Laguna Beach Music Festival peaks with Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner

Jennifer Koh & Shai Wosner , Christopher Rountree
The Orange County Register

This year’s Laguna Beach Music Festival, the 14th annual, felt like a coming of age. The balance seemed right between classic scores and new music, and what’s more, the old and the new threw sparks off each other. It was intelligent programming.

Violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner were the co-artistic directors. Both have made contemporary music an integral part of their careers, and together they have been working on a Bridge to Beethoven project (Sunday’s concert was to feature its latest product), which pairs newly commissioned works with the Beethoven violin sonatas. Making connections is important to these musicians.

Koh began with Bach – not just any Bach, but the Partita No. 2 in D minor for unaccompanied violin, which ends with the monumental quarter-hour-long Chaconne, a classic challenge for the violin and a musical wonder. She played it in a pool of light in the darkened hall and played it beautifully, with a warm tone that gently outlined melodic contours and a knowing patience that allowed the music, and drama, to bloom of their own accord.

She followed it with two works more or less inspired by the Chaconne, Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza VIII” from 1976 and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Lachen Verlernt” from 2002. Berio’s piece is one in a series in which he challenged a solo instrumentalist’s virtuosity with novel and extended technical demands. The “Sequenza” for solo violin is a particularly thorny affair, but with our ears prepared by the Bach and Koh’s athletic and dramatic performance (her bow in tatters by the end), the thing made perfect sense.

After intermission, Wosner arrived with Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 935, between which he interposed his own free improvisations. These were not jazz improvisations but rather Schubertian in style, though modern and dreamlike, too, based upon a detail or two from the previous Impromptu and obsessing over them. The complete piece lasted around 40 minutes, and Wosner crafted it all with a compelling intimacy and phrases sculpted like spoken sentences.

“New Global Voices” was the rather unpromising title of Saturday night’s program at the playhouse, but never fear. It turned out not to be a journey through brain-dead World music but the real deal: gritty, contemporary classical music, some of it even avant-garde. Conductor Christopher Rountree brought the string players (a chamber orchestra’s worth) from his L.A.-based experimental group wild Up down the road to play it.

The pieces included Andrew Norman’s “Gran Turismo,” for eight racing and chasing violins; Anna Clyne’s “Rest These Hands,” for solo violin (Koh) and strings, a soulfully pastoral work; Valentin Silvestrov’s “The Messenger,” for piano (Wosner) and strings, a Mozartian reverie set in the distance; and Vijay Iyer’s “Bridgetower Fantasy,” for violin and piano, obliquely inspired by Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, volcanic, mystical, simple and arcane.

One left the concert with ears refreshed and already looking ahead to next year, when the terrific German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser serves as artistic director of the 15th festival. 

Read the rest of the review here