San Diego Symphony 1/24/20: Wow

The San Diego Symphony, led by Principal Guest Conductor Edo de Waart, performed to a mostly full house at Copley Symphony Hall. The Symphony performed Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 in G Major, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major.

If you want a real musicologist, click here.

You can learn “Just the Facts” of the concert here.

The ensemble’s performance was more present, and the feel in the room more vibrant, than even the best recordings played loudly on a decent audio system.

Do you hear that, San Diego? Your hometown symphony is better than the recordings! However, if you want to hear what they can really do, sonically speaking, you have to catch them on their “home court.”

Live at Copley Symphony Hall.

**

Pre-concert

The inimitable Nuvi Mehta gave a pre-concert lecture wherein he performed a touching version of Beethoven’s angst-filled letter, dated October 6th, 1802, regarding his continued hearing loss and determined spirit to persevere.

Mehta discussed Egmore’s saga and Beethoven’s sonic equivalent of the hero’s courage, Haydn’s irrepressible sense of humor and its many manifestations in Symphony No. 92, and Beethoven’s continued exploration of the famous opening rhythm of Symphony No. 5 (short-short-short-long).

Just prior to the concert, video monitors displayed questions about Beethoven’s music 250 years later and why it was different than other great music. CEO Martha Gilmer described “the journey” Beethoven undertook and offers listeners. De Waart contrasted the wild scratch-outs and copious edits on Beethoven’s original drafts with “the easy genius” of Mozart, as demonstrated by his near-museum quality originals.

Conductor de Waart further described Beethoven’s extremes of tranquility and rage. He used the example of someone yelling an expletive as they kick open a door on their way out only to return with heartfelt remorse and sorrow. He described Beethoven’s existential angst, having never found a true love, and how we, as listeners, benefit from the suffering he put into his music.

The video ended and for a moment there was an odd silence. It felt like the air had been let out of the room. I thought, “Huh, so this dude suffered tremendously beyond losing his hearing and we’re about to listen to the result?”

Buzzkill.

**

Beethoven Overture to Egmont

The buzzkill lasted until the first chord of the Egmont. Outstanding unison. Overtones and all. It was so resonant I was vibrating in my seat. And I sit in the Mezzanine!

Egmont’s opening was one of 5 or 12 times I felt the strings’ controlled power. I consciously, deliberately, thought, “heavy metal and grunge have got nothing on Beethoven when performed like this.”

This was Metallica’s For Whom The Bell Tolls without the distortion pedals.

Pearl Jam’s Even Flow with counterpoint.

Performed by roughly 10 times more people, in tighter unison, on fretless instruments, and with bows. Maybe Concertmaster Jeff Thayer will soon be fielding calls from Kirk Hammett and Kim Thayil.

Back to the Overture…

Principal Oboist Sarah Skuster grabbed the melody, passed it to Principal Clarinetist Sheryl Renk who turned it over to Principal Bassoonist Valentin Martchev.

San Diego, do you appreciate your Principal winds? Because theirs is a special challenge.

Principal winds have to share their unique voice AND blend with the orchestra. They have to be able to turn their volume up to 10 or down to 0.25 without sacrificing tone quality while a dozen, 30, 50 or more strings dig in around them.

There are so many strings in some Romantic era symphonies that the violins should have their own zip code.

**

Imagine you are giving a speech in public. Let’s say the crowd size is around 2,200 people.

Now imagine starting the speech in your fullest, richest, smoothest and clearest speaking voice. Not necessarily loudest.

Now keep the speech going while 1, 3, 19, 47 or 83 other people in your immediate vicinity say very much what you’re saying but not quite, and with decidedly different timbres.

Now “out speak” those people, one of whom is a Timpani 7 feet behind you, without shouting.

Now imagine everyone else abruptly stops speaking and insists that you whisper your speech alone for next 15 seconds.

Now do all that with the same full, focused tone quality while sliding between your “full” and “head” voices. Remember, you are in front of 2,200 people.

That’s what Principal winds do.

Ice.

In.

Their.

Veins.

And they do it with personality. This is what I felt and heard:

  • Principal Flutist Rose Lombardo was gleefully authoritative.
  • Sarah Skuster’s lyrical, endlessly unfurling tone was well-placed at the Orchestra’s center and outlined the beauty of Beethoven’s 3rd movement memorably.
  • Sheryl Renk added warmth and unflinching rhythmic conviction. She received a well-earned roar when called to stand. I’ll limit comments as I’ve already praised her playing here.
  • Valentin Martchev’s range of expression pulled together the entire section.

Please Note: I have never spoken to, met, or even seen most of these characters any closer than from the Mezzanine. So take everything I write with a Dole shipping container of salt. My adjectives come from how each of these musicians impacts the little kid in me that experiences music viscerally.

Later in the Egmont the winds’ passed the melody around in rapid succession. The contours of their phrasing matched so well it was annoying… almost as though they had nothing better to do.

Now develop a direct and unfurling tone, unflinching conviction, and, most of all, blend gorgeously, all while someone else has their hand over your mouth and a knee in your ribs.

You are approximately playing the French horn.

That is to say, being San Diego’s Principal French horn, Benjamin Jaber. And in case you missed the subtleties, no one would accuse that instrument of being fun to play under the best circumstances.

A Note about the French Horns and Bassoons

The French Horns and bassoons provided a feel in the room that recordings couldn’t. The Orchestra felt richer, fuller, when the horns and bassoons were hanging out together, musically speaking. The horns, whether all four in the Egmore or a duo, and bassoon duo of Martchev and Ryan Simmons, added richness and heft.

It’s like umami. Ever had the same homemade soup with and without umami?

Soup without umami is fine. Tastes good. Healthy. You know the ingredients are quality.

Soup with umami, though, is rich, earthy, full, and thickly satisfying. Same ingredients, just a little umami.

Horns and bassoons together were the umami of the performance.

Haydn Symphony No. 92

The Symphony’s opening theme is so pretty and earnest. The cellos and violas’ rendition was clear, lovely and did it every bit of justice.

I felt summoned by the French horns’ measured, punctuated calls in the second movement. Even stronger later in the piece.

I preferred the Menuetto to other versions. Some versions drag the pick-up notes so stubbornly the listener can throw out their back trying to dance to the melody.

Subtler felt better on the Presto. Lean too much into the silliness of that movement and it can start sounding like you’re waiting for a rim shot or “shave and a haircut.”

Beethoven No. 6

It felt and sounded like the ensemble was having fun throughout Beethoven No. 6. The energy continued to unfold. I was riveted.

And concerned.

I worry about the flutes during the opening movement of the Pastoral. That repeated grace note figure over the melody sounds like it takes a colossal amount of air. Listening to it hurts my diaphragm. And I’m a bassist.

Speaking of the flutes, Principal Rose Lombardo offered a dramatic decrescendo during the 2nd movement’s “Nightingale’s song.” It was more playful than other versions.

The bassoons showed their range as they alternated from tender dolce to “in the pocket” later in the movement.

Valentin Martchev’s focused, earnestly clear tone on Scene Am Bach‘s melody was most memorable. Martchev then provided a pulsing bottom in the Lustiges. As a lover of all things bass clef, I was more than a little moved.

The ensemble worked Lustiges‘ melody into a satisfying lather. They played it every bit as intensely as I wanted to feel it. I found myself involuntarily shaking my head with each emphatic note and had to restrain myself from enthusiastically pounding both fists in the air.

The flute’s final interval into Hitengsang is already mildly heroic. Lombardo played it cleanly and with control. She gave full, unhurried weight to both notes, like a massage therapist getting their elbow just a little deeper into your scapula.

AND she left a punctuated pause that gave the lower note more gravitas. The pause was rhythmically striking and felt freeing.

Don’t you love the element of playful rhythmic surprise in music? Listen to Cannonball Adderley on alto saxophone. His solos’ melodic rhythms are like roller coaster rides. Check out his solo, from 0:39 to 1:59, off the album Milestones.

Lombardo’s unexpected pause felt similarly exhilarating.

The Strings

The strings gave the audience a complete experience. Pianissimos were focused and lively. Even the most impassioned moments were balanced and played cleanly.

And they collectively turned up their amplifiers to “11” for Beethoven’s Gewitter, Sturm.

Speaking of Gewitter, Sturm, the 2nd violins’ version of the melody felt “alive” and moved steadily forward. Robust.

Finally, I don’t know what the double basses did to Ludwig to make him write that part to Gewitter, Sturm, but can only imagine the conversation in rehearsal.

**

Ludwig (to his hypothetical Principal Double Bassist, Francis): “Here’s your part for Thunder and Storm. Try to get this one right.”

Francis (the bassist): “Hey, LvB? I’m looking at this repeating 16th note figure. F-G-Ab-Bb. All slurred.”

Ludwig: “That’s correct. What’s the problem?”

Francis: “Well, it’s just that, as you can see, my fingerboard is 146 square feet and light travels from the sun to Vienna quicker than I can climb from F to Bb on that telephone cable you call an E string. The passage appears to repeat for about 700 measures.”

Ludwig: “That’s right. Maybe next time you make the coffee you won’t go so light on the beans.”

Francis: “Wait, you’re sticking it to me because of beans? Seems like kind of an over the top lesson for just some weak coffee if you ask me.” (Casts forlorn glances for sympathy.)

Ludwig: (Exaggeratedly bows his imaginary violin in mock pity.)

**

Which melody got stuck in your head?

You leave a concert and hopefully have at least one good tune stuck in your head. But the one that stays with you, lingers, is invariably a melody that, when repeated in rapid succession, is at least tiresome and at worst annoyingly persistent.

The moment I closed my eyes to sleep that night, my brain launched into Haydn’s 4th movement. Yes, that’s exactly the melody NOT to have in your head for a soothing night’s rest.

But at least I heard the San Diego Symphony’s version. Over and over again…

**

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s