Christopher Dragon Leads Stirring All-Tchaikovsky Concert to Cap Summer Series on San Diego Bay

Australian guest conductor Christopher Dragon adeptly refurbished the San Diego Symphony’s familiar but fading end-of-summer ritual, the all-Tchaikovsky grand finale. Under Dragon’s commanding, athletic conducting of a well-chosen program, the orchestra provided a rewarding array of Tchaikovsky works that did not rely on the closing fireworks display to send the Embarcadero Marina Park South audience home with ample satisfaction.

 San Diego Symphony playing Overture 1812 with canons projected on screen above

Dragon opened Friday’s “1812 Tchaikovsky Spectacular” with a taut, propulsive Marche slave (“Slavonic March”) that gave each section of the orchestra ample opportunity to show off. Given Tchaikovsky’s vivid orchestration, the brass easily monopolized the audience’s attention with spirited and splendidly unified playing. I always find it a propitious sign when the orchestra sports four trumpets, and this quartet did not disappoint throughout the concert! Dragon’s interpretation of the Finale from the Symphony No. 4 in F Minor paralleled his approach to Marche slave: eager, bristling tempos for the most part, with deftly nuanced attention to the lighter, contrasting sections.

Twenty-one-year-old guest violinist Aubree Oliverson easily wooed the audience with her masterful account of a lesser-known Tchaikovsky gem Souvenir d’un lieu cher (“Memory of a cherished place”). A three-movement concertino for violin and orchestra, this work was originally a simple chamber composition for violin and piano. Fortunately, Tchaikovsky’s younger colleague Alexander Glazunov saw the true potential of this work and orchestrated it shortly after the composer’s demise. Not surprisingly, his version of the piece has received much more attention than Tchaikovsky’s original.

Oliverson’s rich, warm sonority gave the lyrical themes of the outer movements a lustrous sheen and aptly sensuous edge, although her agility and polish in the vivacious Scherzo clearly demonstrated that she could do more than turn out a pretty tune. I hope that Symphony C.E.O. Martha Gilmer, who welcomed the audience at the start of the program, will persuade Oliverson to return to perform with the orchestra on a future Jacobs Masterworks Series concert in Copley Symphony Hall.

The Suite from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, Op. 20a, becomes a nostalgia journey for anyone who has attended a decent production of this great ballet. Friday’s earnest performance of the Suite included some wonderful star turns, including Principal Oboe Sarah Skuster’s enchanting signature theme that opens the ballet, Principal Harp Julie Smith Phillips’ cascade of arpeggios that opens the fourth movement (“Pas d’action”) and Concertmaster Jeff Thayer’s poignant solos in the same movement, as well as Principal Trumpet Christopher Smith’s lithe, crisply articulated solo in the “Danse napolitaine.” Dragon effectively brought out the sharply defined rhythmic character of the “Danse éspagnole” and the final “Mazurka.”

In previous years, I have witnessed more spectacular fireworks displays during the Overture 1812, but the orchestra’s account under Dragon, complete with live canon fire, proved as compelling and fresh as any I have heard.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony at Embarcadero Marina Park South on Friday, August 30, 2019. The program will be repeated in this venue on the evenings of August 31 and September 1.

Leave a Comment