DiLisi the Crafty Soloist in Rare Timpani Concerto

Jahja Ling conducts the San Diego Symphony [photo (c) David Hartig]

Jahja Ling conducts the San Diego Symphony [photo (c) David Hartig]

One of San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling’s laudable traits is affording the virtuoso players within his orchestra opportunities to appear in solo concertos on the Jacobs Masterworks Series. Friday (October 24) Principal Timpanist Ryan DiLisi amazed and pleased the Copley Symphony Hall audience with his solo turn in William Kraft’s Timpani Concerto No.1 under Ling’s ever-sympathetic baton.

If neither the concerto nor the composer rings a bell, you are in plentiful company. Timpani Concertos rarely find a hearing outside of conservatories or the music schools of large universities, and, although Kraft had a respectable career playing timpani for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and founding that orchestra’s New Music Group, as a composer he does not have the name recognition of a John Adams or John Cage.

His imaginatively conceived and deftly structured modernist Timpani Concerto No. 1, however, clearly burnished his compositional credentials. Choosing Egdar Varèse and Béla Bartók as his Scylla and Charybdis, Kraft integrated a wide array of tuned and untuned percussion techniques into an every-changing but coherent orchestral tapestry. Although Kraft composed this Timpani Concerto in the early 1980s, it exudes a certain 1930s avant garde brash confidence and avoids the crabbed abstraction of the serialists who followed. I particularly enjoyed Karft’s quirky dance duo between celesta and timpani in the final movement, as well as the elaborate cadenza shared by soloist DiLisi and his percussionist colleagues at the rear of the stage: surround sound drumming.

Although the middle movement started out like an eerie Bartok “night music” imitation, Kraft’s texture proved more supple and continuous than the Hungarian master’s halting and fragmented night music adventures. The concerto’s episodic final movement proved a moody journey across various musical cultures, including a nod to exotic Javanese gamelan incantations.

If timpanists are the aristocrats of the percussion realm, DiLisi proved his blue blood at every turn, never ceasing to surprise his listeners—and mesmerized watchers—with manifold ways of coaxing tones and thematic motifs from his four timpani. Employing a multitude of different sticks and mallets, as well as his bare and gloved hands, his drums sang and danced.

Ling followed the Timpani Concerto with Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, featuring the young Russian pianist Lola Astanova. In terms of programming, back-to-back concertos rarely succeed. If two concertos need to appear on the same program, at very least the intermission should separate them to clear the air. Astanova’s cool reserve at the keyboard immediately contrasted her—and not favorably—to DiLisi’s active physical and musical engagement.

As her Chopin unfolded, it became clear that while she had all the notes under her fingers, her playing had little sense of urgency. She did not make the case of why we should be hearing this concerto—again—nor did she bring any insight to the work that would make the avid listener give this warhorse a second thought.

As if we were Chopin starved, she played Chopin’s C Minor Etude, Op. 25, No. 12, as her first encore, followed by Rachmaninoff’s “Moment Musical” No. 4. It would only be fair to note that the audience responded quite favorably to the performer.

In the best of all possible worlds, the San Diego Symphony would have returned after intermission and given such a commanding account of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor that memories of the pallid Chopin would have been completely erased. In truth, the Dvorak sounded under-rehearsed and poorly focused, in spite of Ling’s relentlessly detailed, athletic conducting. The familiar Scherzo sounded brash and rowdy, rather than bright and invigorating, and the Finale lacked the Brahmsian grandeur to which the composer aspired.

This program will be repeated Sunday, October 26, at 2:00 p.m. in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. Maestro Ling and the orchestra will present a completely different program, including Astanova in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” in the same venue on Saturday, October 25, at 8:00 p.m.

 SD Symphony Program

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Copley Symphony Hall
750 \”B\” St. San Diego CA 92101 Work Phone: 619.235.0804; Website: San Diego Symphony
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