BWW Review: THE SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY CONDUCTED BY EDO DE WAART at the Jacobs Music Center
Edo de Waart has become a welcome repeat guest-conductor for the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. His no nonsense, experience-based authority at the podium appears to have won the respect of players, Symphony management--and certainly San Diego audiences. Friday's finale brought an immediate standing ovation and sustained shouting and applause throughout an unusual four curtain calls. Since standing Os have become almost perfunctory, it was a pleasure to participate in one that was actually deserved.
The program offered an extreme contrast in musical styles. J. S. Bach's compact first violin concerto comprised the first half, Mahler's sprawling, wildly emotional first symphony the second. The size of the orchestra for each work deepened the contrast. Just a harpsichordist and 19 strings accompanied violin soloist, Concert Master Jeff Thayer. Though not a fan of the original-instruments movement, I do believe some of the associated performance practices have benefited modern orchestra performances of Bach and other baroque and classical-era composers. This performance showed why. Thayer's playing was flawless, and with the smaller ensemble more typical of the baroque era, de Waart's masterful management of tempos, dynamics and balances produced a performance of great clarity and deep feeling.
The same conducting strengths carried over to Mahler's symphony, though the orchestra went from 20 to over ninety, 17 in the brass section alone. It was an outstanding performance that literally made my scalp tingle, when eight French-horn players stood to announce one of the final movement's rousing hunting-call themes. But it didn't take eight heroic horns to hold attention. De Waart was equally effective in the work's quieter moments and, as in the Bach, produced great clarity with unfussy attention to detail throughout the symphony's four movements.
In a recent interview Concert Master Thayer said, "Underneath all of the pressure and time and energy and concentration, at the end of a concert you can sit there and think wow, we just played a Mahler Symphony or a Bach concerto and that's pretty rewarding." I bet an audience jumping to its feet to voice enthusiastic approval made this particular concert feel even more rewarding than usual.
I've been thinking for some time of commenting on the Symphony's pre-concert talks by Nuvi Mehta, the "Voice of the San Diego Symphony" and an accomplished musician. A recent weekend trip to Los Angeles for symphony and opera performances celebrating Leonard Bernstein's birth centennial convinced me it was time.
Neither LA concert disappointed. Dudamel's interpretation of the composer's mass was a revelation, far more coherent and compelling than Bernstein's own version as captured on an old Columbia Records recording. Bernstein's opera Candide too fared well with excellent voices, clever staging, and surprisingly entertaining narration, acting, and singing by Kelsey Grammar, even though I couldn't shake the feeling it was actually Frasier imitating Kelsey.
After my previous steady diet of Mehta's smoothly entertaining and educational lectures, only the pre-concert LA equivalents underwhelmed . Mehta manages to insert fascinating and often humorous anecdotes about music and composers without neglecting clear analysis that enhances listening. The corresponding LA lectures were dry expositions, in the opera's case plagued by the clumsy use of audio excerpts that sometimes made it impossible to hear what the speaker was saying. There's a reason so many San Diego Symphony patrons now brave rush-hour traffic and hurry dinner to catch pre-concert lectures.
Edo de Waart returns for the Symphony's final concert of the season, which includes works by Bernstein, Poulenc and Brahms. For information on this and other Jacobs Music Center events visit the Symphony's website.
Photos courtesy of San Diego Symphony.