We know the end of a San Diego Symphony season is approaching when audience attire takes a decidedly casual turn and Music Director Jahja Ling pulls out the barnburner Russian piano concertos to keep the faithful in regular attendance. Friday (May 16) he offered Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ubiquitous Third Piano Concerto in D Minor featuring the young Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein.
Once Gerstein launched into the pulsing opening movement, however, my reservations about hearing another “Rach 3” vanished. His passionate account of the concerto never compromised the clarity of his playing, and he shifted from thunderous fortes to delicate passagework with ease. His first movement cadenza accessed the composer’s volatile, impetuous emotional surges without ceding a scintilla of control, and his rhapsodic solo flights in the second movement kindled an appreciation of the concerto I did not bring to the concerto hall.
Comparing the unwavering focus and ardor Gerstein brought to the Rachmaninoff Third with Lang Lang’s cool, detached performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the Symphony last fall, I would take Gerstein over the Chinese wunderkind without hesitation. Ling and the orchestra provided attentive collaboration in this concerto, although the opening movement found soloist and orchestra out of synch on a few occasions.
If the beloved Rachmaninoff Concerto was an indulgent dessert buffet, no doubt some may have seen Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements” on the program’s first half as the large portion of broccoli they needed to finish before maestro Ling served the treats they really came for. Admittedly, this 1945 work from Stravinsky’s middle period is easier to admire than love, but it was refreshing to hear it, especially with the flare and conviction Ling and the orchestra brought to this infrequently programmed symphony.
Wisely, Ling relentlessly drove the first movement’s bustling urban rhythms, maintaining its emotional tension and underscoring the Symphony’s connection with Stravinsky’s earlier and more popular dance scores. Staff pianist Mary Barranger crafted deftly the several explosive solos the composer gave the piano—some historians think this movement may have started out as piano concerto, and, like many fellow composers, Stravinsky was eager to redeem the effort invested in projects that did not pan out as planned. The second movement, unequivocally recycled from a 1942 film score commission that Hollywood rejected, opened with a jaunty air that recalled the more pleasant scenes from his big neo-classical opera The Rake’s Progress and offered an unexpected detour into an eerie episode for harp and oboe.
But this instrumental pairing could not compete with the witty third movement fugue for trombone, piano and harp, something only Stravinsky or a mischievous music theory teacher would conjure. Every first chair player gave a winning account of their quirky solos, which made me think that Bartók’s brilliant “Concerto for Orchestra,” from the same year, was overdue on the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Hall stage.
Ling opened the concert with Anton Arensky’s “Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky,” a modest etude that gave the strings a chance to show both refinement and muscle.
Tickets: 619.235.0804; www.sandiegosymphony.com