Mention the name Gustav Mahler, and it’s hard not to think of resurrection. From his popular Second Symphony—titled the “Resurrection Symphony”—to the rebith of the composer’s musical reputation after World War II, this is a potent Mahler leitmotif.
Hearing the San Diego Symphony under Music Director Jahja Ling perform Mahler’s Fifth Symphony Saturday (Nov. 3), I thought about the local orchestra’s own resurrection.
In the last decades of the 20th century, the San Diego Symphony lost several complete seasons while languishing in bankruptcy. With significant generous underwriting from Irwin and Joan Jacobs and the subsequent hiring of Ling as Music Director, the orchestra has made a significant cultural comeback, and this Mahler Fifth Symphony performance may be read as a signpost in its resurrected life.
Over the last five seasons, Ling has included a major Mahler work each fall, a statement of the orchestra’s muscle and maturity. Like last week’s traversal of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, this Mahler V affirmed the orchestra’s confident grasp of complex textures and its composure in more reflective moods. Because the winds still rule stage, mighty climaxes show the players’ best hand, but the strings have made definite positive strides.
The Fifth began murkily—what should have been mysteriously anticipatory sounded merely tentative—but once the funeral march commenced, everything came into focus. Ling worked diligently over the stormy second movement, prodding heady climaxes but allowing the light to radiate in quiet moments. The cello section stood out in this movement and in the lush Adagietto for sensitive, soulful thematic offerings.
The Scherzo of the Fifth is a gigantic haunted house version of the traditional symphonic scherzo, and Ling gave every section a chance to frolick. Who could not relish the clarinets’ crazed squeals, the braying brasses and the flutes’ playful antics? If the Adagietto provided the evening’s most sublime moment, the Scherzo lavished the greatest sonic rewards.
Ling and crew saved the most polished and compelling playing for the finale, purposefully layering its broad, hopeful climax. I[php snippet=1] am not about to give up my burnished memory of the Chicago Symphony’s Mahler V played here on tour many years ago under the late Georg Solti, but this San Diego performance reminded me of how thrilling this symphony can be.
Ling opened the program with the Haydn D Major Cello Concerto, a well-proportioned, tuneful prelude to the Mahler adventure. Overall, the orchestra gave a more refined and cogent reading of this concerto, a great leap forward over their wrestling with Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 last month.
But I found cello soloist Ralph Kirshbaum not up to his assignment, in particular his unfortunate out of tune upper range playing in the opening movement. Over the years, Kirshbaum has been a reliable solo and ensemble performer at La Jolla SummerFest, but either he was having a bad night or his control of the instrument is waning.
He still commands a warm, glowing sonority in his lower range, but every time he ascended, his security felt endangered. Let us hope this was but a momentary lapse.
Next Jacobs Masterworks offerings: Guest conductor Christof Perick leads Strauss, Goldmark and Beethoven Nov. 16 & 17 at 8:00 p.m. and Nov. 18 at 2:00 p.m.
Tickets: 619.235-0804; www.sandiegosymphony.com