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Symphony closes season on fast, furious note

Gil Shaham
San Diego Union-Tribune

By James Chute

Call it the Beethoven effect.

The San Diego Symphony presents an Beethoven program for the final concerts of its Centennial Season and it’s rewarded with the largest ever attendance for the ensemble’s season-ending concerts.

More than 2,000 people nearly filled Copley Symphony Hall Friday to hear the master’s Overture to “Coriolan,” the Violin Concerto (with the superb Gil Shaham) and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Friday also broke records for number of people speaking at a Masterworks concert. Board chair-elect Evelyn Lamden thanked the audience for its support at the opening of the concert, music director Jahja Ling gave more thanks after intermission, and the “Voice of the San Diego Symphony,” Nuvi Mehta spoke about the greatness of the Fifth Symphony.

We all knew that. If Walter Murphy’s disco classic, “A Fifth of Beethoven,” couldn’t kill it, it must be great.

And of course, it is. And Friday, it was, even if Jahja Ling did not exactly give us a “thinking man’s” (or “thinking woman’s”) Fifth Symphony. This was more a “let’s get it done” Fifth Symphony.

From the beginning, Ling put the pedal to the metal, which the French horns took as license to play with uncharacteristic crassness and the strings with more enthusiasm than focus. The only moment of reflection was Sarah Skuster’s beautifully nuanced oboe solo, which seemed a momentary plea for a little sanity. It was quickly ignored in the rush to the movement’s close.

Things were inevitably more reflective in the second movement Andante con moto, but both the third and fourth movement’s flew by. Still, the work’s power couldn’t be denied and the audience seemed not only satisfied, but ecstatic.

Shaham’s performance was received with equal enthusiasm, and deservedly so. Given his understated manner and absence of ego, affectation or bravado, he sneaks up on you. But his elegant playing has an emotional directness that is undeniable.

He approached the concerto with a spirit of inquiry, as if exploring the relationship between soloist and orchestra. During some of the musical exchanges, he would turn toward the musicians, his back almost to the audience. At other times, he stepped forward to make his point more directly, particularly in the final movement.

His interpretation had a freshness, even an openheartedness that was highly appealing. As much as the drama in Beethoven, Shaham brought out the composer’s humanity. That’s the true Beethoven effect.