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Review: SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY CONCERT at Rady Shell Amphitheater

Impressionism Reigns on a Balmy Evening

Review: SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY CONCERT at Rady Shell Amphitheater

Conductor Rafael Payare

Musical impressionism ruled the San Diego Symphony's early-evening Rady Shell concert this past weekend. First came conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen's reaction to Nyx, a daughter of Chaos, the earliest Greek god. Nyx, rarely mentioned in extant ancient Greek-literature, is goddess of the night, mysterious but powerful. At one point in Homer's Iliad, even Zeus changes his plans for fear of making her angry, and I get that. She was the mother of Death and Sleep.

Nyx was the first piece Salonen wrote after resigning as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009. One critic has described it as "impressionism on steroids." The enigmatic little-known goddess has long fascinated the composer. He's said the work wasn't meant as a description, but that the elusive character of many musical gestures in the piece "may well be related" to her.

"Elusive" indeed. Its mood changes, spectacularly rich colors, sudden dissonance and challenging score make it a showpiece for orchestra, and conductor Rafael Payare and his musicians responded accordingly. Extreme dynamics were handled with ease, soloists and sections played with precision in emotional tones from warm to violent to brilliant. In my recent interview, Maestro Payare said there were 98 candidates for an opening in the violins. The fierce competition has clearly produced a marvelous result.

The second piece on the program was to have been Prokofiev's first violin concerto, but European soloist Veronika Eberle had to cancel because of an unexpected delay in visa processing. Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose Suite was substituted, making the concert all impressionist, but with an interesting transition from "impressionism on steroids' to the gentle opposite. The suite is based on an original version for piano four-hands written for the young son and daughter of friends. Ravel said his intention was to awaken "the poetry of childhood," and so the characters portrayed are from fairy tales. Ravel's orchestration is masterly as always, and the orchestra again reveled in varied colors.

More of the welcome same came after intermission in the ravishing second suite from Ravel's Daphnes and Chloe ballet and then Debussy's La mer. The first proved another demonstration of Ravel's orchestral wizardry, and the second was the finale of a concert in which every piece seemed designed to show the vibrant virtuosity of the San Diego Symphony.

Ravel's ballet accompanies the story of a love affair. The second suite opens with a depiction of sunrise over a sylvan setting where the lovers are reunited after Chloe has been rescued from pirates by the god Pan. (Necessary note in an era of fake news, this may not have been an actual event.)

The suite ends in a dance of rapturous celebration, and from sunrise to celebration, Ravel's effects were mesmerizing under Payare's baton.

While both Ravel pieces are descriptive of specific characters and plot elements, Debussy's La mer is closer in spirit to Salonen's Nyx. Both composers are instead expressing emotional reactions, to the sea in Debussy's case and to a mythological figure in Salonen's. The swirling strings and woodwinds of Ravel's Suite are more likely to evoke mental images of a stormy ocean than La mer is. Debussy is describing what he feels in the presence of the sea rather than the sea itself.

The first of three sections begins at dawn. Colors emerge gradually, emotions changing until a culmination in a brilliant chorale for brass. A middle scherzo is light and playful, indicating the

Review: SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY CONCERT at Rady Shell Amphitheater

The Rady Shell

pleasure of seeing waves sparkling in the wind and sun. For the final section, Debussy wants "animation and tumult," and this performance provided it, from ominous opening to a pounding explosive climax of drums and full orchestra, all the more stunning with state-of-the art sound in an outdoor setting, seagulls drifting overhead and light breezes off the bay.

I've spoken mostly of the excellence of the interpretation and orchestra, but many individual soloists too deserve praise. The evening included several warm, glowing solos by Concert Master Jeff Thayer and his Stradivarius. Principal clarinet Sheryl Renk too displayed perfect articulation in similarly spotlighted beauty, the first time under the pressure of an early

Review: SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY CONCERT at Rady Shell Amphitheater

Alisa Weilerstein

challenge in the maelstrom of Salonen's Nyx.

An outstanding concert in an unbeatable setting. The next concert features a performance of Beethoven's ninth symphony and Elgar's cello concerto with Payare's wife Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. Visit the San Diego Symphony website for time and ticket information and view the recently announced schedule for next season while you are there.

(Photos compliments of San Diego Symphony)

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