Violinist superstar Sarah Chang mesmerized Friday’s (November 6) San Diego Symphony audience with her scintillating account of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 26. If it is safe to conclude that the sizable crowd in Copley Symphony Hall came to hear Chang, I think it equally safe to assert that none left the hall unsatisfied with her performance.
From her shimmering flourish that opened the Concerto to her vigorous but buoyant themes that cascaded through the finale’s brisk rondo, Chang managed to make this warhorse sound unexpectedly fresh and vibrant. According to her online biographies, she has been playing the Bruch Concerto since she was 5 (Chang will turn 35 next month), but her passion for the work proved equal to the level of enthusiasm Steve Jobs brought to the unveiling of a new Apple product.
San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling coaxed a supple lyricism from his strings to mirror that of the soloist, and provided a sumptuous cushion of support in dreamy sections such as the Adagio second movement. The orchestra sported an unusually tight ensemble in the Bruch, and Ling deftly calibrated the dynamic balance between Chang and the orchestra, giving the soloist every opportunity to fill the room with her sumptuous sonority and magnificently sculpted phrasing.
Ling commenced this concert with the West Coast Premiere of Judd Greenstein’s “Change,” a work the San Diego Symphony co-commissioned with the North Carolina Symphony. Based on the young New York composer’s 2009 chamber work of the same name for five instrumentalists (including electric guitar), this “Change” engaged the entire orchestra (without electric guitar) in a 17-minute urban tone poem of amiable originality.
In an interview with Concert Commentator Nuvi Mehta before the performance, Greenstein divulged no specific program for his work, although he admitted that he was frequently surprised with what his listeners found hidden or referenced in “Change.”
So this is the program I heard in “Change.” After the obligatory minimalist prelude—discreet, fluttering motifs, a kind of stuttering ostinato—the New York native takes us on a tour of his hometown.
As the orchestral texture fills out, I sense the onset of urban bustle, capped with edgy trumpet riffs that float over the strings—nothing as pictorial as Gershwin’s auto horns in “An American in Paris,” of course. We then drop in to a dance hall filled with syncopated Latin dance rhythms and process onward to a party of boisterous New Yoricans. Departing the party, we walk under an open second story window, from which I thought I heard an ensemble of musicians rehearsing a piece by Samuel Barber. Tired and thirsty, we return to the party with its tuneful, upbeat songs.
Although Greenstein’s eclectic, ingratiating style has been called post-classical by some because it alludes to the musical vernacular of our time, I think that designation reflects a shallow grasp of classical traditions. Certainly Liszt and Brahms did not think twice about integrating what they thought was Hungarian music heard in the cafes of Budapest and Vienna (we now know, however, that it was the traditional music of the Roma). So if Brahms is classical, so is Greenstein, and he is very good at what he does. I predict this winning commission will enjoy a healthy program life in concert halls.
Maestro Ling warned us that he would work through his all-time favorites in his last two years on the San Diego Symphony podium, and he concluded this concert with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in B Minor (“Pathétique”), a work he clearly cherishes and conducts with detailed conviction from memory. The orchestra responded with some of its finest playing to date, especially in the third movement, Allegro molto vivace, a scherzo on steroids that is the heart of this symphony. A fiery but cleanly unified ensemble, driven by Ling’s animated conducting, drove this movement to its brilliant conclusion.
The quieter outer movements were graced by Principal Bassoon Valentin Martchev’s haunting, sensual solos, and the finale’s pathos proved deeply moving. Only the second movement Allegro con grazia failed to live up to the composer’s directions, in part because of less than elegant transitions and lack of balance between the strings and winds.
With that caveat, this Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony crowned a highly rewarding evening at the Jacobs Music Center.
This San Diego Symphony concert was given Friday, November 6, 2015, in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. It will be repeated Saturday, November 7, at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, November 8, at 2:00 p.m. in the same venue. The next Jacobs Masterwork program will be given on Saturday, November 14, 2015, in the same venue with guest conductor Johannes Debus on the podium.