Jahja Ling and the San Diego Symphony climaxed their 2013-2014 season Friday (May 23) with a stirring account of the Brahms First Symphony, complemented by Russian violinist Vadim Repin’s vivacious lead in Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 2 in G Minor.
Sadly, Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto promises more than it delivers. After its rapturous, chamber music scaled opening movemment, replete with delectable themes for the soloist, the composer‘s inspiration dwindles, and the remaining two movements seem to tread water and fizzzle out. But Repin made the most of everything given him. His lyrical flights in the first movement were borne on a rich, viola-like timbre, and later arabesques in his highest range glistened brightly. Although the composer denied the soloist so much as a single cadenza to display his prowess, Repin proved his mettle sailing fearlessly through the complex figurations of the final movement against full orchestra.[php snippet=1]
Ling directed a clean, vibrant accompaniment, bringing out the most winning contrapuntal lines from Prokofiev’s sophisticated textures. This 1935 Violin Concerto, which in its day was effusively praised by the Soviet party-line music critics for its accessibility, brought to mind the orchestral music of American John Corigliano, a late 20th-century composer who wrote ingratiating music that usually makes a strong first impression but rarely asks for a second hearing. I do hope, however, to hear Repin again in more substantial violin repertory, say, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, completed in the same year as the Prokofiev Second.
From the dark opening chords and insistent beats of the timpani, Ling declared his intention to make his Brahms’ First Symphony a noteworthy statement. Working without a score, he delivered a minutely detailed realization that underscored both the gravitas inherent in the work and the solemnity with which he expected his audience to accord it. Not that such an approach is a minority view, of course. Ling’s opening movement unfolded nobly without compromising the underlying vigor of its progression. In the Andante sostenuto, several glowing woodwind solos—notably Principal Oboe Sarah Skuster’s graceful offerings—brought greater warmth to the piece, as did the soaring lines of the string sections. The orchestra brought lightness of attack and welcome fluidity to Brahms’ relentless development of the third movement’s three-note motto theme and filled the finale with robust, polished sonorities.
If this piece had been the orchestra’s final exam for the academic year, I would unhesitantly award their performance an “A” and compliment their musical growth over the year.
Sometimes opening a concert with an upbeat opera overture is little more than a razzle-dazzle warm-up exercise, but Ling treated Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Oberon as an elegant miniature, exploiting every deft touch the composer secreted in his brilliant score. Principal Horn Benjamin Jaber set the gold standard with his dulcet opening solos, and his colleagues followed suit, especially Principal Clarinet Sheryl Renk, whose lines were nothing less than heavenly. Von Weber has never been one of my favorite composers, but this stellar interpretation of one of his touchstone works is changing my mind.