Lionel Bringuier Conducts the San Diego Symphony in Rachmaninoff and Elgar at Civic Theatre

Following a brilliant account of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition the previous week in Escondido under guest conductor Antonio Méndez, the San Diego Symphony returned to downtown San Diego’s Civic Theatre Saturday, March 16, to play an equally compelling program of cherished standard repertory: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto in C Minor with pianist Stephen Hough and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Like Antonio Méndez, French conductor Lionel Bringuier made a most auspicious local debut at Civic Theatre, directing the Elgar with a flair and sensitivity to detail that easily stood up to the orchestra’s March, 2020, account of the Elgar work led by the late British maestro Bramwell Tovey.

Lionel Bringuier [photo (c.) Simon Pauly]

It is a safe bet, however, that the majority of Saturday’s sold-out house came to hear Hough play the adored Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, one of the great concertos of the late Romantic musical tradition. When Hough played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the orchestra under former Music Director Jahja Ling in May of 2015, his fiery technical display brought down the house. On Saturday, his remarkable technical prowess—his splendid solo flights and his bravura, dramatic outer movements of the Rachmaninoff concerto—proved equally thrilling, and Bringuier focused the orchestra’s strengths to provide the soloist unfailing, well-tailored support.

Stephen Hough [photo (c.) Sim Canetty-Clarke]

Although Principal Flute Rose Lombardo and Principal Clarinet Sheryl Renk offered ardently shaped interpretations of the composer’s heart-melting opening theme of the “Adagio sostenuto” movement, when it came Hough’s turn to embellish this glowing musical motif, it sounded unexpectedly dull, even prosaic. Bringuier had to work overtime to restore the movement’s pulse and sense of direction, although Hough’s brisk cadenza proved helpful to that end.

From the outset of Elgar’s Enigma Variations to its final cadence at the conclusion of its fourteen variations, Bringuier coaxed the most eloquent phrasing and lustrous ensemble from the orchestra, especially from the string sections. In the Fifth Movement “Moderato,” Principal Viola Chi-Yuan Chen and his commendable section poured forth delectable themes, equaled by Principal Cello Yao Zhao and his section in the effulgent “Romanza.” The robust but polished chorale-like brass fanfares of the finale crowned this grand Victorian tone poem with appropriate honor.

The brass sections opened the concert with stirring, perfectly tuned unison themes in Mussorgsky’s inimitable Russian black sabbath orchestral poem Night on Bald Mountain. Bringer’s precise hand made certain the players did not get carried away with the composer’s ghoulish antics, so the audience was able to enjoy every detail of this surreal nocturnal adventure.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony at San Diego Civic Theatre on Saturday, March 16, 2024.


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