Maestro Jahja Ling brought the San Diego Symphony season to a close Friday (May 27) with a lengthy program of American music. Dutifully rounding up the usual suspects—Copland, Barber, Gershwin and Bernstein—Music Director Ling coddled his audience with accessible pieces that presented a clear picture of American music fifty years ago.
Adding substantial star power to this program, French virtuoso pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet soloed in George Gershwin’s 1925 Piano Concerto in F. Recalling Thibaudet’s last appearance with the San Diego Symphony, in which he gave authoritative accounts of both of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concertos, and an earlier stunning solo recital devoted to Debussy for the La Jolla Music Society, the panache and elegance he lavished on Gershwin’s Concerto came as no surprise.
From Thibaudet’s relaxed, improvisatory air of the Concerto’s opening phrases to his meticulously executed cadenzas—replete with Gershwin’s overwrought ostentation—the piano soared majestically, even when carelessly overpowered by Ling and the orchestra. Although one of Ling’s reliable virtues is the care—almost deference—with which he typically accompanies a concerto soloist, in the opening movement of the Gershwin, whenever the orchestra took one of the main themes at full throttle, we could barely make out the piano part.
Gershwin provided little nuance in his Concerto’s outer movements, so I was particularly greatful for Thibaudet’s playful treatment of the piano’s themes in the middle movement and for the array of Impressionistic colors he displayed whenever the piano played alone. However, not until Thibaudet’s encore, Ravel’s familiar “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” were we reminded what eluded Gershwin in his eclectic slow movement: a sense of transcendence when subtle but inevitable shifts of harmony lift well-proportioned themes to a higher level.
In the insistent iterations of the final movement’s propulsive theme, which always reminds me of Béla Bartók’s earlier piano solo “Allegro barbaro,” Thibaudet’s dark timbre and restless energy gave some gravitas to a movement that teeters on the edge of bombast.
As each orchestra season winds down, I have noticed that Ling tends to program blockbuster piano concertos, as if that is the only ploy to hold the allegiance of his audience through the flnal concerts. I hope a new Music Director will have greater faith in his or her audience and program more boldly. I think the audience would have come to hear Thibaudet play on the strength of his reputation. Asking him to play the flashy but decidedly second-tier Gershwin Piano Concerto in F was a wasted opportunity.
Perhaps because it is not a large work, Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” for chorus and orchestra does not receive the attention it deserves. With the San Diego Master Chorale, the orchestra gave a respectable performance of this 1965 sacred cantata based on Psalm texts in the original Hebrew.
Ling and the orchestra provided the requisite incisive instrumental context for the piece, and the percussion battery outdid itself playing with elan the virtuoso mallet figurations the composer used to delineate many of his key his orchestral themes. The women of the Master Chorale floated the long, languid themes of the middle movement, based on verses of the 23rd Psalm, with radiant voices and beautifully shaped phrases. When the men countered with one of Bernstein’s signature declamatory snarls at the end of that movement, the Chorale’s ensemble proved confident and secure.
In the opening movement, I thought the Chorale needed stronger and brighter progressions to capture the spirit of Bernstein’s ecstatic outbursts. And in the loudest dynamic range, the Chorale’s need for more men to properly blance and provide adequate foundation for its large contingent of women’s voices became apparent.
Boy soprano Henry Nelson survived the daunting challenge of singing his long, arched solos of the middle movement. Using boy soprano and harp to open this movement, no doubt Bernstein was invoking the symbolism of the young Biblical David, who by tradition is thought to have written the Psalms and played the harp. Although it is challenging for a young voice fill a room as large as Copley Symphony Hall, perhaps with stronger vocal coaching his pure sound would have carried better and his pitch in ascending phrases remained more secure.
Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal always grabs the attention of an audience with its grand Romantic surges for full orchestra that alternate with quiet lyrical respites. Ling and the orchestra opened the concert with this short, resplendent work, pulling out all the stops to give Barber’s lush lyricism its due and then some.
Although Barber made a stellar success by orchestrating the middle movement of his early string quartet and calling it “Adagio for Strings,” Copland’s full orchestration of “Appalachian Spring,” the original ballet for 13 instruments written for Martha Graham, did not make such a successful transition. It is likely that Ling programmed Copland’s Suite from “Appalachian Spring” because audiences know so well the last section of the ballet, the theme and variations on the Shaker hymn tune “Simple Gifts.”
But much of the music that precedes the Shaker tune sounded thin and static in this version for full orchestra, as if the simple charm of the music for small ensemble evaporated with the change of scale. But I would be shirking my duty if I did not praise the linear clarity and sonic beauty of the flute section in the “Simple Gifts” variations, as well as the scintillating duo in that section executed with such precision by trumpeters Micah Wilkinson and John MacFerran Wilds.