San Diego Symphony opens Season with Shoostakovich and Sheng

10.11.08
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
San Diego Arts

At Friday's (Oct. 10) season-opening concert, the San Diego Symphony and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's bracing performance of the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto, Op. 99, brought well-deserved cheers and a rousing ovation from the large Copley Symphony Hall audience.

As impressive as Salerno-Sonnenberg was in the Bruch Violin Concerto this spring with the visiting Seattle Symphony, Friday's performance revealed the soloist's interpretive depth in ways that the Bruch did not. Certainly there is more to encompass in the Shostakovich concerto, from the long, ruminative Nocturne that opens the work, to the fleet escapades of the busy Scherzo and the dizzying, mock-humorous flights of the final Burlesque. Ms Salerno-Sonnenberg's authoritative grasp of the technical and emotional challenges of the score was thrilling, as was her finely detailed cadenza, the long solo that connects the third movement, the Passacaglia, to the Burlesque.

Her timbre may not be as rich as the Russian old-school violinists-Shostakovich wrote his concerto for David Oistrakh-but the strength and focus of her sonority boasted a flexibility that more than compensated. Even in her warmer moments, especially in the Nocturne, the slight edge of her color reminded us of the composer's ironic relationship with his Russian audience.

Music Director Jahja Ling and the orchestra partnered the soloist with well-disciplined empathy. Much of the scoring is rather soloistic, accompanying the violinist with but a single section or just a few discrete instruments, which some historians credit as the composer's debt to Mahler. The orchestra's woodwinds distinguished themselves in these exposed sections, as did the percussion battery.

For the remainder of the opening program, Ling was alternately bold and cautious. His bold move was opening with Bright Sheng's recent (2007) ten-minute "Shanghai Overture," and he hedged his bets with his own suite of 11 movements from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" ballet post intermission.

"Shanghai Overture" invokes a raucous Asian street procession accompanied by sharp percussion and piquant, high-pitched oriental instruments, although Sheng's effect is achieved with traditional western forces. In its short compass, "Shanghai Overture" layers long-winded pentatonic themes with a surprising number of contrasting moods and affects. At times I thought I was listening to a film score, but I mean a very fine film score, not the typical perfunctory blasts and noodling between car chases. The San Diego Symphony is slated to record this Overture for Telarc early next year, and it should make that recording most attractive. Later this month Ling and the orchestra are premiering another Sheng work, "Never Far Away" for Harp and Orchestra. I would say that things are looking up these days at Copley Hall.

When it comes to the orchestral music of Tchaikovsky, most people fall into one of two categories: either they can never get enough of his rapturous, melodic scores, or just a few measures is already an overdose. Regardless of which category you identify with, I believe the 11-movement suite overbalanced this program. When a concert is approaching two and one-half hours duration, unless you have labeled the event a "marathon," you're in trouble.

Ling's approach to "Swan Lake" was pretty generalized, making up in volume and brio what he overlooked in attention to detail. This was better than a pops run through, but I trust it is not all that this orchestra is capable of doing in a more considered performance. I would be remiss, however, not to highlight Concertmaster Jeff Thayer's ardent, beautifully-shaped solos in the center of the suite, right before the Hungarian Dance. Following Thayer's glorious melodic flights, I could have gone out into the cool night air fully satisfied. Only duty kept me seated for the five lengthy dances and finale that ensued.