San Diego Symphony makes mighty impact with Stravinsky, Strauss

Jahja Ling
San Diego News Network

By Valerie Scher

You like big orchestras? How about really big orchestras?

If so, you’ll probably be interested in the San Diego Symphony’s latest program.

On Friday night, in the first of the weekend’s three Jacobs’ Masterworks concerts, Copley Symphony Hall’s stage was packed with approximately 100 musicians (about 20 more than usual). The strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, keyboard instruments and conductor’s podium filled just about every available space.

What brought them together were two epic scores: Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony,” conducted by music director Jahja Ling. Call it music-making on a grand scale.

The resulting fortissimos were gloriously loud, enveloping listeners in the 2,252-seat hall. During stormy passages in the “Alpine Symphony,” the large, cylinder-shaped wind machine was cranked up and helped the orchestra achieve such blustery power that you almost felt like grabbing your armrests to avoid being blown out of your seat.

In addition to delivering those and other thrills, the program is a milestone. It marks the first time that Ling — now in his sixth season as music director — is conducting the San Diego Symphony in “The Rite of Spring.” And it’s the first time that the orchestra has ever performed “An Alpine Symphony,” which premiered back in 1915.

What took so long?

For one thing, the sheer magnitude of the piece. Another factor could be that the “Alpine Symphony” (or “Eine Alpensinfonie,” if you prefer) has never attained the popularity of some of Strauss’ other tone poems, such as “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “Till Eulenspiegel.”

Based on the composer’s boyhood experience, when he and his climbing party lost their way and were battered by a storm, this “Symphony” isn’t a symphony at all but rather an example of program music. Its many sections include titles ranging from “Night” and “Sunrise” to “Entering the Forest” and “Flowery Meadows.”

I wish the titles were shown on a screen above the stage. It would help the audience better understand what Strauss tried so hard to depict.

Still, Ling and the orchestra evoked tweeting birds, rumbling thunder, stirring vistas and much more during their 54-minute-long performance. Among the many outstanding contributions were those from the brass, which included Wagner tubas.

Principal French horn player Benjamin Jaber and his section were altogether terrific as they supplied the smooth-toned majesty that’s essential to the score. The timing for such a display could hardly be better: The Southwest Horn Convention is in town and participants will attend the Sunday performance.

Musicianship of a high order was also apparent in “The Rite of Spring.” The once-daring score caused a riot at its 1913 premiere, as program commentator Nuvi Mehta entertainingly pointed out to the audience.

Friday’s performance proved that Ling and the orchestra were well-equipped for the demanding showpiece. Ling didn’t exaggerate the primal force that Stravinsky conveyed in jagged accents and convulsive phrases.

Instead, his interpretation was taut, disciplined and really rather elegant. Combining power and nuance, it was highlighted by everything from the note-bending trombones and hissing gong to the plaintive opening solo, deftly performed by principal bassoonist Valentin Martchev.

With a performance like that, “The Rite of Spring” is a significant rite of passage for the ever-evolving San Diego Symphony.