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In the San Diego Symphony’s current season without a music director, the presence of guest conductor Johannes Debus on the podium this past weekend (November 11 & 12) provided welcome uplift. His appearance with the orchestra at this time last season with the pianist Joyce Yang revealed an insightful conductor with a sure, clean technique, traits that served him well in his varied all-French program.

Johannes Debus [photo (c) Tony Hauser]

Could he have found a more electric, invigorating opening than the eight-movement Suite from Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s 1735 opera Les Indes galantes? While Rameau’s contemporaries G. F. Handel and J. S. Bach were still crafting musical fortresses with elaborate counterpoint of every classification, Rameau left that tradition behind and focused on writing cascades of sprightly melodies that careened through his colorful orchestra with unfettered glee.

For this mid-18th century music, Debus wisely trimmed down the orchestra’s size and added the requisite harpsichord and snappy percussion. From the frothy formality of the opening “Ouverture” to the terpsichorean abandon of the closing rondo “Tambourins,” this suite provided unalloyed pleasure. Kudos to trumpeters Micah Wilkinson and John Wilds for their stunning, beautifully articulated ceremonial fanfares on piccolo trumpets.

Unfortunately, Louis Lortie’s uninspired account of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major proved a disappointing contrast to the Rameau. In Ravel’s exquisite, wistful slow movement, the heart of this jazz-inflected concerto, Lortie noodled along simply treading water. Not until the woodwind principals—English Horn Andrea Overturf, flute Rose Lombardo, and oboe Sarah Skuster—took up the piano’s theme did this movement begin reveal its enchantment. Debus kept the tempos of the outer movements brisk and the ensembles tight, and Lortie’s dependable technical polish complemented his approach.

Lortie has been appearing with the San Diego Symphony since the days of Yoav Talmi and last performed with the orchestra in 2014. Earlier this year he gave a fine solo recital for the La Jolla Music Society. Perhaps if I did not know how well Lortie usually performs, I would not have been so dispirited with his Ravel.

Debus chose Claude Debussy’s massive tone poem “Ibéria” to flex the orchestra’s muscles and demonstrate his prowess over the vast, restless score. The conductor allowed the jaunty first movement, titled “In the Streets and Byways,” to chortle along amiably, decorated by brilliant flashes of color and intensity from the brass sections. In “The Fragrances of the Night,” time seemed to suspend as Overturf’s haunting English Horn melody wafted over the orchestra, and the finale “The Morning of a Festival Day” gave every section a few measures of glory in this colorful depiction of an Iberian town’s genial preparations for a sun-drenched holiday. The orchestra’s generous response to Debus’ relaxed but confident lead gave the work the spontaneity the composer intended.

In Eric Bomberger’s ever lucid program notes, he described Gabriel Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande as “marked by unusual restraint.” Although Debus and the orchestra gave a winning, deftly detailed performance of the Suite, the work’s restraint proved underwhelming.

The San Diego Symphony performed this program on November 11 & 12, 2017, in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall in downtown San Diego. The November 12 performance was heard for this review. In this same venue under guest conductor Markus Stenz, the San Diego Symphony and San Diego Master Chorale will perform the Mozart Requiem November 17-19, 2017.

Photo of Copley Symphony Hall
Copley Symphony Hall
Work 750 \”B\” St. San Diego CA 92101 Work Phone: 619.235.0804; Website: San Diego Symphony
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Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar PD on November 15, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    There is of course a possibility that the Nov 12 performance of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes was indeed as described in this review but the Nov 11 one was so inept and infuriating that it is hard to believe. While listening to it, I kept wondering what flutist Rose Lombardo, who lists William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in her biography, was thinking of this masquerade. Rameau’s music is not something that comes as naturally and as easily to untrained 21st century musicians as Brahms’ or Mahler’s probably would and lots of people and fine ensembles -the aforementioned Les Arts Florissants come especially to mind- have spent decades studying it to be able to bring it successfully back to life in a way more satisfying and exciting manner. This is not to blame the San Diego Symphony -I would give them an A for effort with the hope that they won’t try again anytime soon- but you simply cannot reach the level of music-making of such groups in this repertoire in one or two rehearsals, especially with such an underwhelming and mechanical conductor. Having said that, I agree with your judgement on the Ravel concerto which was also a major disappointment.

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