A curiously subdued audience greeted the San Diego Symphony’s new CEO, Martha Gilmer, when she appeared onstage Friday evening (October 10) to welcome attendees to the opening concert of the orchestra’s 2014-15 season. Speaking in graceful understatement from the edge of an otherwise unpopulated stage (the players who had grabbed some last-minute practice time before the concert vacated the stage just as she entered), she acknowledged the orchestra’s recent successes and expressed her delight to embark with them on what appears to be an exciting future.
The considerable number of empty seats on the main floor of the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall did not prevent a warm response to her concluding remarks, a salutatory introduction to the orchestra, whose entrance on stage was received with sustained applause.
After leading a brisk but spacious performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” (during which could be heard, even if only faintly, the voices of the few brave souls who still have courage enough to sing it, and good for them), Music Director Jahja Ling got down to the business of marking his tenth anniversary in his position by completing a musical circle: the evening’s program duplicated his inaugural concert as Music Director in the 2004-05 season.
So it was entirely fitting that the first work on the program celebrated a wedding. Peter Maxwell Davies’ “An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise” is a valentine from the English composer to his adopted Scotland, written to celebrate another important anniversary, the Boston Pops Orchestra’s centennial in 1985. And like all weddings, the work has a little bit of everything: some (happily unrealized) ominous weather, lots of walking and talking and singing and dancing, lots of drinking, and even some animals seem to wander through every now and again. A quick fragment of cuckoo song heralds the sunrise, followed by what may be some remorseful hangovers, before the home-bound revelers encounter a skirling bagpiper – Larry Samuels, attired in Scottish high-formal wear, complete with kilt and sporran – who pipes the entourage and the piece to its close.
If the conclusion lacked a final degree of exhilaration because the conductor had difficulty coordinating the entrance of the bagpiper, who entered from the back of the main floor to make his way down the right aisle and up the stairs to center stage, the music that preceded it was drawn in broad, colorful strokes with some finely-detailed playing, particularly from the oboes and flutes, as well as from the entire French horn section, which seemed to be having more unbuttoned fun than anyone else.
German composer Max Bruch was 24 years old when he first came across some Scottish folk tunes in the Munich Library. Until his death in 1920, he continued to immerse himself in this music, at one point claiming to know over 400 songs. He wrote, “Whoever bases a composition on folk melodies, his work can never become old and wizened.”
Symphony Concertmaster Jeff Thayer was the violin soloist in Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy,” with an important assist from time to time by Symphony Principal Harpist Julie Smith Phillips, who found herself moved to (and elevated on) a platform directly in front of the conductor. As one who grew up with the Scot-Irish folk music of Appalachia in his ears, I wish I could tell you that this performance reached that level of near-ecstatic lyricism for which Bruch strives, but the orchestral playing never seemed to get off the runway, and that sense of imminent abandon that the music aims for, and that the increasingly-complex solo part demands, always seemed only on the verge of materializing.
Make no mistake: I am an admirer of Mr. Thayer’s gifts, but his fine-grained playing and never-failingly elegant musical address are not, in the end, a temperamental match for this music. He is, nonetheless, an amazing player, facing down every technical challenge and playing with assured virtuosity. His tone is beautiful, but often small-scaled, and the overall need to hold the orchestra volume down in order not to cover the soloist ultimately diluted the impact of the work, circumscribing the expressive range that it requires to bring it to life.
Felix Mendelssohn made a walking tour of Scotland in 1829, and claimed to have been inspired to write a ”Scottish” symphony by a visit to Edinburgh’s Holyrood Chapel at twilight. In 1842, thirteen years after this visit, he did finish a symphony (although it is numbered as three, it is actually the last of the composer’s five works in this big form), but what there may be of “Scottish-ness” about the work is impossible to say, unless the driving rhythms of its two fast movements summon up images of the fearsome red-bearded and blue-painted “barbarians” that haunted English dreams even after Victoria seemed to tame their bellicosity.
Like all of Mendelssohn’s music, his Symphony No. 3 is open-handed and accessible, even in its quiet moments, brimming with what always seems to me to be a kind of glad welcome into the composer’s heart. And from its opening notes, the San Diego Symphony offered the work to its audience with a sense of urgent engagement, moving from the Andante of the opening moments to the agitated Allegro that sets the stage for the Vivace scherzo that follows. In recent seasons the orchestra has achieved something both remarkable and rare in its playing: an ability to make amazingly fine distinctions in dynamic levels: its pianos can become expressive whispers, its mezzo-fortes are still capable of bringing out inner lines and secondary voices, and its fortes raise the roof without becoming vulgar. In music like this symphony, that skill makes all the difference; it is the indispensable ingredient in the music’s – for lack of a better word – “juiciness”.
But tempo miscalculations, notably in the second and fourth movements, gave the overall arc of the performance something of a halting gait. The second movement, which is marked Vivace non troppo, “not too fast,” was so hurried that its dotted-note passagework was smudged, with blurred violin playing and breathless wind players trying to keep up. In the last movement, marked Allegro Vivacissimo, or “just about as fast as you can possibly manage it,” the pace was leaden and four-square. Those stolid warriors no Englishman would have to fear.
Musical missteps aside, this concert launched the orchestra on its new season with finesse and flair. Maestro Ling has ample reason to celebrate a decade of careful orchestra building that bodes well for a glamorous future, under-girded by an innovative and fiscally responsible management.
Like the “Star-Spangled Banner,” long may it wave.