When Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15—his last symphony—was premiered in Moscow in January, 1972, no one knew exactly what to make of it. The Washington Post Moscow correspondent hailed it as “full of melody, spirit, and humor,” and the head of the Soviet Composers’ Union found it “filled with optimism, affirmation of life, and trust in man’s inexhaustable strength.”
But when a tape of this concert was reviewed by a cadre of London critics a few months later, one found it “disquieting and preoccupied with mortality,” and when the Philadelphia Orchestra brought Symphony No. 15 to New York City in the fall of 1972, The New York Times principal music critic Harold Schonberg dismissed the whole work as “an exercise in banality,” throwing in “weak and unconvincing” for good measure.
San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling guided his orchestra and the Jacobs Music Center audience through Shostakovich’s puzzling, kaleidoscopic symphonic landscape Saturday (Nov. 23) in a tightly focused account that made a compelling case for this valedictory symphony. Taking a cue from Mahler, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 requires a large orchestra—extra winds and a large percussion battery—that employs its colorful resources soloistically but infrequently uses the full orchestra for massive sonic effect.
That the opening movement represents “a toy shop at night” was the composer’s sole descriptive clue for this sprawling work, but are the chiming ditties and clicking noises from the percussionists Disney cute or Tim Burton dark? Are the riffs on the famous fanfare theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture whimsical or sardonic? Do the Wagner quotations from the Ring Cycle raise the spectre of death and fate, or is the composer just teasing us with clever allusions?[php snippet=1]
While pondering these interpretive quandries, the audience was treated to some unusually fine solos: angst-tinged, shapely keening from Principal Cello Yao Zhao in the second movement; saucy excursions by Principal Trombone Kyle Covington; gossamer flights by Concertmaster Jeff Thayer; a frisky scherzo theme deftly inaugurated by Principal Clarinet Sheryl Renk. Kudos to the whole percussion section and low brass for consistent clarity and precision when their work was most exposed. This Symphony asks less of the string sections than, say, a Sibelius Symphony, but their overall balance and unity within each section strengthened Ling’s interpretation significantly.
Ling has an affinity for conducting these large-scaled Russian works of the last century, as he demonstrated with Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony on opening night of the current season. If he should chose to work his way through all seven Prokofiev symphonies and all 15 Shostakovich symphonies, there would be no complaint from this desk!
Ling opened this concert with Edward Elgar’s well-mannered but tepid “Serenade in E Minor” for strings, perhaps as compensation for all the measure-counting they had to do in the Shostakovich. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker tore into Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto in G Minor like an unleashed terrier chasing squirrels. If he appeared consumed by the technical fury of the outer movements, his furious octaves and seamless runs projected only the sound of serenity.
After the panache of the Mendelssohn Concerto, it was a relief to sink into the suave harmonies and gracefully undulating lines of his encore, Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Major.”