San Diego Symphony opens season on glorious note

Jahja Ling
San Diego News Network

By Valerie Scher

As Jahja Ling conducted the San Diego Symphony in Friday’s performance of  Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, the music was glorious proof of how far Ling and the orchestra have come since they last presented it five years ago.

In 2004, Ling was the music director designate, new to the Copley Symphony Hall podium and preparing to assume his full duties the following season.

Now he’s a veteran of dozens of symphony concerts, the latest of which launched the  orchestra’s 2009-2010 Jacobs’ Masterworks Series, a bountiful lineup that will showcase Ling and the orchestra in works by composers ranging from Beethoven to Barber, Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky.

They could hardly have devised a better or more enjoyable way to demonstrate their artistic progress than Dvorak’s eighth symphony. Ling — who once praised the work’s “sunshine and exuberance” — conducted the 1889 score from memory, as he did five years ago.

But last night’s 37-minute-long performance was superior in a variety of ways. There was a greater cohesiveness between the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion as well as a stronger sense of partnership between Ling and the instrumentalists. The violins, once the orchestra’s weakest section, displayed such rich-toned luster that it’s easy to understand why the section has become a source of pride.

Judging by the cheers, the Dvorak was the hit of the program that will be repeated on Sunday, October 4.  The “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” from Handel’s oratorio “Solomon” was a rather modest baroque tidbit that could have used crisper phrasing.

The oddity was the Handel/Schoenberg “Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra,” which the father of atonal music based on one of Handel’s “Concerto Grossi.” At its most extreme, the 1933 piece didn’t sound much like either Handel or Schoenberg but something strangely in between.

Robustly accompanied by Ling and the orchestra, the Takács Quartet revealed its mastery of the Concerto’s many challenges, whether in tender melodies, high-flying harmonics or in the intricate cadenza that highlighted the virtuosity of violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist András Fejér.

The accomplished foursome, based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, also made a valuable contribution to Elgar’s “Introduction and Allegro for Strings.” The  often-fervent, late-Romantic work celebrated the sonorous quality of the strings and sounded like England’s answer to Brahms.

Yet nothing was more engaging than Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Introduced by commentator Nuvi Mehta in a manner that deepened one’s appreciation for the music, the performance combined artful pacing and phrasing with energy and expressivity.

In the first movement, the cellos beautifully conveyed the rhapsodic flow of the folk music-like theme and flutist Demarre McGill expertly relayed the chirping birdcall. Concertmaster Jeff Thayer deserves credit for the sweetly nuanced solo in the Adagio, and strings and winds helped propel the waltzing Allegretto so that it soared and swirled.

And the finale? It began with a stirring brass fanfare and ended with a rousing outpouring of accented eighth notes. No doubt about it. Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 was a season-opening delight.