make most of us feel at home: Haydn's String Quartet in D
Minor, Opus 76, No. 2 ("Quinten"); Mendelssohn's Octet for Strings in
E-Flat Major, Opus 20 (with strong performances by the St. Lawrence
String Quartet, violinists Philip Setzer and Benny Kim, violist Cynthia
Phelps and cellist Carter Brey); and the evening's highlight, Janos
Starker's peerless rendition of Bach's Suite No. 3 in C Major for Unaccompanied
Cello, a piece from his recent recording of Bach's Suites for Solo Cello,
Nos. 1-6 - on the BMG/RCA Red Seal label - for which he received the
1997 Grammy Award for "Best Recording by a Soloist without Accompaniment."
But it was Saturday's
performance that was the high point of the celebration.
It was a varied programme that juxtaposed less familiar works by 20th
century composers (Zoltán Kodaly and George Enesco) with seldom
heard pieces by composers of the 17th (François Couperin and
Girolamo Frescobaldi). Was this programme celebratory or cerebratory?
However one heard it, it worked!
The predominantly Starker evening opened with Kodaly's Duo for Violin
and Cello in which the Hungarian composer has brilliantly interwoven
the melody and rhythm of Eastern European folk music with his own distinctive
harmonies and dissonances. The colorful music, in which the instruments
alternately become soloist and accompanist to each other, and the total
musical communication between the Hungarian-born Starker and his son-in-law,
violinist William Preucil (also the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra
and San Diego's Mainly Mozart Festival), made for a most picturesque
performance and - to the uninitiated - an enjoyable introduction to
The impassioned Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Opus 25 by the
Romanian composer George Enesco (played with equal passion by violinist
Robert McDuffie and pianist Christopher O'Riley) then took the audience
through the emotional highs and lows of a gypsy fiddler, shifting the
focus away from the cello.
But only briefly. For soon it was time again for romancing the cello....
Imagine a string ensemble of 14 cellists with Janos Starker in the lead!
And imagine the 13 cellists to be Janos Starker's admiring students,
friends and colleagues - all. That was the cast that gathered on center
stage for the second half of the programme to celebrate a great man
of music. Together they made music: Couperin's Pièces en concert
and Frescobaldi's Toccata, both originally composed for different
instrumentations but subsequently arranged for cello. And there was
no mistaking the sound - of joy, admiration and affection for the man
and his music.
Needless to say, everyone was touched - most especially Janos Starker
who, following a brief speech acknowledging the ensemble members
behind him as the reason why he continues to teach and perform, went
on to hug and kiss each member of the ensemble.
Toccata - touched! in Italian - was a most apt finale indeed.
P.S. Yes, it was a real birthday party. The celebrant was presented
with a delightful piano version of "Happy Birthday" played
in the style of Beethoven by Artistic Co-Director Wu Han, and a cello-shaped