Friday’s San Diego Symphony concert, “Symphonie Fantastique” held at Copley Symphony Hall, presented troubling, delightful and impressive moments. Under the direction of guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein, the evening opened rather uncomfortably. The orchestra, looking like a million bucks on stage in their formal, white ties and tails juxtaposed clumsily against the maestro, who bounded on stage, microphone in hand, wearing a black suit, no tie and an open neck shirt. Maybe his luggage got lost. He then proceeded to regurgitate Eric Bromberger’s excellent program notes with his trusty wireless microphone. Why did he bother? Perhaps he was trying to “relate” to the audience. Nonetheless, it came across as superfluous and annoying.
The quite marvelous “Bump” by Christopher Rouse (b. 1949) began the proceedings. Composed in 1985 for a St. Louis Symphony commission, the piece constitutes one third of his triptych “Phantasmata.” The single-movement “Bump,” was a refreshing start: so few concerts open this audaciously, with a recent work, of very high quality played well. Weilerstein’s baton work was clear and incisive, necessary requirements for the complex rhythms that the players were required to perform. An excellent opening, indeed.
Problems with Weilerstein’s stick technique began to surface in the second piece, Carl Nielsen’s Flute Concerto, featuring the orchestra’s Principal Flutist Rose Lombardo. For some reason, Weilerstein began giving orchestral cues and accents with a dance move wind up using his legs and torso. The technique did not work very well in that no huge accents commensurate with his motion were rendered. As the program progressed, the youthful conductor ended up doing what seemed to be a modern dance interpretation of his impression of how the piece should sound. It took away from the music.
Nielsen’s first-rate concerto writing, the orchestra’s inspired, sympathetic playing, and Lombardo’s prowess provided the positive attributes. The work calls for a fairly large orchestra with especially demanding parts in the clarinets and bass trombone. Bass trombonist Michael Priddy and the other soloists played their obbligati beautifully, and Lombardo’s playing was breathtaking. Her machine gun staccatos, perfect rhythm and technical mastery over the gnarly passage work were delivered with virtuosity as well as a certain humor. Holger Gilbert Jespersen, the Danish flutist for whom the concerto was written, was known for his abstruse and playful humor. Many believe that Nielsen was attempting to portray his friend Jespersen’s unique personality in the Flute Concerto. Lombardo totally got the memo about the eccentric humor and communicated it with panache and taste.
My only reservation about the performance is Lombardo’s quiet dynamic. Having spent hundreds of hours studying both Jespersen’s interpretation as well as the justifiably famous performance of Julius Baker with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, I found Lombardo’s sound small in comparison. Her sound just lacked the “oomph” necessary to sail above the huge orchestra.
The program’s pièce de résistance Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” brought to the fore Weilerstein’s same conducting issues. His downbeats were gracelessly ignored, and the gauzy mistiness of the opening movement ended up sounding instead like just so many disembodied, albeit, pretty sounds. No sense of incipient tragedy or horror portended. Things started getting better in the second movement waltz, where the players and the conductor seemed to finally be inhabiting a similar rhythmic universe.
In the third movement, we were treated to the most delicious English Horn playing of Andrea Overturf in an exquisite duet with the off-stage Principal Oboe Sarah Skuster. The principle actors in this programmatic piece must have really been feeling the salubrious effects of the opium they had (fictitiously) smoked, according to the composer’s program notes. The pastoral setting of the drama was perfectly rendered by the entire orchestra and conductor.
And of course, every dream must end, and in the “Symphonie Fantastique” version, it ends badly. Our protagonist, of course, has murdered the apple of his eye and by getting caught, must pay society for his dastardly deeds. The final two movements gave the musicians a chance to play with abandon. The rousing finale of the “Witches Sabbath” with its foreboding Dies Irae melody concluded an exciting and accomplished performance of this chestnut. Finally, the passionate young conductor and the crusty, professional orchestra seemed to be in sync and making music together.
The San Diego Symphony is a very good orchestra. Not a great one yet, but very good indeed. The virtuosity of the woodwinds, brass and percussion is impressive. But although every section plays well, a sense of artistic mission is rarely conveyed.