We know the end of the San Diego Symphony season is near when the Russian Romantic warhorses appear in full battle array. Hoping that audience members will be inspired to renew their subscriptions for next year, Music Director Jahja Ling hires extra players to fill the Copley Hall stage and pulls out the heavy Russian artillery.
At least on Friday (May 3), the maestro tantalized his audience with Charles Ives’ mysterious (and short!) slice of quirky Americana “The Unanswered Question” before launching into Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Ling kept his strings to an appropriate hush as they intoned Ives’ somber chorale while a quartet of flutes in a far corner of the stage faced the rear wall and offered their spikey, contrarian counterpoint.
An uncredited guest trumpeter from a niche in the upper balcony floated Ives’ plaintive modal “question” with serene authority. The adventure was intriguing while it lasted.
Russian pianist Olga Kern, winner of the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, proved an ideal choice to solo in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1. While she dispensed the concerto’s brilliant passages with complete assurance and admirable clarity, the warmth and depth of her tone effortlessly opened the rich emotional content of its quieter moods, which Rachmaninoff did not restrict to the slow middle movement, a piano concerto convention he happily ignored.
Panache or introspection—Kern moved from one extreme to the other with silken ease, and Ling brought his forces along with ardent, courtly attention. Of the three Rachmaninoff piano concertos, the First is least frequently programmed, and it is refreshing to hear it in contrast to the overplayed Third. The composer himself was aware of audiences’ preferences when he observed to a friend, “When I tell them in America that I will play the First Concerto, they do not protest, but I can see by their faces that they would prefer the Second or Third.”
If anyone doubts that Ling has a passion for Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, his masterful, urgent account on Friday should banish such uncertainty. Conducting from memory, Ling balanced microscopic attention to myriad details with an unwavering commitment to those propulsive arcs of sound that build the work’s majestic structure and unleash the torrents of emotion the composer brought to this symphony.
After a touch of ensemble insecurity in the opening fanfares, the orchestra found its focus and rose to the many sonic challenges[php snippet=1] of the mighty Fourth Symphony. Kudos to Principal Oboe Sarah Skuster and Principal Bassoon Valentin Martchev for their eloquent dolorous bookend solos in the second movement. Ling drew a laudable dynamic range from the strings in the extensive pizzicato opening of the third movement.
Should you miss this weekend’s Tchaikovsky rush, in just three weeks Joshua Bell returns to the Copley Hall stage to join the orchestra in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. And there will be more Tchaikovsky with Matthew Garbutt and the Summer Pops in August. . . never a Tchaikovsky shortage with our orchestra.