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Conductor Jahja Ling returns home in triumphant program

03.19.11
Jahja Ling
San Diego Union Tribune

By James Chute

Music director and San Diego Symphony collaborate in ‘sweet harmony’ San Diego Symphony Masterworks Series

David who?

Last week, Mr. Robertson came into Jahja Ling’s neighborhood and made himself at home with the San Diego Symphony in Copley Symphony Hall, conducting a dynamic program of Ligeti, Grieg and Schumann.

This week, Ling responded with Vaughan Williams, Haydn and Berlioz and from top to bottom, it was one of the most satisfying concerts of this Centennial Season. Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy,” with viola soloist Cynthia Phelps, was a tour de force. Virtually every section of the orchestra, from the French horns’ flawless handling of the exposed opening passages in the second and third movements, to the lower brass driving home the exciting final movement, to the strings showing an appropriate intensity and depth of tone, especially in the somber opening.

Phelps, principal viola of the New York Philharmonic, is well known to San Diego audiences as the former principal viola of the symphony, and more recently for her frequent participation in SummerFest and Mainly Mozart. She also treated her role in the Berlioz as collaborative, attentive to what was happening in the orchestra (playing a trio with the harp and clarinets in the opening movement) and never stepping beyond the interpretive framework set by Ling, even in the most expressive moments.

This is a work of shifting moods, dynamics and tempos, but Ling made the transitions sound effortless. His pacing was masterful and the coordination between conductor and soloist was flawless. If you really want to get a sense of the orchestra’s growth and accomplishment, however, it’s not so much in a showpiece like “Harold in Italy” as it is in a Haydn symphony, where everyone is exposed.

The orchestra showed it had little to hide in a refined rendering of Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D Major (“London”). The introductory Adagio, with its unison passages, sounded tentative (and perhaps the most exposed of all was the timpanist, who just slightly anticipated the opening downbeat), but once the ensemble safely reached the Allegro, everything fell into place. The strings played with focus and finesse and were perfectly balanced by the woodwinds. The third movement Menuetto: Allegro had a welcome lilting quality while the Finale: Spiritoso was rhythmically vibrant without any hint of bombast.

The program opened with Vaughan Williams “Serenade to Music,” which 32 members of the San Diego Master Chorale made magical. This is a piece were the clouds seem to part and the sun seems to shine, especially in the hushed ending, with a single soprano singing “sweet harmony.” She could have been singing about this entire program. Welcome home, maestro.