‘Oriental Fantasy’ highlights the La Jolla summer musical festival

San Diego (California) - Abdul Rahman Bitar

Every year the city of San Diego in the southwest of the United States eagerly awaits the musical summer festival held at its lovely elegant beach suburb overlooking the Pacific Ocean, La Jolla (or : the jewel in Spanish). The festival was the city’s main cultural event of the year with the presence of hundreds of music fans from many other states. As usual, it was organised by the La Jolla Music Society under the supervision of Cho-Liang Lin , its musical director and a well established violinist who studied with the teacher of the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. The concerts took place at the University of California - San Diego (UCSD) and at the Qualcomm Hall of this leading futuristic telecommunications technology company.

From  the piano’s most difficult  piece to Beethoven’s boisterous symphony
In a great musical evening called “From Prague with love “ we heard piano pieces of Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Dvorak, and Chopin. But the most important piece was that of the Russian composer  Mily Balakirev ( 1837 - 1910) entitled “ Islamey “ or “ oriental fantasy “ composed in 1869. Balakirev was known as a promoter of musical nationalism as evidenced in Rimsky Korsakov piece “ Shehrazad”  and his encouragement of Tchaikovsky. The showpiece subtitled Oriental Fantasy does not follow the traditional structures of classical music but  rather moves in a free style. Its exotic atmosphere and explosive drive sends the pianist flying across the complete range of the keyboard at a dizzying speed. That is why it is considered the most difficult piano piece in classical music.
One of the organisers of the event said that he had heard that the French President Macron is an accomplished piano player as was the ex German Chancellor Schmidt, but it is doubtful either  of them could perform this exceedingly difficult piece. It requires intense concentration and extreme indulgence throughout the twists and turns of the score.The composer heard the melody during his trip to one the Moslem territories in the Caucasian mountains that were annexed to the Russian empire by the Tzar. The pianist, Olga Kern accepted the challenge and played the piece with extreme speed like a rain storm and she  amazed the audience with her bravura practically using her muscles to bang the piano keyboard to the extent that she seemed to be in a hurry to complete her piece. She showed more restraint in her recorded cd issued a few years ago where the main melody can be clearly noticed.
Among the top recordings of this piece was an old one by the well known
 pianist Vladimir Horowitz. We recently noticed  that many young pianists, expecting to be labeled as virtuoso, tend to speed up their performances hoping to dazzle the spectators by showing their extreme technical skills.
Balakirev wrote in a letter that one Circassian prince invited him to a wedding where he heard the main theme which he liked and decided to use it for his composition but with a different speed and adding to it a softer romantic tune used in a Tatar lullaby, the Turkic-speaking people of Crimea. The main melody is still part of the popular dancing music in Caucasus region and Azerbaijan and is called called “ leyzinga” and “ Eagles dance “ whereby the dancers make steps and turns at an extremely fast pace. One of the newer versions recorded of this oriental fantasy is the recording by the Russian pianist Andre Gavrilov  which is truly outstanding, and qualifies him as virtuoso because he keeps the pace closer to the original popular music.
Quartets and Octets
In another concert during the  La Jolla summer festival, the program
‘Celebrating Strings’ was different and was confined to chamber music. In the first part, we heard two quartets playing together but seated practically turning their backs to each other while playing the Double Quartet No. 1 for violins, viola, and cello of the German composer Spohr. It was followed by the Serenade for 2 violins and viola by the Hungarian composer Zultan Kodaly. The Serenade is a vibrant piece of music and an unusual modern combination that tells a love story where the suitor and a young  woman dialogue and chat together. The viola depicts the man’s love song while the violin , taking the part of the woman, laughs  at the man’s appeal, then finally there is a romantic understanding between the two lovers.
The last segment of the concert was the most distinct. It was the Octet  for stings written in 1825 by the German composer Mendelssohn when he was only 16 years old. It was performed in a brilliant way that carries you by its beauty, vigor and sparkle. The violinist, Yura Lee played her part in a masterly way.
The Happy Stormy Symphony
The SummerFest was concluded on a high note with a big orchestra assembled and conducted by one of the most respected American conductors, David Zinman ( born in 1936) who had spent a long time in Europe and specially in Zurich, Switzerland.
The concert started with the Dumbarton Oaks concerto by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. The name  refers to an impressive estate located   outside Washington D.C. just north of Georgetown University.  In 1937, Robert Woods Bliss and his wife, both patrons of the arts, wanted to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in the following year so they  commissioned the work and invited Stravinsky to their estate in Dumbarton Oaks to conduct the premiere over there.The name Dumbarton Oaks may be familiar in another context as well: in the fall of 1944, this same home was the site  of the conference  at which the representatives of the U.S., Britain, China and Soviet Russia laid down the basic principles that later became the United Nations charter.
The last piece in the concert was  Beethoven’s boisterous seventh symphony and  represented the peak of the whole festival. The great German composer reached forty years of age in 1810, and his hearing was noticeably  deteriorating to the point of almost total deafness but he was still at the summit of his musical glory. He used to imagine the musical notes without hearing them. Beethoven’s heroic creative style evolved in such a way that transformed Western music in the 19th century. He used to say “ my ears would whiz day and night as if I had a saw humming inside “. This, however, did not dissuade him from his creativity as a master musician, and he conducted for the first time  his symphony no. 7 by himself in 1813. The occasion was an entertainment concert for the wounded Austrian soldiers who fought against the French emperor Napoleon. Beethoven used to admire Napoleon in earlier times and even dedicated his third symphony to him and called it “Eroica” but later Beethoven became disillusioned when he discovered that Napoleon was more interested in power and authority than freedom.

The seventh symphony expresses the feeling of happiness and optimism in a vivacious rhythmic and joyful style. Beethoven achieved such rhythmic drive with a high degree of energy, brilliant orchestration, and overwhelming exuberance. Zinman’s style carries away the listener. The first movement of the symphony is the most optimistic and creates a fiery dancing emotion. While the second movement calms you down with its slower sad melodies contrasting the third movement with its light cheerful themes. All the energy of the first and third movements are almost nothing when compared to the final and fourth movement. At the hands of Zinman it sounded powerful and impulsive but still maintained the unity of the whole work. Its joy and animation were unequaled with sheer vitality and boisterousness. The renowned composer Carl Maria von Weber who attended the first performance in Vienna described the sustained vigor and the furious climax intensity  claiming that “ Beethoven has gone mad !“ Zinman’s  conducting was
fast and energetic in spite of his 81 years of age  but remained well controlled throughout.
The atmosphere of harmony and balance were never lost and the orchestra responded to his gestures perfectly. It was an unforgettable evening by all accounts
The audience burst in applause and gave a long standing ovation. We left the fancy modern hall  feeling as if we had taken a tonic that restored our energy at mid night. 

Saturday, September 9th 2017
Abdul Rahman Bitar

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