A Statement of Purpose From First-Time Visitors

10.30.13
Jahja Ling
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

San Diego Symphony at Carnegie Hall

For all the economic turmoil within many classical-music institutions, there are encouraging stories out there as well. For one, the San Diego Symphony. This orchestra, which gave its first concerts in 1910, has endured periods of financial crisis when activities ceased, most recently in the mid-1990s.

The orchestra now plays about 120 concerts each season and has had balanced budgets for 15 years. Since 2004, the veteran conductor Jahja Ling has been San Diego’s music director. On Tuesday night, the ensemble played its Carnegie Hall debut before an enthusiastic audience, a program that offered a new work; Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with the superstar pianist Lang Lang as soloist; and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony — a technically solid, hard-driving and feisty, if sometimes raucous, account of this popular work.

The real turnaround for the San Diego Symphony began in 2002, when it announced the largest single donation ever given to an American orchestra: $120 million, pledged by Joan and Irwin Jacobs. Of course, few ensembles in trouble today can expect such a generous gift to right things.

On Tuesday, the rapport between the musicians (including noticeable numbers of younger players) and their kinetic conductor was palpable. Of Chinese descent, Mr. Ling was born in Indonesia and is now an American citizen living in San Diego. It was a statement of purpose to open the program with the New York premiere of a new commissioned work, the British-American composer David Bruce’s “Night Parade.” In a rare instance of overlap, while the San Diego Symphony was presenting “Night Parade” in Stern Auditorium, a recital was taking place downstairs in Zankel Hall at which the mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, with the pianist Robert Spano, gave the New York premiere of Mr. Bruce’s vocal work “That Time With You,” a Carnegie Hall co-commission.

The orchestra asked Mr. Bruce for a showpiece, and he certainly gave it one. For most of its 15-minute length, “Night Parade” is smart and engaging. Mr. Bruce describes the score as a “night” piece of an urban, restless sort with shifting moods with dark intimations. It opens with subdued riffs that percolate as fragments of jazzy tunes unfold spiked by chattering woodwinds. The essentially tonal harmonic language is enlivened with pungent chords and sour blasts. The abrupt shifts of mood (Mr. Bruce calls them filmic cuts) from murmuring figures to clanking eruptions become a little glib. Still, the piece ends intriguingly: It trails off in delicate music, touched, it seems, with evocations of Chinese instruments.

In the Rachmaninoff concerto, Mr. Ling was as much an enabler as an accompanist to Mr. Lang, who, true to form, played with dazzling technique, myriad colorings, bold impetuosity and exaggerated expressivity, milking melodic lines and manipulating dynamics for dramatic effect. But there is something authentic about Mr. Lang’s liberties, and his pianism is stunning. The audience gave him a long, standing ovation.

For an encore, Mr. Lang and the orchestra played what sounded at first like some vaguely exotic folk song. But it segued into “Happy Birthday,” played in honor of Mr. Jacobs, who turned 80 this month. Beaming, he stood to acknowledge the much-deserved tribute.

After the Prokofiev, as a final encore, Mr. Ling conducted a frantic, rushed and coarse account of Bernstein’s Overture to “Candide.” Maybe it will go over well in China. The San Diego Symphony is about to leave for a 10-day China Friendship Tour, its first international tour.