Kern and New Bring Impassioned Rachmaninoff Third to San Diego Symphony Opening Summer Season Concert

To open its Summer Season at the Rady Shell on Friday, the San Diego Symphony brought together two musicians whose past local appearances greatly impressed local audiences. Pianist Olga Kern played Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto with the orchestra in May of 2013, and Gemma New made her local debut on the podium at Copley Symphony Hall in May of 2019. These two musicians collaborated splendidly in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor Friday, unleashing its vaunted dramatic character with admirable technical finesse.

Olga Kern with the San Diego Symphony [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

John Adams’ trademark opener Short Ride in a Fast Machine ignited the program with its flashy, brightly accented fanfare ostinatos and stentorian horn calls. New’s aptly vigorous tempo created the jubilant, even ecstatic turbulence that has endeared this witty short piece written for Michael Tilson Thomas. 

I have frequently praised the Rady Shell’s excellent sound system, but for the first movement of the Rachmaninoff D Minor Piano Concerto, the balance between the piano solo and the orchestra was unfortunately skewed in favor of the orchestra, and I strained to follow Kern’s part. Fortunately, this movement is blessed with a unusually long and quite fiery cadenza, so her eloquence was not completely lost in this movement, but this technical flaw in the operation of the sound system was most distressing. In the gentler “Intermezzo,” Kern engaged in passionate lingering contrasted by heroic solo flights to deliver the gamut of the composer’s rhapsodic musings. By the time the “Finale” arrived, the sound booth had solved most of its problems, and we were able to savor Kern’s brilliant cross-hand pyrotechnics and gleaming octave flourishes as New drove the orchestra to the concerto’s resonant, redeeming conclusion.

New opened the second half of the program with Four Dance Episodes from Aaron Copland’s 1942 ballet Rodeo, written at a time when nationalist American classical music was enjoying great acceptance, and Copland was arguably its most skilled practioner. New’s spirited yet deftly detailed direction encouraged a winning, stylish account from the orchestra. But when I hear the bumptious trombone solo in the “Buckaroo Holiday” or the snappy percussion decoration in the “Hoe-Down,” I can’t decide if the composer was being clever or just a little corny.

No doubt Spaniards have strong opinions on how the classical music world has embraced musical depictions of Spanish life and culture composed by Frenchmen ad Russians. But Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1887 Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34, is an orchestral tour de force based on traditional Spanish songs that pleases audiences around the globe, and the San Diego Symphony’s account of this work concluded Friday’s concert on a festive note. Concertmaster Jeff Thayer’s vibrant solos graced the work with their spirit and finesse in each of the four movements.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on Friday, June 28, 2024.

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