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Lynn Harrell in Laguna Beach January 26, 2009

Posted by Peter Hornby in laguna beach, local, music.
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Our friends Erich and Viviane called earlier in the week, and wondered if we’d like to take up a couple of spare tickets for the final concert in this year’s Laguna Beach Music Festival.  Sure, we said, sounds like fun.  Really, it was more than fun – it was totally revelatory.

The Festival is in its seventh year, and they take the approach of building each year’s festival around a single world-class musician.  I suppose that the goal must be to allow audiences to both hear wonderful music from the guest of honour and, at the same time, watch the interplay between the guest and the younger musicians who form the supporting cast, so to speak.

This year’s guest was the internationally renowned cellist Lynn Harrell, and yesterday’s final concert in the series featured Harrell in a program titled “The Captivating Cello and Friends”.  The first two pieces, Bach’s Sonata for Viola da Gamba in D major, BWV 1028, and Brahms’ Cello Sonata No 1 in E minor, Op. 38, involved Harrell and a riveting young pianist, Victor Asuncion, originally from the Philippines and now blending an exciting concert career with a teaching gig at the University of Memphis.  Asuncion showed a huge range in this concert.  He was beautifully crisp and precise in the Bach and dynamic and involved in the Brahms.  After the break, he played the Piano Sonata No 1 by Alban Berg, which could hardly have been more different.  At times gentle and melodic, at time powerful, dissonant and angry, the piece sounded like a total minefield and he navigated it triumphantly. 

The collaborative piece which followed was Schubert’s gorgeous String Quintet in C Major, D 956, which brought together Harrell and an engaging quartet of young musicians from the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, the Colburn Conservatory String Quartet.  There’s nothing quite like watching a chamber ensemble up close.  They’re always watching each other, looking out for body language, making eye contact.  It’s a most intimate yet dynamic style of music and often the most fun to watch.  It was clear that Harrell was the leader. He was seated in the centre of the semi-circle with the second cello and viola to his left and the two violins to his right.  At the start of the piece, it seemed as though things weren’t quite to his satisfaction – there were some frowns, and at one point he pointed to the second cellist’s score with his bow.  But the piece settled down quickly and turned into a really lovely chamber performance.

And then Harrell came on stage alone, illuminated by a single stark spotlight, and blew us all away with a stunning performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No 3 in G major, BWV 1009.  This is just naked Bach, twenty minutes of unaccompanied cello, with no hiding place.  The ceaseless stream of Bach’s musical genius flowed from Harrell’s cello and you simply couldn’t look away.  When he was done, the audience went crazy – we knew we’d seen and heard something very special.

All in all, I felt very privileged to have been able to see world-class music in my home town, and, what’s more, in the local high school auditorium. The room is pretty small, probably no more than 400 seats, and we were lucky enough to be pretty much front and centre.  We’ve noticed before that when you’re this close, you experience artistic performances in a way that you miss in a larger room – you hear dancers breathing and feel their feet slap the floor.  Here, we could watch Victor Asuncion mouthing his phrasings to himself, and, in the last piece, we could hear Harrell’s physical  involvement in the music, as he breathed, as his fingers hit the fingerboard, as he bowed the chordal passages. 

So that was it, yet another remarkable chapter in the artistic story of our endlessly fascinating small town.  We loved it.

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