Violinist Cho-Liang Lin, the self-effacing music director of La Jolla Music Society SummerFest, was initially reluctant to be the subject of a tribute program in a new series devoted to prominent performers.
Let's be glad he changed his mind.
“An Evening With Cho-Liang Lin,” presented Wednesday at La Jolla's Sherwood Auditorium in the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, was a vibrant and richly faceted start to the lineup that features violinist Sarah Chang on Wednesday and cellist Lynn Harrell on Aug. 22. If the other programs are as gratifying as Lin's, SummerFest will have plenty of incentive to continue the format in future seasons.
What made Wednesday's concert so special was the way in which it illustrated Lin's gift for cultivating musical collaborations. Though Lin performed in every piece on the program, there was never the slightest sense of ego-driven one-upmanship.
“In this concert tonight, the common factor is actually friendship. I'm playing with a bunch of friends who are fantastic musicians,” the 47-year-old New York-based virtuoso told the nearly sold-out audience, adding that “each piece was written for a friend.”
Julian Milone's “Tales from 'The Magic Flute' (A Mozartean Divertimento),” for instance, was written for Lin, who's now in his seventh year heading SummerFest. Though Milone could have done more to convey the charm and familiar melodies from Mozart's opera, it's still an engaging, classically styled ensemble piece. And aside from a bit of iffy intonation, Lin excelled at the melodic flourishes, recitativelike declamations and sonorous exchanges with his adept colleagues, violinists Adam Barnett-Hart, Wu Jie and Joanna Frankel, plus bass player Chris Hanulik.
Yet nowhere was Lin's playing more superb than in Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2 and Bartok's “Contrasts.”
In the Ravel, Lin was a marvel of sensitivity and precision, excellently partnered by pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. He was attuned to the dreaminess of the opening movement, bluesy syncopations of the slow movement and rapid-fire passages of the finale, which were nothing short of dazzling.
The Bartok – commissioned by the composer's pal, violinist Joseph Szigeti, and clarinetist Benny Goodman – brought out Lin's rhythmic vitality as well as his dexterity, as when he bowed and plucked his violin at the same time. He received attentive support from McDermott and clarinetist Burt Hara, whose arpeggios rippled with smooth-toned refinement.
As for Brahms' Sextet No. 2, Lin called it a “love letter” to the composer's former fiancée, Agathe von Siebold. Even if the piece is a little long-winded, the passion was abundantly evident.
Lin brought a golden-toned ardor to the opening theme. Cellists Ralph Kirshbaum and Alisa Weilerstein reveled in lustrous intensity. And the other performers – violinist Sheryl Staples and violists James Dunham and Che-Yen Chen – contributed mightily to the lushly romantic interplay.
With more than a little help from his friends, Lin made his “Evening” memorable.