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String ensemble opens virtual La Jolla festival with passionate Schubert

“The show must go online.”

That updated show business adage appears to be the way of the classical music world these days.

On Friday night, the La Jolla Music Society — under the artistic direction of Inon Barnatan — offered its version of a COVID-19-safe production. SummerFest, now in its 35th year, opened its slimmed-down 2020 season with a YouTube broadcast of a pre-recorded performance of “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives and a live performance of Schubert’s Quintet in C major inside an empty Baker-Baum Concert Hall at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.

The sound was excellent, and the video appeared to be high-definition. How much of this quality you experienced, however, depended on what kind of equipment you used. The best video and audio that I could muster was to route the signal to a high-definition television with a decent stereo sound system. I used my laptop to receive the broadcast and an HDMI cable to send it to my entertainment system.

Friday’s opening night concert — the first of six this week — was comparable to other streamed operas and classical music performances. La Jolla Music Society clearly spent a lot of time and money to do this properly. The efforts of director/camera operator Tristan Cook were excellent in capturing Schubert’s Quintet, although I disagreed with the 

There are three components to Ives’ composition. A string section plays an extremely slow cosmic hymn that repeats with almost imperceptible changes. Over this, a trumpet repeats a 5-note “Question,” harmonically and rhythmically unrelated to the string music. In response to the question, a wind quartet answers with even quicker music unrelated, at first, to either the strings or trumpet.

The “Answers” are the only part of the work that openly display musical development. At first, the winds seem inquisitive to the trumpet. Their answers become more complex with each repetition, but by the final answer, they chatter away in a musical distortion of the question, clearly mocking it. The final trumpet question goes unanswered by the winds, and the strings continue as before, ignoring the questions and answers.

Ives requested that the string be offstage, or at least as far away from the trumpet and winds as possible. I’ve never seen a performance where the strings were offstage. It’s usually the trumpet and winds that are offstage, which gets Ives’ concept backwards. Here was an opportunity to clearly background the strings and focus all the attention on the “Question” and its “Answers.”

Instead, we saw six string players in Baker-Baum Concert Hall playing along to a Zoom-like video of over 20 string players projected on the upstage video screen. Trumpeter David Washburn — inexplicably filmed in a marina with his back to the camera — and a four-way-split screen of flutists Rose Lombardo and Pamela Vliek Martchev, oboist Mary Lynch and clarinetist Anthony McGill visually displaced the string video footage.

Despite the disappointing visuals, the performance itself was lovely.

Violinists James Ehnes and Tessa Lark, violist Yura Lee and cellists Alisa Weilerstein and Clive Greensmith then gloriously performed Schubert’s Quintet in C major as if Baker-Baum Concert Hall was full of patrons.

The musicianship was top-notch and the interpretation passionate, but I missed the collective feeling of being in the same hall with musicians and an attentive audience. It’s easy enough to find well-recorded HD videos of talented performers playing Schubert’s Quintet that give me a comparable experience to Friday’s broadcast.

The question for music presenters, unanswered so far, remains: What can you do in a streamed concert to make the experience equivalent, or better, to attending it live?

With five more chances to persuade us in the upcoming week, perhaps La Jolla Music Society can lead the way and serve up a satisfying solution.

Christian Herzog, The San Diego Union-Tribune
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