We may be immersed in December’s holiday madness, but San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling has clearly delegated all the orchestra’s seasonal celebration to conductor Matthew Garbutt and his Holiday Pops battalions. No “Messiah” (full or lite), no Christmas oratorios, no seasonal choral samplers this year.
Instead, Maestro Ling selected a banquet portion of old favorites for this weekend’s (Dec. 14-16) installment of the Jacobs Masterworks Series: the evergreen Berlioz “Sinfonie fantastique,” Verdi’s roiling Overture to La forza del destino, and Mozart’s cheery Piano Concerto in C Major, K. 467.
In terms of musical performance, this choice was a great success: if this had been the orchestra’s mid-term exam, they aced the exam. Extra wind and percussion players added sonic muscle, and the orchestra’s ensemble discipline was the best I’ve experienced this season. But a glance around the room on Saturday night revealed that a significant number of patrons were not persuaded to join the party.
Pianist Jeremy Denk redeemed Ling’s fusty programming with his effervescent account of the Mozart Concerto. Although K. 467 is one of the more frequently played Mozart Piano Concertos, Denk made every phrase sound fresh and appealing, as if he had discovered something no one had ever heard before and was showing it off for the first time. Sometimes it was his subtle use of rubato or an unexpected articulation of a musical idea that kept me on the edge of my seat. Fortunately, his approach never descended into quirky personal distortion, but rather an opening of possibilities just beneath the score’s pristine surface.
I thought Denk’s edgy tempo was always pushing Ling’s more straightforward pace, but this tension did not get in the way of the orchestra’s otherwise solid, balanced accompaniment.
The scale of Berlioz’ musical works walks that precarious line between grand and grandiose, and with the Copley Hall stage [php snippet=1]filled to the brim with musicians (four harps, eight timpani!) for the “Sinfonie fantastique,” Ling was certainly not shy about drawing clangorous fortes from his charges. The good news is how well this ample orchestra met the challenges of this sprawling, tumultuous score. The downside is the conductor’s penchant to settle into a big Romantic score such as this and not want to leave. The first three movements moved at a glacial tempo, although by the time we arrived at the “March to the Scafflod,” Ling woke up from his dreamlike trance.
It may be a cliche to start off a concert with an opera overture, but the Verdi Overture was so polished and tautly directed, that it was easy to forgive such a conventional choice.
Next Jacobs Masterworks Series program: Jan.11-13 with guest artist violinist Viviane Hagner.