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Cho-Liang Lin makes good on favorite program

Cho-Liang Lin
San Diego Union-Tribune

By James Chute

'Debussy's Paris' proves a congenial place for SummerFest

It wasn’t exactly the same as an athlete guaranteeing a win. But it was close. When SummerFest music director Cho-Liang Lin came out on stage to introduce Sunday’s concert at Sherwood Auditorium, he said of all the programs in this year’s festival, this was his favorite. And by the time the intriguing, even revelatory concert of music by Debussy, Hahn and Ravel was over, it may have been everybody else’s favorite, too.

Certainly Lin did his part in Hahn’s Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor. You could live your entire life and never hear a piece by Reynaldo Hahn, a composer born in Venezuela to German parents and who lived in Paris at the turn of the century. And by the way, in additional to his compositional gifts, he was an exceptional pianist, singer, conductor and music critic, and for good measure, the lover of Marcel Proust.

So it seemed logical Hahn’s Quintet would be some lightweight oddity that would provide a little relief to the real music by Debussy and Ravel. Instead, Lin, taking charge from the first violin position in an ensemble that also included violinist David Coucheron, violist Cynthia Phelps, cellist Desmond Hoebig and pianist John Novacek, made a serious case that the Quintet is a piece that deserves consideration in the standard repertory.

The bright, zesty piece had everybody’s full attention. The ensemble was impeccable in the first movement, focused and furious, as befits a Molto agitato e con fuoco. Hoebig warmly spun out the cello solo that opened the second movement while the first violin sat out the entire opening section of the second movement, finally entering with the movement’s exquisite second theme. It was unconventional, dramatic, and surprisingly effective. The third movement seems to take up where the first left off, ending the piece in high spirits.

Lin was not going to be denied in the Hahn, and his colleagues took a similar attitude in the rest of the program.

As she did Saturday, Priti Gandhi filled in for Charlotte Hellekant, who had visa issues and could not travel to the U.S. But where Gandhi was impressive Saturday, she still sounded as if she was singing someone else’s program. Sunday, she made Debussy’s “Chansons de Bilitis” her own, seeming to genuinely enjoy the French and making the musical journey from innocence, to experience, to disillusionment completely believable. Novacek, who on Saturday sounded as if he was someone else’s piano accompanist, was flawless Sunday, providing Gandhi with both support and the slightest prodding when necessary.

Novacek also proved to be a sensitive collaborator with clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, whose compelling interpretation of the “Rhapsodie” for Clarinet and Piano had an almost improvisatory feeling to it.

Yeh returned to the stage at the end of the concert for Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” with harpist Deborah Hoffman, violinists Coucheron and Bram Goldstein, Phelps, cellist Eric Han and flutist Demarre McGill.

Here it was Coucheron who stepped forward, but also McGill and Yeh, who were ideally matched. The ensemble’s attentiveness and cohesiveness allowed Hoffman to take off on her own rhapsodic flights in this mini-harp concerto, and the effect was transporting.

Hoffman, Phelps and McGill also collaborated in a poignant, highly affecting rendering of Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, a work that showed an entirely different side of the this “Impressionist” composer.

The only piece on the program that would have benefited from a little more leadership was Debussy’s “Danses Sacree et Profane” for Harp and String Quartet. Here, the Hausmann Quartet (plus bassist Han Han Cho) seemed to be merely accompanying Hoffman, rather than taking ownership of their role in the piece and giving her something to play off of, as she did to in the “Introduction and Allegro.”

Still, the harpist and the ensemble captured the piece’s gentle, dance-like character. Lin didn’t promise the program would be perfection, but he almost delivered on that as well.