Review: BACH'S WINTER REVERIE & SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY VIRTUOSITY at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center

Principal Guest Conductor Edo de Waart in a Sentimental Mood

By: Feb. 14, 2024
Review: BACH'S WINTER REVERIE & SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY VIRTUOSITY at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center
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Edo de Waart opened a conservative program of J. S. Bach, Samuel Barber and Josef Haydn with Bach’s B-minor Orchestral Suite. The suite is often performed with a full-sized modern string section of 40 or more. De Waart chose a size much closer to one listeners would have been likely to hear in the 18th century, 14 strings, the flute of the original score and a harpsichord continuo. The San Diego Symphony’s Principal Flute Rose Lombardo was at the front of the stage. The flute is prominent in every movement, though often playing as part of the orchestra rather than offering a second melodic line as in a true concerto.

Review: BACH'S WINTER REVERIE & SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY VIRTUOSITY at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center
Maestro Edo de Waart with Flutist Rose Lombardo in Red

Thanks to the original instruments movement of recent years, many conductors and orchestras have striven to duplicate the number of musicians and performance practices of the era in which a piece was composed. Faster speeds work especially well for Baroque music, and de Waart took them, making Lombardo’s performance that much more impressive, especially in the cheerful, familiar Badinerie of the final movement. Also in the spirit of the Baroque, she played without vibrato, a period practice my ear often finds unappealing. Lombardo’s modern flute had such a glittering liquid beauty, it didn’t matter.

The flutist was the first of three orchestra principles to get a well-deserved star turn. In Bach’s concerto for violin and oboe, Concert Master Jeff Thayer used a vibrato that wouldn’t have been out of place in the ultra-romantic Tchaikovsky concerto, a sin for any original-practices fan, but the marvelous tone of his Stradivarius made original performance practices again irrelevant. When I interviewed Thayer two years ago, he held his violin as though afraid to let it out of his sight, and he plays it with visible passion.

Principle Oboe Sarah Skuster rivaled the outstanding tones of the evening’s other soloists while choosing a comfortable vibrato halfway between Baroque and Romantic. And yet violin and oboe produced a pleasing warm blend. Conductor de Waart, seemingly without effort while seated in front of the orchestra, achieved a cohesive sound, strings tightly together throughout effective tempo and dynamic changes.

A baroque continuo harpsichord provides a harmonic underpinning, much as a piano does in a modern jazz group. At times the part was written out by the composer, and at other times improvised with decorative additions, especially if a composer like Haydn or Mozart was at the keyboard. In this performance, the harpsichord was very much on-script and at times difficult to hear from in back of the orchestra, far from a common problem at the Conrad.

Review: BACH'S WINTER REVERIE & SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY VIRTUOSITY at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center
Jeff Thayer, Oboist Sarah Skuster and Edo de Waart

More than 30 musicians took the stage for Samuel Barber’s enormously popular Adagio for Strings, a replacement for the printed program’s Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings by Richard Strauss, a far less well-known work. (Perhaps a swap made for stronger ticket sales?)

The Adagio was the most familiar work on the program because of its use in films and on TV. It has been played at two Presidential funerals and was often heard in the days following the 9/11 attack.

The piece is Barber’s arrangement for symphony orchestra of the second movement of his string quartet. This concert had about a dozen fewer strings than heard in most recorded versions. That was a slight advantage for the clarity of interplay among the four types of string instruments, and the performance brought out much of the crushing sorrow the music expresses so well. Only as repeated phrases ascend to the intensity of an overwhelming climax before the music subsides into resigned sorrow did I miss the power of a full string section.

While Haydn included sorrowful emotions in his 104 symphonies, they never reach Barber’s tragic depth, and are almost always played amid cheerful or vigorously rousing faster tempo movements. The 49th is a minor-key exception. The long first movement continues the mood established by the Adagio for Strings. The second has energy and urgency, but without Haydn’s frequent buoyant optimism. Even the minuet that follows has a tinge of sadness instead of the usual light-hearted dancing feel. The closing movement, taken at an exciting breakneck speed by de Waart, recalls the serious urgency of the second movement.

Edo de Waart has led an extraordinary number of orchestras worldwide and worked with young musicians and student orchestras at Juilliard on the east coast and Coburn on the west coast. That breadth of professional experience made him an outstanding choice as a frequent guest conductor shortly after Martha Gilmer became the CEO of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra.

The musicians love working with him, and he and Music Director and conductor Jaha Ling were instrumental in the orchestra’s gradual rise from less than mediocre to its current excellence. At the age of 82, he continues to conduct around the globe and is the Principal Guest Conductor of the San Diego Symphony. This concert was a fine example of why.

Review: BACH'S WINTER REVERIE & SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY VIRTUOSITY at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center
Conductor EDO De Waart and the Orchestra Take a Bow

Portrait photo of Edo de Waart compiments of San Diego Symphony

Other photos, Ron Bierman

For a future performance calendar, visit San Diego Stmphony