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San Diego Symphony 'refreshingly unusual' under Weilerstein

Joshua Weilerstein
San Diego Union-Tribune

Many Americans perceive classical music as something dainty and pristine that uplifts listeners through transcendentally beautiful sounds.

Those folks should have heard Joshua Weilerstein conduct the San Diego Symphony Friday evening. They would have experienced a sonic curiosity cabinet of musical oddities — refreshingly unusual. 

While there were charming, pleasant moments in Nielsen’s Flute Concerto and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” the brusque, jarring sonorities in Christopher Rouse’s “Bump” opened the evening with an appropriate tone.

To get an inkling of what “Bump” sounds like, imagine if Xavier Cugat’s band were badly programmed robots trying to play a jaunty conga. The harmonies blaring out of their instruments are frighteningly dissonant, the melodies jagged and unsingable. Their rhythms are steady but never quite right, yet somehow they all manage to come together on the last beat of every measure. 

Now suppose a demented arranger exaggerated all of those qualities for symphony orchestra, bulking up the percussion section to five players with dozens of instruments that threaten to drown out the rest of the ensemble. 

Like a zombie movie, “Bump” is sinister, but wickedly fun. Mallet percussionists clang out insane chords. A baritone saxophone makes a bizarre cameo with a jerky dance. In one climactic passage, brass, winds and strings spasm chaotically while maracas and bongos play a cheerful Latin groove. It’s as if the Copacabana were burning down in the middle of a wild orgy, and Desi Arnaz and the boys are obliviously playing a happy rumba. And if you want to see a percussionist pound a 7-foot-tall wooden box with a monstrous hammer without having to sit through 70 minutes of Mahler, here’s a rare opportunity.

In its loudest moments, the orchestra produced an undifferentiated wall of sound. It’s not apparent if that was the conductor’s fault, or a compositional miscalculation. In all other moments though, Weilerstein led the orchestra in a tight, idiomatic performance.

The second half was devoted to everyone’s favorite opium-induced nightmare of 19th century music, the “Symphonie Fantastique” by Berlioz. The first three movements were played well, with nicely gauged dynamics. Nevertheless, the interpretation remained grounded. In the final two movements, Berlioz’s bizarre calamities and revelries inspired Weilerstein and the orchestra to more abandon. Together they drove to a roof-raising finale that produced a standing ovation.