In his return this weekend (April 20-22) to the podium of the San Diego Symphony as Laureate Conductor, Jahja Ling presided over one of the more amazing performances of the 2017-18 season. The heart of Ling’s program was a transforming, probing account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, preceded by the young Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov’s thrilling San Diego debut in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto.
Like his Russian colleague Daniil Trifonov—both are impressive 27-year-old virtuosi—Abduraimov displays a phenomenal technique, but never appears to flaunt it. With complete composure, he tossed off every virtuoso challenge of the Rachmaninoff Third—and they are legion—but his attention stayed focused on shaping the composer’s arch-Romantic expression with passionate drive tempered by elegant phrasing and sensitive rubato.
For example, towards the end of the first movement, after electrifying his audience delivering Rachmaninoff’s dark, roiling cadenza, Abduraimov calmly segued into a heavenly duet with Principal Flute Rose Lombardo that took his listeners into the serene realm of chamber music. Those dreamy, arched themes of the Adagio—the ones that made the composer famous and prosperous—Abduraimov drenched in appropriate sentiment, yet in the bravura passages his sparkling articulation communicated resolute discipline.
Ling provided Abduraimov with luxurious, attentive support throughout, a reminder of how much I miss his deft direction in concertos. In the Rachmaninoff’s extroverted moments, the orchestra sounded robust and resonant, especially with the muscle of the well-tuned brass choirs, and when the strings needed to be lush, they rose to the occasion.
Ling’s incisive, brilliantly detailed direction of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony made me forget about all of that excessive Cold War debate over its political implications or the supposed subtext of this massive symphony and focus on its striking architecture and masterful orchestration. From the Fifth Symphony’s opening phrases, Ling cultivated the work’s mystery, cleanly delineating its taut phrases while maintaining its subtle dramatic tension throughout.
In the scherzo, the one sunny movement, Concertmaster Jeff Thayer offered his adroit take on the sweet violin solo, and the pizzicato prowess of the entire string section elevated the impact of the movement significantly. Ling’s masterful direction of the complex Largo aptly walked that uneasy line between a strange dream and a threatening nightmare, heightened by Principal Oboe Sarah Skuster’s haunting solo.
Ling and the orchestra unleashed the triumphant power of the final movement, layered with brass-fueled fireworks–kudos to guest Principal Trumpet Craig Morris for adding panache to his section–without suggesting for a moment the bombast that this movement sometimes invites. Years ago I recall a performance in San Diego of this symphony led by the composer’s son Maxim, and, although distant memory may not be perfect, I do not recall that his interpretation of the Fifth Symphony offered the detailed and compelling account of his father’s work as Ling’s transcendent vision delivered.
Saluting Leonard Bernstein’s 100th anniversary, Ling opened his program with a smart, sophisticated glimpse of that composer’s comfortable relationship with the popular and jazz styles of his era in “Times Square: 1944,” a jaunty dance from the musical On the Town. Had Bernstein not written West Side Story a decade later, On the Town is the great musical by which we would remember Lennie.
This concert was performed by the San Diego Symphony April 20-22, 2018, in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall in downtown San Diego. The Sunday, April 22, performance was attended for this review. The orchestra completes its Jacobs Masterworks Series in May with three programs featuring major works by Leonard Bernstein, starting with the May 4 & 6 concerts conducted by Fabien Gabel.