Pairing the grand “Organ” Symphony in C Minor by Camille Saint-Saëns with Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings has everything in its favor. The guest organist is featured in both works, and each work displays that distinctive Gallic panache with consummate flair.
Much to the delight of audiences at Copley Symphony Hall this weekend, the San Diego Symphony presented concert organist Chelsea Chen in the Poulenc Concerto and in the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony. The young virtuosa proved resplendent in both, and the orchestra under Conductor Laureate Jahja Ling has rarely sounded better.
Chen holds the distinction of a local artist who has not only done well, but who has earned an acclaimed international career as a concert organist and composer. Her initial organ studies with San Diego organ teacher Leslie Robb equipped her to earn degrees at New York’s Juilliard School and Yale University, and she has become a favorite performer at national conventions and esteemed concert series. She has given solo recitals in San Diego on the city’s finest concert organs, e.g. First Presbyterian Church and First United Methodist Church, but this was her debut with the San Diego Symphony.
Ling’s astute direction of the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony brought out its ample majesty while according its quieter sections buoyant clarity. In the opening Allegro moderato, the orchestra’s string ensemble sounded unfocused, but once the flutes entered with their incisive statement of the principal theme, Ling took the orchestra to the movement’s rousing climax with the gallant support of the vibrant and cohesive brass choirs.
In the second movement, Poco adagio, Chen provided the requisite soft cushion of low, sustained organ tone while the strings developed the composer’s enticing melodic ideas, approaching the composer’s ideal of mystical contemplation. Ling encouraged the orchestra to flex its muscle in the third movement, alternating serious fugal sections with flashy cascades from two performers at the piano. In the final movement, Saint-Saëns does pull out all the stops—in both the organ and the orchestra—and Chen crisply attacked the massive chords that punctuated every orchestral flourish. Ling brought everything to a triumphant conclusion; it would be hard to imagine a more festive or satisfying finale to a symphony concert!
In the “Organ” Symphony, the organ adds a decorative color, enhancing certain sections with its unique sounds and power. For this function, Copley Symphony’s Hall’s modest pipe organ—a 1920s theater organ recently expanded by a local firm—proved adequate, if not always thrilling. But for the Poulenc Organ Concerto, which, of course, is centered on the organ, to say it was disappointing would be polite understatement.
Poulenc wrote his concerto in Paris in 1938 at the height of his creative powers and with the sounds of the magnificent Paris organs ringing in his ears. In the second half of the 19th century, some of the finest organs ever built sounded from the rear galleries of many grand Parisian churches, and their powerful brilliance has rarely been equaled. The success of Poulenc’s G Minor Concerto rests on the organ’s ability to project bold, rich sonorities, constantly contrasted with softer but still beautiful, shimmering solo sounds, virtues the Copley Hall organ does not possess.
Chen did everything in her ample power to make this concerto work, but the instrument clearly was not up to the task at hand. By sheer coincidence, I heard the Poulenc G Minor Concerto and the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony performed last November in Walt Disney Concert Hall by the Los Angeles Phiharmonic with guest organist Cameron Carpenter. Although Carpenter and Chen inhabit the same echelon of world-class concert organists, Carpenter had at his disposal the world-class Disney Hall organ designed by Manuel Rosales and built by the Austrian firm Glatter-Götz. During Chen’s articulate, well-sculpted performance of the Poulenc G Minor Concerto in Copley Symphony Hall I tried to imagine how wonderful her interpretation would sound on the Disney Concert Hall instrument.
For her encore, Chen played her own arrangement of John Williams’ beloved Star Wars theme.
This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall May 3-5, 2019. I attended the May 4, 2019, performance for this review.