San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling brought the 2014-15 season—his penultimate season with the orchestra—to its conclusion Friday (May 22) with a predictable meat-and-potatoes program of Beethoven and Brahms, serving Alan Jay Kernis’s recent “Musica celestis” for strings as garnish.
Pianist Stephen Hough’s sparkling, joyfully unpredictable account of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in C Minor, Op. 37, ranked with the highlights of the season: Conrad Tao’s stunning performance of the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto earlier this month, Ling’s stirring Schubert Ninth Symphony in March, Edo de Waart presiding over Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, the David Bruce “Fragile Light” commission performed by violinist Gil Shaham, and Principal Timpanist Ryan DiLisi’s explosive account in the fall of William Kraft’s unconventional but endearing Timpani Concerto No. 1.
Where Beethoven’s musical ideas suggested the restraint of Mozart’s overweening shadow, Hough sported his most supple, articulate technique, but when Beethoven’s own bumptious personality took flight in the Third Piano Concerto, Hough unleashed his aptly bold, cocky declamation full of fire and panache. He tamped down the fire for the leisurely Largo, offering a delicate, almost mystical take on the quiet hymn that opens Beethoven’s middle movement arioso. While admiring Hough’s laudable control blazing through the Rondo‘s fireworks, I also noted his exuberant freedom exploring the composer’s unpredictable excursions between the jaunty rondo theme.
As a partner in concerto performance, Ling performed at his usual exemplary level, matching the soloist’s moods and complementing his interpretive insights. For this concerto of symphony proportions and aspirations, the orchestra proved both assertive and polished.
These polished players who made the Beethoven Piano Concerto so rewarding apparently went home during intermission and sent poorly prepared substitutes in their place for Johannes Brahms’ noble Second Symphony in D Major. With the exception of the third movement, the dulcet Allegretto grazioso, this symphony sounded unfocused and arduous. Although Ling no doubt holds great affection for the Brahms Second Symphony–he conducted from memory–he and his orchestra did not produce a particularly convincing account. Brahms lavished a cornucopia of melodic invention in his broadly conceived second movement, the Adagio non troppo, but Ling did not give these themes requisite shape and direction, so the orchestra turned them out with dutiful assembly line anonymity.
It is likely that contemporary composer Aaron Jay Kernis took his cue from Samuel Barber, who extracted the slow movement from a little-acclaimed string quartet he had written and rewrote it for string orchestra. Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” became his signature piece, widely used for motion pictures and momentous civic occasions. Kernis arranged “Musica celestis,” a slow meditation built on gossamer iterations in the violins and violas, from his 1990 First String Quartet. Although the low strings play a small role at the center of this 12-minute opus, the upper strings carry the day. Winsome solos were offered by Principal Viola Chi-Yuan Chen, guest Concertmaster David Chan, and Acting Associate Principal Violin I Wesley Precourt.
Kernis may not have Barber’s lush melodic gift, but many orchestras should find this work a fresh, attractive program opener.
This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall on Friday, May 22, 2015. It will be repeated May 23 at 8:00 p.m. and May 24 at 2:00 p.m. in the same location.