DSQ a highlight of SummerFest

Group’s members managed to perform as a unified entity

A thousand years ago, Norsemen colonized the New World. On Friday evening, the Danish String Quartet landed as the opening act for SummerFest and won over the audience at Sherwood Auditorium.

If you’re going to open, you might as well open big. Janáček’s “String Quartet no. 2” is a wild, intense ride; it was the composer’s attempt to depict his decade-long love (probably unrequited) for a married woman 38 years his junior. Its form is intuitive, manic repetitions contrasting with mysterious skitterings, intercut with puzzling interruptions. It takes a special ensemble to make all this convincing.

That ensemble is the Danish String Quartet. Its unity was astonishing, an oneness of purpose created by an intense precision of rhythm, matched timbres and ensemble balance. That might sound mechanical, but the group’s ability to merge into a single organism transcended technical issues, permitting us to focus entirely on Janáček’s puzzling but powerful score.

The quartet soared, mused, cried out in pain. Every crazy change in mood, speed and dynamics was remarkably rendered. When Janáček called for solos, they were played with conviction. First violinist Frederik Øland climbed ledger line ladders in the last two movements, each stratospheric note intensely throbbing and always on pitch. Asbjørn Nørgaard poured out warm, focused baritone-like melodies on his viola.

After this superb performance by a quartet that has played together for years, the remainder of the concert merged top-notch performers into ad hoc groups. La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest has made music that way for 30 years now, and the triumphs and problems of that approach were demonstrated.

Violinist Chee-Yun, cellist Ben Hong and pianist Jon Kimura Parker gave a penetrating, soulful account of Smetana’s “Piano Trio in G minor.” What separates good from great performances of this work rests largely on the violinist; with Chee-Yun, the tragic subtext of this work (the death of the composer’s daughter) was fully explored.

She is a fiery virtuoso proficient in old-school Russian violin playing, including swoops into and out of pitches. Smetana’s violin part can border on hysteria, but Chee-Yun avoided unnecessary histrionics, giving the work noble weight. Her romantic bravura was matched by Hong’s warm cello.

Into that mix came Parker, whose clean pianism and steady tempi provided a firm foundation for Chee-Yun and Hong. Parker was an ideal musical partner who kept up momentum yet kept out of the way. He was always there to support Chee-Yun, matching her phrasing without calling attention to himself. When it was time for him to carry the weight of the piece, he did so admirably and without fuss. His repeated notes in the last movement were marvelously exact.

The concert concluded with a polite performance of Dvorak’s “Sextet for Strings, opus 48.” The group onstage tied into SummerFest’s 30th anniversary by combining its current director, violinist Cho-Liang Lin, with its first, violist Heiichiro Ohyama. They were joined by violinist Martin Beaver, violist Che-Yen Chen, and cellists Carter Brey and Eileen Moon.

After a first half marked by such ensemble discipline, it was disappointing to hear these musicians, individually fantastic performers, not really come together as a whole. Intonation was rough at times, and rhythms were looser than they should have been. If the technique was not all there, the convivial spirit of the work certainly was.