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Music review: a John Williams premiere at SummerFest

Cho-Liang Lin
Los Angeles Times

By Mark Swed

John Williams has summoned heroes for the movies, victors for the Olympics and whatever the cat brings in for the nightly news. But he also makes news. He wrote “Air and Simple Gifts” — a quartet for clarinet, piano, violin and cello — for President Obama’s swearing-in ceremony. That must have been the first time in history when an audience of hundreds of millions worldwide heard the premiere of a piece of chamber music.

Even so, a modest chamber work under five minutes and understated in tone seemed an anomaly for a composer celebrated for his cinematic blockbusters, big orchestral works (a symphony and more than a dozen concertos) and vivid fanfares. With “Quartet La Jolla,” however, Williams now has in his catalog a chamber music of more substance — a reflective, long-breathed half-hour quartet for the colorful combination of violin, cello, clarinet and harp. It was commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the La Jolla chamber music festival SummerFest and given its premiere Friday at Sherwood Auditorium.

Not that Williams, even at 79, has all that much time for reflection. Steven Spielberg and the composer’s public are always calling. Over the next year, Williams scores will be featured in three Spielberg films (“The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn,” “War Horse” and “Lincoln”). The composer could not be at SummerFest on Friday. He was conducting favorites from his film scores with the Boston Pops at Tanglewood over the weekend. This weekend, you can find him doing the same thing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

But two other composers, Sean Shepherd and Joan Tower, were on hand for SummerFest’s annual evening of commissions and premieres. A piano quartet from the French composer Marc-André Dalbavie, also intended for the program, was not finished in time and has been postponed for next summer. So the program wound up as a look at two famed American composers in their 70s and a “whippersnapper,” as Shepherd, 32, described himself when introducing his capricious Oboe Quartet. Tower’s piece, “White Granite,” is a piano quartet.

Perhaps the first thing to be praised about SummerFest is the exceptionally high quality of performances. The players in the festival, which runs through Aug. 27, include well-known soloists and some of the nation’s top orchestra players.

The ensemble for Williams’ quartet were the famed violinist Cho-Liang Lin, music director of SummerFest; John Bruce Yeh, principal clarinet of the Chicago Symphony; Deborah Hoffman, principal harp of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; and Joshua Roman, a YouTube star. A modern musician himself, Williams coached the ensemble through a Skype connection from Tanglewood.

“Quartet La Jolla” is genial. Outside of the film studio, he does not appear to call attention to himself. Yeh, in fact, made affectionate fun of this when he mimicked the soft-spoken Williams as he read a short letter to the audience from the composer.

The score, in five movements, has a French flavor, no doubt inspired by the harp. The second movement is an aubade, the old troubadour form that French composers love. The harp, Williams writes in his program note, is the score’s spiritual center. The harp writing, however, is conventional. The allure was is in clarinet, highlighted by Yeh’s fluent playing. The memorable movement is the fourth, titled Cantando, a sweet clarinet song touched with by Bartók, Copland and the blues.

Tower’s “White Granite” lasted 17 minutes but seemed to go by in a flash. She has a gift for keeping listeners on the edge of their seat. Her engrossing dramatic gestures are like small adventures around every corner. The piano part, played by André-Michel Schub, is brilliant. The others in the ensemble were violinist Margaret Batjer, violist Paul Neubauer and Roman.

The oboist for Shepherd’s quartet was Liang Wang, principal of the New York Philharmonic, whose hopping about in this piece, whether antic or elegiac, was spectacular. This too had a notable, terrific ensemble (violinist Jennifer Koh, violist Cynthia Phelps and cellist Felix Fan).

Shepherd, from Reno, will next season be a composer fellow of the Cleveland Orchestra. He bears watching. A "Tristan"-esque section in the middle of the quartet was altogether haunting.