Symphony's Fall Centennial Season Opens

Jahja Ling
San Diego Arts

By Kenneth Herman

While the San Diego Symphony is making a big deal about its just-opened, centennial 2010-2011 season at Copley Hall, it cannot decide which way to go: the high road or the low road? Should the season demonstrate just how polished and sophisticated this once-small-town orchestra has become, or should the season be a feel-good experience that entertains the greatest number of people?

This Friday’s concert (Oct. 8) attempted to have it both ways, presenting a stirring account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s monumental “Fifth Symphony” on the second half, but opening with a light-hearted—almost SummerPops atmosphere—session with flutist James Galway. Ah yes, this leprechaun virtuoso has been knighted by the Queen, so he is more properly Sir James Galway.

Music Director Jahja Ling again demonstrated his passion for the music of Shostakovich, giving us a rich, probing and beautifully detailed account of the Soviet composer’s always controversial “Fifth Symphony.” In his customary lively pre-program lecture, Nuvi Mehta recounted the familiar history of how Shostakovich wrote this symphony during the height of Joseph Stalin’s most chilling purges in a bold attempt to save his life by proving that he was not like the decadent capitalist composers, addicted to dissonance and convoluted complexity.

Although Stalin’s musicologist-commissars gave the “Fifth Symphony” their reluctant stamp of approval, astute listeners and scholars continue to debate whether Shostakovich was sincere or just cleverly mocking the censors with an ironic parody of “Soviet Realism.” I agree with the orchestra’s program annotator Eric Bromberger that it is time to move past these entrenched political arguments that have both defined and confined this work since its 1937 debut and simply listen to it as a great symphony.

Ling’s astute conducting aided such an attitude at every turn, treating this work as an entitled heir to the grand, sprawling symphonies of Gustav Mahler. In the long opening movement, Ling took a serious but not a funereal approach, asking for more warmth and flexibility from his strings than the cold, steely precision in which this movement is typically clad. In the Scherzo, he allowed an earthy humor to bubble up, even when some of its rollicking passages brought to mind the sarcastic humor of the early style (i.e., before he returned to Soviet Russia) of that other great 20th-century Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev (for whom Shostakovich, BTW, held little affection).

In Ling’s brisk account of the finale, I heard a ringing celebration of the human spirit, without ironic undercurrent, although Shostakovich’s idiom has none of the facile optimism of, say, Aaron Copland or Howard Hanson (to mention two American symphonists of the same period). The orchestra played with conviction and discipline, and I found the gentle first-chair wind solos in the quiet third movement unusually affecting.

A number of seasons back, Maxim Shostakovich, son of the composer, conducted this orchestra in his father’s “Fifth Symphony” with with the anticipated elan and authority. I recall his approach as more severe than Ling’s and more open to hearing an ironic subtext, although perhaps that is what I expected to hear rather than Maxim’s actual musical intentions.

To judge by the enthusiastic applause, listeners charmed by Galway’s ingratiating personality and polished virtuosity were not disappointed by his appearance, although I found his account of the Mozart “Second Flute Concerto in D Major,” K. 314, to be accurate but perfunctory. No doubt he has played this piece repeatedly over his long career (he just turned 70), and it remains a stiff challenge to bring something new to such predictable writing.

This concerto was originally an oboe concerto (K. 271k) that Mozart only mildly revised to fulfill a rich commission for three flute concertos from a wealthy amateur in 1778. After laboring to produce the first flute concerto, he could not find inspiration to continue composing for “an instrument I cannot bear” (as he wrote his impatient father in a letter), so he re-tooled his oboe concerto. Sadly, this “Second Flute Concerto” displays few of the sublime qualities of the “Clarinet Concerto,” K. 622, which he later composed for an instrument he truly adored.

Francis Borne’s “Carmen Fantasy,” a tour de force for any accomplished flute player, takes some of the well-known themes from Bizet’s opera and embroiders them with reams of elaborate embellishment. Ulike Mozart, Borne liked the flute and its possibilities unreservedly. And unlike Mozart, he was only a dutiful craftsman. In this showpiece, Galway demonstrated that his finesse and flourish still sparkle.
His encores with the orchestra included the requisite plush “Danny Boy” arrangement, a lively Irish jig, and J. S. Bach’s “Badinerie” from the “Ouverture No. 2,” BWV 1067. For this piece he had Principal Flute Demarre McGill join him in a delightful “contest” to duel through the short piece at breakneck speed. Both flutists acquitted themselves admirably, although McGill scored a few extra points for clarity amid the torrent of notes.

Marvin Hamlisch, the orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor, composed “San Diego,” a cheerful, atmospheric musical ode to the city, commissioned to mark the centennial celebration. Ling conducted this premiere to open the concert, with the orchestra’s primary benefactor Irwin Jacobs (who penned the text) as narrator. With a variety of influences wafting though—including nautical surges from the Rodgers/Bennett “Victory at Sea” and wistful, arching Coplandesque melodies—Hamlisch’s style could be called eclectic. Larry Hochman is credited with the colorful orchestration.