Downtown San Diego drivers going up Seventh Ave. early Friday evening (April 15) were no doubt surprised to encounter San Diego State University’s loud, brassy pep band (aka the Marching Aztecs) performing outside the west entrance to the Jacobs Music Center. The band’s unusual “pre-game” show formed the opening act of the university’s Music Deaprtment extravaganza concert in Copley Symphony Hall—titled “Downtown”—that featured its Wind Symphony, the Symphony Orchestra, and Combined Choirs.Over the last few years, San Diego State has added impressive new buildings to its campus, but it still lacks a capacious music performance hall. So it was no surprise that the music school’s conductors appeared giddy with anticipation to perform in the San Diego Symphony’s 2,000-seat hall. Some of their work filled the room gloriously, especially the opening triple percussion concerto, Russell Peck’s “The Glory and the Grandeur,” and the stirring finale, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
Over several decades of reviewing symphony concerts, I have twiddled my thumbs through countless frivolously peppy overtures and other clever pieces intended to provide an upbeat beginning to a concert, but nothing I have ever experienced came close to the 15-minute adrenalin rush of Peck’s exhilarating “The Glory and the Grandeur.” Opening with intense solo drumming that evoked the Japanese taiko tradition, the piece quickly moved to brilliant fusillades from a battery of mallet instruments—vibraphones, marimbas and xylophone—executed with astonishing precision by Danny Chavarin, Andrew Kreysa, and Shota Hanai.Under Shannon Kitelinger’s astute leadership, the Wind Symphony alternated smartly with the solo team, whose choreography amid clusters of percussion instruments amassed at the front of the stage proved almost as entertaining as their playing. Peck’s genial tonal idiom owes more to John Williams than to Bartók or Stravinsky, but his ear for exciting cadenzas from mallet percussion is nonpareil. For these university musicians, Director of Choral Studies Patrick Walders boldly selected the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a work that challenges even the most seasoned professional soloists and orchestras. I am happy to report that the 120-voice chorus and vocal soloists came through with flying colors. In the stentorian sections, the choir’s powerful, tight ensemble filled the hall, crowned by a bright, jubilant soprano sound that Beethoven requires, and the choral fugue displayed the muscle that made it invigorating. The four vocal soloists’ admirable balance and polished delivery communicated well both Schiller’s noble text and the composer’s lofty intent. The exuberance and vocal prowess of soprano Catharine Bishop and tenor Shahan Ohanian stood out in this quartet; mezzo-soprano Latifah Smith and Joshua Lee were their worthy colleagues.
This symphony orchestra’s strength resides in its trumpet and horn sections, so the orchestra’s fortes soared, but the quieter string sections seamed tentative at times. With only 33 strings, the heart of this orchestra sounded under powered. Kudos to Walders, whose authoritative, amply detailed direction unified the vast array of performers on stage.
Between these two strong works, we heard two pieces that employed some younger musicians from the wider San Diego community taught by SDSU students and faculty at the department’s Community Music School. Young trumpeters in the hall’s upper balcony added fanfares to the Wind Symphony’s transcription of Wagner’s “Processional” from Lohengrin, and young string players added to the Orchestra’s account of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Concerto Grosso, a work the composer wrote in 1950 specifically to include student performers.
Last year SDSU resident composer Brent Dutton wrote “Inuksuit” for the Wind Symphony, and Kitelinger presided over a robust premiere of this strongly delineated, modernist work. Not surprisingly, Dutton, a concert tubist, provided ample participation for the low brass choir in this piece.
Orchestra director Michael Gerdes served up Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story with verve and rhythmic precision, especially the popular “Mambo,” with its shouts, finger snaps, and yet another crack team of percussion players.
Bringing the wealth of excellent music written and performed on San Diego’s college and university campuses to the County’s major performance venues can only enrich our local musical culture. I note that San Diego Opera has engaged UC San Diego music professor and celebrated conductor Steven Schick to conduct Soldier Songs, one of the new operas in the company’s just announced 2016-17 season. I hope the excellent collaboration between the San Diego Symphony and the Music Department of SDSU that produced “Downtown” will be only the beginning of many more equally worthwhile projects.