American Music: to China with Love

Music Director Jahja Ling [photo (c) David Hartig]

Music Director Jahja Ling [photo (c) David Hartig]

Maestro Jahja Ling has prepared a significant amount of American music for the San Diego Symphony’s upcoming China tour, a wise choice that will differentiate his orchestra from the many European orchestras that have toured the Orient with the symbols of their grand European musical patrimony. In a printed program note, Ling explained that the symphony’s hosts in Shanghai specifically requested an all-American musical program, so Friday’s (Oct. 11) Jacobs Masterworks concert offered his slate of Bernstein, Harbison and Gershwin pieces that will complement the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto we heard Augustin Hadelich play so beautifully last weekend.

Of course, there is a vast body of American music that can claim that title simply because the person who wrote it was an American, but what Ling needed for the tour was the vein of American music that exhibits some identifiable traits that are unmistakably “American,” such as Charles Ives’ symphonies larded with American folk songs and hymns, or Ferde Grofé’s geopraphical tone poem “Grand Canyon Suite,” or—better yet—works infused with the rhythms and textures of jazz, that quintessentially American contribution to world music. Ling cast his lot with the jazz-influenced school.[php snippet=1]

John Harbison’s “Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra,” his short 1985 orchestral prequel to his big 1999 opera “The Great Gatsby” written for the Met, opens with ominous chord progressions that flash “tragedy ahead!” and then launches into the composer’s playful imitation of a 1920s dance band tune, sweetly intoned Friday by guest saxophone player Mark Shannon. What saves this piece from being a mere swing era pastiche is Harbison’s meticulous melodic and harmonic deconstruction of the foxtrot. Ling and the orchestra gave this eight-minute work a stylish, unhurried reading.

Two of Leonard Bernstein’s most popular scores, the Overture to Candide and the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story allowed the orchestra to demonstrate its virtuoso chops, although like last week’s commission from David Bruce (“Night Parade”), the wind and percussion sections did almost all of the showing off. Credit Ling for conducting a vibrant, rhythmically taut Symphonic Dances, which the orchestra played with unusual precision and panache. The score’s poignant moments—ardent strains of “Somewhere” and the tragic conclusion—glowed with emotional intensity and shimmering sonorities.

Throaty low brass howls and snappy percussion licks propelled the raucous rumbles that made “West Side Story” both popular and disturbing in its day, although when the San Diego players were called to snap their fingers and shout “Mambo,” they sounded apologetic. Perhaps they should find clips of Gustavo Dudamel’s young players in the Simón Bolívar Orchestra having fun with these extra-musical effects.

I cannot recall hearing the Overture to Candide taken at such a blistering tempo and accented with such vehemence, although every note was stunningly placed.

Inasmuch as George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” is over-programmed (and too frequently under-rehearsed) in countless pops programs, it was a pleasure to hear Ling’s carefully detailed account of this jazz-infused classic. His strings produced that hefty but comforting sound studio blanket throughout, and the solos sparkled. Notable were the rich incantations of Andrea Overturf’s English Horn, the sly, knowing inflections of first trumpet Ryan Darke, and Concertmaster Jeff Thayer’s intricate traceries. The performance produced the satisfaction of meeting an old friend after a very long absence.

At the beginning of the program, the orchestra’s Chief Executive Officer Edward Gill and Acting San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria conducted a small ceremony celebrating the recent naming of the symphony’s facilities on B St. in downtown San Diego the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Music Center, in honor of this couple’s unprecedented financial generosity and unstinting moral support of the San Diego Symphony. Including a gift of $10 million for recent interior refurbishing of the concert hall and its lobbies, since 2002 the couple has donated $130 million to the orchestra. The concert hall itself will retain the name of Copley Symphony Hall.

[box] This concert of American music by the San Diego Symphony given in Copley Symphony Hall on Oct. 11 will be repeated at 2:00 p.m. on Oct. 13.[/box]

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