The popularity of Jean Sibelius’ orchestral music fluctuated wildly in the last century. In the 1920s,
British conductors and critics crowned him the greatest symphony composer since Beethoven. But by the late 1930s, continental critics such as Theodore Adorno and the American Virgil Thomson derided the retrograde character of his music, and in 1955 the French musicologist and conductor René Leibowitz named him “the worst composer in the world.”
Fortunately, conductors and orchestras still love to perform his symphonies, and audiences respond eagerly to their emotional power, amply demonstrated by the London Symphony Orchestra’s astute, compelling performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas Sunday (March 29) at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall.
Sibelius is back in favor, although no one I know goes around equating him with Beethoven.
If the Second Symphony is as much a grand Nordic rhapsody as it is a classical symphony, Thomas gave us the best of both worlds. He seamlessly knit its many busy sections into a coherent tapestry, yet lingered just long enough over its fervent byways.
What I will recall most from this Sibelius Second is the London Symphony’s golden sonority: the amazing unity of its string sections, the burnished splendor of its brass choir, and its bright, piquant woodwind sounds. In the liesurely opening Allegretto, for example, the pizzicato strums of all the strings together resounded with that depth and point that only the great ensembles can produce, and the orchestra’s formidable brass choir produced mighty cadences that called to mind some great European catherdral organ at full tilt.
The bass range of this orchestra is truly its glory: for example, the haunting solo theme that introduced the second movement, delicately announced by the contrabasses and deftly handed over to the brooding cellos—only to be countered by more aggressive monitions by the low double reeds.
Sibelius’ third movement—marked Vivacissimo, or as fast as humanly possible—hits the listener with the force of an icy Nordic blizzard, and the London account was stunning under Thomas’s seasoned direction. On the podium his conducting tends to the modest, authoritative gesture, but when real power is needed his motions break forth with athletic command. Having enjoyed a longstanding relationship with the London Symphony—Thomas is now one of two Principal Guest Conductors—the players’ response to even his slightest inflection proved entirely sympathetic.
Thomas allowed the orchestra to bask in the Finale’s nobility, fulfilling the promise of the tentative, searching themes heard at the symphony’s opening with confident, full-blown Romantic grandeur.
Pairing the Sibelius Second with George Gershwin’s jazzy Piano Concerto in F Major was a no-brainer in terms of pleasing the audience. Soloist Yuja Wang applied her prodigious technique to the work’s demands without the slightest apparent duress. While I was impressed with her vibrant iterations of the Finale’s rondo theme, in the concerto’s opening movement, I thought her touch tended to be overly clipped and her pulse unforgiving—in a word, too Mozartean for Gershwin’s laid-back idiom.
On the other hand, I thought the London Symphony had a better take on Gershwin’s style, especially in the middle movement. There the strings became even warmer—giving up some edge for a more plush bloom on their sound, and their pulse turned more flexible. London’s winds temporarily left the concert hall and entered (in spirit, at least) a smoke-filled, jazz-era dance club, where Principal Trumpet Philip Cobb turned out sizzling solo riffs, with sexy, slow slides and blue notes in all the right places.
Thomas opened with a sensitive but suavely plotted account of Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.” These gems are never easy to bring off, and London turned them out with unfailing grace. The last British orchestra that visited San Diego offered this Britten set with disastrous results.
After the Gershwin Piano Concerto, maestro Thomas joined Wang at the concert grand and offered the final movement Francis Poulenc’s Piano Sonata for Four Hands, a sparkling coda of an encore. The orchestra’s encore was Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 1”
The London Symphony Orchestra was presented at the Jacobs Music Center (750 “B” Street in downtown San Diego) on March 29, 2015, by the La Jolla Music Society. This was the final offering the of Society’s 2014-15 Celebrity Orchestra Series. The next program presented by the La Jolla Music Society is a solo piano recital by Daniil Trifonov at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium on April 10, 2015.