Throwing an all-Tchaikovsky bash as the closing concert of the San Diego Symphony’s Summer Pops season remains a hallowed, long-standing ritual. In the early years of David Atherton’s tenure as the orchestra’s Music Director, I recall trekking out to some barren field adjacent to Mission Bay to hear the maestro conduct such an all-Tchaikovsky program, complete with fireworks accompanying the “1812 Overture.”
For Friday’s (September 2) Summer Pops concert, Associate Conductor Sameer Patel did not tamper one iota with the all-Tchaikovsky template, but instead coaxed a rousing yet refined performance from the orchestra that significantly refreshed this well-worn format. From the vivacious, cleanly articulated rhythms of the concert-opening “Cossack Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa, we were assured that the program would not be just another routine once-over-lightly revue of chestnuts.
Patel judiciously brought out the details in each passing scene of “Marche slave,” a colorful work that is not really a march but a tone poem about Russia’s military aid to the Serbs in their war with the Turks in the 1870s. The woodwinds lent a coy naiveté to the Serbian folk songs and other rustic touches the composer wove into this piece, and the trumpets had a field day with the military fanfares—make that a bright sounding and extremely well-tuned field day! A benefit of an all-Tchaikovsky program is having the trumpet section expanded to five players. In “Marche slave” we heard the patriotic “Hymn to the Tsar” twice, although I must report the first time, when it was assigned to strings alone, they missed the precise tuning of the trumpet section by a long shot. When the hymn reappeared with the full orchestra, however, the dissenters were brought into line.
Principal Cellist Yao Zhao burnished the gorgeous themes of the composer’s Nocturne, Op. 19, with silken phrasing and his luxurious sonority. Although this quiet, short work was originally intended for solo piano, the orchestra transcription gives all the good tunes to the solo cello. Patel and Zhao’s colleagues provided sensitive and aptly subdued support.
The Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy appears almost as frequently as the “1812 Overture” on San Diego Symphony all-Tchaikovsky programs, and Patel commenced this popular opus with a cautious air that made it sound overly timid. Once the composer’s agitated depiction of the warring Capulets and Montagues arrived, Patel made the piece take off with its customary verve. Kudos to Andrea Overturf’s ardent English Horn rendition of the famous love theme.
Patel’s passionate, clearly defined conducting style brought out the best in the orchestra. His arm gestures tend to be bold and decisive, although he remains fixed in the center of the podium—he does not dance his way through rousing sections, as some conductors do. No doubt his solid conducting chops proved a significant factor when he was elevated to the post of Associate Conductor in July.
On his program’s second half, Patel chose three waltzes to work up to the “1812 Overture,” an uplifting waltz from the ballet Swan Lake, the third movement of his Symphony No. 5, and the familiar Waltz from the ballet Sleeping Beauty. The strings soared majestically in the Sleeping Beauty Waltz, which Patel took at a good clip, but not dangerously fast. The orchestra as a whole sounded its most focused and dynamically nuanced in the movement from Symphony No. 5.
What can a thoughtful critic say about an outdoor performance of the “1812 Overture” augmented with real canons, fireworks, and the San Diego State University Marching Aztecs Brass Band? After the opening subtleties of a traditional Orthodox hymn devotionally intoned by the cellos and violas, a Russian folk dance and some other rustic touches depicted deftly by the orchestra’s ever dependable woodwind virtuosos, Tchaikovsky unleashes brassy versions of the French National Anthem, descriptions of battle scenes (thus the need for canons!), and uproarious celebrations of pealing church bells when the Russian forces defeat Napoleon and his mighty army.
Patel kept all of this uproar together, the Aztec Brass Band added their sonic muscle, the fireworks over San Diego Bay delighted both children and adults present, and those of us seated only 10 feet away from the canons may need to schedule appointments with our hearing specialists this week.