BWW Review: THE SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA at The Jacobs Music Center
David Danzmayr returned as guest conductor this season to lead the San Diego Symphony Orchestra in a program that began and ended with Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius. In between came the virtuosic horn concerto by the most successful contemporary American composer of classical music, John Williams.
Sibelius's Finlandia is a patriotic tour de force and his most frequently recorded work. The piece provides spotlight space for all four orchestra sections, and they were up to the task. Under 10 minutes long, Finlandia's immediately appealing melodies and regal brass make it an ideal concert opener, especially when played with the smooth precision and power elicited by Danzmayr's energy and passionate attention to detail.
John Williams has harvested five Oscars and sixteen Grammys. But those who came thinking of his matchless scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Schindler's List and many other popular films were in for a surprise. The composer displays another side in his works for the concert hall, one far removed from the immediately accessible and powerfully emotional style which has made his film scores so memorable. The well-made horn concerto and concertos for seven other instruments feature bitonality and unexpected harmonies that help shape a sound more like the modern classical-music that many concert-goers try to avoid. But the San Diego Symphony had an ace up its sleeve, Benjamin Jaber. The orchestra's principle horn-player was one of the most important new faces brought to San Diego under music director Jahja Ling. Before Jaber joined the orchestra even short horn solos sometimes seemed challenging. The virtuosity needed for roughly 20 minutes of French-horn gymnastics would have been out of the question.
Jaber's instrument is difficult to play without at least an occasional miss. Clean
entries in works for full orchestra are notoriously problematic. A horn concerto presents an additional raft of opportunities to go wrong. In a preconcert interview Nuvi Mehti couldn't get Jaber to say the Williams concerto is more difficult than those of Mozart and Strauss, but most would believe it is, at least in terms of pure technique. The performance covered the instrument's full range from tuba-like lows to clarion trumpet-like highs, all with frequent changes in volume and long jumps that required precise embouchure resets. And because horn tubing is relatively narrow and roughly 20 feet long when unwound, the instrument must be drained often by removing the mouthpiece or facing the bell down.
The audience members got some idea of how tough the concerto is when they noted the small high table next to the soloist that provided ready access to a mute for special effects, a bottle of water for frequent sips, and a large cloth to mop a sweaty brow. But, as long as your eyes were closed, Jaber made it all sound easy, and musical to boot. After a few quickly rising passages he even turned to the audience with an impish grin. Only a few soft notes in the final movement hinted at a bit of lip fatigue. Jaber received an immediate and well deserved standing ovation with three curtain calls to further acknowledge an outstanding performance.
Danzmayr closed the concert with a thrilling performance of Sibelius's first symphony. The string section gloried in the work's romantic melodies; woodwind soloists were at their best; percussionists provided urgent drive; and the brass section finished their demanding evening with clear and brilliant trumpet calls in the final movement's long climax, which Danzmayr built so well that many must have felt a potent frisson of excitement.
The second standing ovation of the evening added an exclamation point to praise for an outstanding concert.
Visit the San Diego Symphony website for a schedule of future concerts.
Photos compliments of San Diego Symphony.