It now seems incredible that following the untimely death in 1911 of composer and conductor of the New York Philharmonic Gustav Mahler, the symphonies of this renowned Austrian musician vanished from North American concert halls. Not until after the Second World War, when Leonard Bernstein and a few other influential conductors launched a vigorous campaign to resurrect Mahler’s reputation as a symphonic genius, did Mahler’s ten lankmark symphonies regain their rightful place on the programs of American Symphony Orchestras.
Today, Mahler’s symphonies are almost as ubiquitous as those of Mozart in America’s big-city orchestras, and major conductors expect to be judged by their prowess over the Mahler canon.
In his ten years at the helm of the San Diego Symphony, maestro Jahja Ling has been a steady–albeit low-key–Mahler proponent. Saturday (November 22) at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Hall, Ling led the orchestra in Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 7 in E Minor.
If the allure of a sprawling work such as Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is its thrilling emotional roller coaster excursion, replete with psychological extremes and shattering surprises, then it would be easy to conclude that a great time was had by all. Among the rewarding moments in the performance I would list the entire fourth movement, the second “Night Music,” for its amazingly transparent chamber music texture, abundant gentle wind solos, dulcet themes from the violins, and the plaintive edge in the deftly focused horn section. In the Scherzo, Ling coaxed a carefree yet ironic mood from the orchestra, while concertmaster Jeff Thayer offered piquant solos and the bass winds and brass rumbled with raffish delight.
But throughout the Symphony’s opening movement, Ling struggled to maintain a solid ensemble, not a happy situation for Mahler’s ominous marches, and even though the orchestra had performed the work the previous night, this movement sounded rough and under-rehearsed. In large, arch-Romantic pieces such as the Seventh Symphony, Ling tends to linger excessively, in my opinion, and this performance clocked in at just under 90 minutes, whereas Michael Tilson Thomas’ Grammy-winning recording of the Seventh Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony takes all of 77 minutes.
Fortunately, San Diego did triumph in the Finale. From Principal Timpanist Ryan DiLisi’s brilliant opening salvo and the scintillating fanfares from the trumpet section to the sharply defined counterpoint in the string sections, this movement seemed propelled by an animated drive that was so elusive in other portions of the Seventh. Ling and the orchestra brought the Symphony to a majestic conclusion that was greeted with great enthusiasm—and perhaps some relief at the end of a longinsh journey—from the audience.
A few years ago, the eminent and musically omnivorous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was quoted in the British Gramophone magazine opining that Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was among the most difficult works that he had ever conducted. Perhaps maestro Ling and the orchestra will give this Symphony another outing before Ling leaves the orchestra at the close of the 2016-17 season. According to the printed program, this was the first time the San Diego Symphony has performed Mahler’s Seventh. Based on their strong showing in the Finale, they deserve a re-match.
Ling chose Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme” to open the concert. While I was completely taken with the
powerfully refined technique of the soloist, the German cellist Alban Gerhardt, I found his cool detachment at odds with heart of Tchaikovsky’s valentine to an earlier music period. Every note was beautifully placed, but his performance was as touching as an unsigned love letter.
This concert by the San Diego Symphony was performed November 21 to 23, 2014, at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. The next Jacobs Masterworks Series concerts will be given December 5 to 7, 2014, at the same venue featuring the violin soloist Philippe Quint and the San Diego Master Chorale.