Observing that a great conductor makes an orchestra sound great is not the sort of revelation that calls for a “Hold the presses!” maneuver. But Gemma New’s spectacular debut on the podium of the San Diego Symphony Saturday, May 18, in Copley Symphony Hall renewed my faith in that critic’s bromide.
The sprightly, energetic New Zealander made Tchaikovsky’s familiar Fifth Symphony sparkle with Mozartian ebullience and made an orchestra coming to the close of a long season sound as fresh and eager as if they had just returned from a month of leisure. Balancing her delight in the composer’s ample melodic invention with an acute sense of his unswerving dramatic purpose beneath those pulsing, Romantic themes, New coaxed a riveting performance from the orchestra. Yet she wisely never overplayed her hand, and her urgent propulsion did not compromise the composer’s classical structural aspirations.
Among the gorgeous solo contributions, allow me to salute Principal Horn Benjamin Jaber’s suave, seamless account of the second movement’s iconic opening theme, followed by felicitous solo turns from his woodwind colleagues. And when it came their turn, the violins gave that principal theme a glowing, stylish recapitulation. The Finale succeeded with generous infusions of burnished flourishes and solid undergirding from the superbly focused brass choirs, especially the blazing trumpets.
True to her surname, New offered the west coast premiere of Alyssa Weinberg’s impressive 2013 “Reign of Logic,” a dark—at times ominous sounding—12-minute tone poem that cannily used all the resources of the orchestra with telling effect, including strategically placed explosive percussion cadenzas. Her dense orchestration, however, was filled with engaging internal movement that belied its static surface. Without taking anything away from her craft as a composer for the symphony orchestra, I hope that Weinberg tries her hand at film scoring. Her ability to create a vivid scene with swift economy should easily translate for that medium, and, after all, John Williams will not live forever and Weinberg is just starting her career!
Equally welcome to the Copley stage was violinist Michael Barenboim, whose sophisticated, elegantly defined account of Alexander Glazunov’s 1905 Violin Concerto in A Minor made a provocative case for a little performed Russian Romantic violin concerto. New and the orchestra supplied sensitive support to Barenboim’s lustrous tone and clear sympathy for Glazunov’s late Romantic effusions. A decade later, Prokofiev would bring the Russian violin concerto into the edgy new styles of the early 20th century, but Glazunov’s rhapsodic yet refined concerto cast a yearning glance over the shoulder to glistening melodies, frequently embellished with harp, that vividly recall Victorian opulence.
This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall in downtown San Diego on Saturday, May 18, 2019, and was repeated on May 19. The May 18 performance was attended for this review.