Great Tchaikovsky Extravaganza even without the Obligatory Fireworks

San Diego Symphony Summer Pops with Navy Band Southwest at front

San Diego Symphony Summer Pops with Navy Band Southwest at front [photo by]

Nothing in San Diego’s performing arts arena confirms the end of summer like the San Diego Symphony’s Summer Pops all-Tchaikovsky extravaganza under the baton of Principal Summer Pops Conductor Matthew Garbutt. Friday’s (August 29) program not only assembled the usual suspects—the indispensable “Overture 1812,” crackling fireworks over the bay, and the brass section of the Navy Band Southwest—it offered an unusually well-balanced and unhackneyed selection of works from the beloved Russian composer.

Breaking with one of the less stellar Summer Pops traditions, the piano soloist was allowed to play the entire Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major, rather than just the opening movement. Adam Golka, a striking, 26-year-old Texan, gave an unusually restrained, at times cool, account of the evergreen concerto.

Golka revealed ample brio in the work’s more grandiose sections, and the clarity and dexterity of his furious octaves in the

Adam Golka [photo (c) Peter Sanchez]

Adam Golka [photo (c) Peter Sanchez]

finale displayed his admirable technique. Lingering over the concerto’s more nuanced reflections may not have been the wisest choice for an outdoor performance, but I give the Pops audience credit for staying with him with rapt attention not always in evidence at the cabaret tables in the Embarcadero Marina Park South venue. Garbutt’s middle-of-the-road tempo choices worked well, although he lost some momentum and tight coordination in the antiphonal exchanges between orchestra and soloist in the opening movement.

Even with some of the key principal string players missing, the orcheatra’s sound proved robust and its ensemble well-disciplined. In both the Piano Concerto and the Suite from the ballet “Sleeping Beauty,” they gave Garbutt lush crescendos of warm string sound and well-proportioned, burnished power from the brass sections. To my ears, the venue’s sound system and its techinical operation have improved markedly over the years at Marina Park South, bringing the orchestra’s outdoor sound and impact much closer to the sonic reality of their concert hall presence.

I particularly enjoyed Garbutt’s choice of three short, complementary pieces to open his program, the popular “Polonaise” from Tchaikovsky’s best-known opera Eugene Onegin, the Overture to the less frequently staged Pique Dame, and the “Cossack Dance” from Mazeppa, an opera known in the west only from this snappy excerpt. These gems gave every section of the orchestra a chance to shine, and hearing the Overture to Pique Dame (its English title is usually given as Queen of Spades) brought to mind a moving production of this opera given by Los Angeles Opera a number of seasons back. In his three-decade tenure heading San Diego Opera, the “late” Ian Campbell thought Eugene Onegin was the only opera of consequence that Tchaikovsky wrote.

Once the cello section intoned the solemn hymn that begins “Overture 1812,” it was pedal to the metal until the brass section of Navy Band Southwest, under the astute direction of Lieutenant Diane E. Nichols, came on stage and to add its sonic muscle to orchestra’s already fortissimo blasts. In spite of canons and fireworks, Garbutt kept his forces grandly focused for this tempestuous climax to both the concert and the summer season.[php snippet=2]

Before launching into “Overture 1812,” Garbutt took time to honor four of his fellow orchestra members who were retiring from the orchestra at the end of Sunday’s presentation of this all-Tchaikovsky program. Each player has served a lengthy tenure with the orchestra and has earned the respect of both symphony audiences and their musical colleagues: Alan Rickmeier, contrabass; Betsy Spear, Second Oboe; Elizabeth Ashmead, piccolo, and Warren Gref, Second Horn. SanDiegoStory adds its congratulations to hearty applause of the Friday night audience honoring the fine work of these San Diego Symphony musicians.

[box] This concert was given at Embarcadero Marina Park South at 7:30 p.m. on August 29, 2014, by the San Diego Symphony under the baton of Principal Summer Pops Conductor Matthew Garbutt. It will be repeated at the same time and location on August 30 & 31, 2014.[/box]

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