SD Symphony offers up a rare and rewarding Mahler

11.24.14
Jahja Ling
U-T San Diego

Conductor Jahja Ling, in his first performance since announcing his departure, successfully leads the orchestra in a concert worthy of a standing ovation 

By Roxana Popescu

Good news for classical music lovers: A first-rate ensemble and conductor are in town this weekend playing a rarely performed yet monumental piece of music.

The piece is Mahler’s seventh symphony. The ensemble: San Diego’s own orchestra. The conductor: Jahja Ling.

Forgive the bait and switch, but it was meant to get your attention. This program is special, for a few reasons. Alban Gerhardt, the cello soloist on Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, was transfixing Friday night. Ling just announced he’ll be leaving after the 2016-17 season. Appropriately, the first evening in his role as future-emeritus, he introduced the Mahler. Friday was the piece’s premiere for the San Diego Symphony. Ling has conducted Mahler’s six previous symphonies, but the seventh was a first for him as well, according to the program notes.

The mixed reception of this five-part work is one if its best known features. The first movement could be five or more, given the way it sloshes through different melodies and moods. For a long while there, it felt the orchestra was trapped in permanent forte, but eventually that gave way. The second movement opens with a conversation between woodwinds and ends with a gasp. The third jolts, spurts, slides and slithers. Sometimes it also sways and sings, but those moments are precious because they are rare. The fourth, a mandolin and guitar enhanced serenade, is worlds away from the others. The final movement bookends the first in both length and strangeness.

Challenging for everyone involved — long, conceptually complex, juxtaposing bulkiness with grace — it’s also a satisfying piece to look back on from the finish line, exhausted, pummeled, drained, but enlightened and victorious. All this to say, not just anybody can pull it off. They might string together the notes, but to make meaning and express what the San Diego Symphony under Ling's direction did Friday night is a remarkable feat. Not every audience would lap it up either, but this one did. The orchestra got a standing ovation that didn’t stop until after a dozen or so soloists and each entire section got a call out.

Before Mahler came Tchaikovsky. This is another work that can’t seem to make up its mind, but in a very different way. For both, the pieces represent turning points. Eric Bromberger writes that Tchaikovsky, who wrote it in 1876, was in a funk about love and had just completed two tumultuous other pieces, while Mahler wrote thinking of day and night as themes — an evening stroll, creepy, opaque or romantic night, and blinding daylight.

If the Mahler symphony is scattered and disorganized for reasons that are not easily or initially fathomable, Tchaikovsky’s approach is clearly calculated. As he pulls apart and reconstitutes his theme, he wavers strategically, control sometimes yielding to abandon. The symphony and Gerhardt both played to those limits, starting demurely and finishing with a frenzy and freedom that was exhilarating to watch and hear. The final high note, which the soloist drew out and let melt away, got an audible “wow” from a gentleman sitting to my right.

In 2003, shortly after agreeing to join the orchestra, Ling told the Los Angeles Times: "If you play Mozart, it should sound like Mozart; if you play Mahler, it should sound like Mahler ... It's a big job, molding an orchestra so it can be that flexible." It wasn't Mozart, but Tchaikovsky. In any case: mission accomplished, maestro.