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Lots of smiles and a few sneers in SD Symphony concert

03.01.13
Jahja Ling
U~T San Diego

By James Chute

You’ve probably met these two guys.

One is so angry that it’s hard to tell where his sarcasm ends and his bitterness begins.

The other, he’s always smiling, ready with a kind word and eager to please.

They both showed up Friday for a San Diego Symphony Masterworks concert at Copley Symphony Hall that was an intriguing study in contrasts.

Dmitri Shostakovich was in an especially bad mood in a sneering, bare-knuckles interpretation of his Violin Concerto No. 1 by the impressive Karen Gomyo.

Antonin Dvorak was in an especially good mood in a sunny, optimistic, even uplifting account of his Symphony No. 6 by an equally impressive San Diego Symphony and conductor Jahja Ling (who were, of course, also Gomyo’s willing accomplices in the Shostakovich concerto).

Gomyo may have a soft side, as evidenced by some momentarily reflection in the celebrated cadenza that connects the concerto’s third and the fourth movements, but it was hard to locate. The cadenza is almost a piece by itself, and in it, Gomyo showed a wider range of color and emotion than she did in the entire rest of the piece.

Throughout most of the concerto, she was pure steel, playing with almost unsettling intensity, even fearlessness.

Her technique was flawless; her intonation unassailable. She possesses a sound that is full yet focused, and she’s unwavering in her commitment to the score.

Given her mastery of this especially challenging concerto, she certainly deserved her standing ovation. But her approach, no matter how compelling, sounded a little too one-sided, a little too one-dimensional. It was easy to respect, but given its coldness, hard to love.

Ling’s Dvorak, however, was easy to love and just as easy to respect, even if the orchestra — particularly the violins — lost some of its focus as the piece progressed.

Ling has an obvious affection for this work and his carefully considered, masterfully paced performance revealed the orchestra and the music’s best qualities. The strings played with warmth and clarity, the brass sounded with unwavering authority, and the woodwinds provided moments of sheer delight.

Rather than the soul-searching cadenza Shostakovich offers the soloist in his concerto, Dvorak in the second movement of his symphony silences the ensemble and gives the flute a cascading solo that when played by Rose Lombardo, brought a smile to your face.

In this concert, even with a sneering Shostakovich, there was lots to smile about.