Payare and the San Diego Symphony Climax the Season with Beethoven’s Incomparable Ninth Symphony

Few pieces are as well-known and universally admired as the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Unlike his other eight symphonies and the first three movements of the Ninth, this exalted movement requires not only four accomplished vocal soloists but a full chorus to augment the orchestral component.

Alisa Weilerstein [photo (c.) Paul Stewart]

For this movement Beethoven selected portions of Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude—usually translated Ode to Joy—to express his lofty sentiments about humanity’s high aspiration for amity and concord, albeit cloaked in that now problematic, gender-limited noun brotherhood.

With the assistance of the San Diego Master Chorale and four unusually capable vocal soloists, Rafael Payare and the San Diego Symphony crowned their Saturday concert at The Rady Shell—as well as the entire 2022-2022 Jacobs Masterworks Series—with the Ninth Symphony and its thrilling Ode to Joy.

Payare and orchestra were in top form in the ebullient second movement, a scherzo titled Molto vivace, and in the bracing final movement, whose daunting tempo markings run the gamut from mere Allegro assai to Presto. The orchestra’s focused drive in these two movements certainly quickened the pulse of this jaded listener. The extended fugue in the second movement as well as the fugal sections of the finale stood out with exhilarating drive that never compromised their essential contrapuntal precision, although kudos to the woodwind sections whose solo engagement with the second movement fugue added a gleeful edge to their precision. And the immaculate, burnished horn calls in the second movement revealed that section’s most lustrous sonority in recent outings.

I cannot recall the San Diego Symphony featuring a vocal quartet of such command, balance, and sonic allure in a Ninth Symphony performance, and I have been writing about this orchestra since 1978. Especially in the open air setting of The Rady Shell, these voices of Wagnerian heft both individually and together electrified the finale and perhaps inspired the Master Chorale to sing with even greater fervor. Soprano Felicia Moore, mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller, and tenor Mario Chang soared gloriously in their solo outbursts, and Peixin Chen’s dramatically persuasive opening recitative revealed a bass voice of unusually plush resonance. Houston Grand Opera is fortunate to have him on their roster.

The Ninth Symphony is always a test for choral forces, because Beethoven loved keeping singers in their taxing upper ranges with precious little relief. Under the tutelage of Music Director John K. Russell, the Master Chorale provided a well-disciplined, vigorous account of the inspired score. The Chorale’s sopranos and altos rose to the composer’s challenges with complete confidence, their vibrant, glowing phrases testifying to the acuity of Schiller’s lofty prose. I do wish I could report that the Chorale’s tenors equaled the vocal prowess of the altos and sopranos.

Finding a work to balance the titanic Ninth Symphony is no easy task, but Payare’s choice of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist approached perfection. I cannot think of a cellist I would rather hear perform than Weilerstein, especially in a weighty, late Romantic work such as Elgar’s E Minor Concerto. Her rapturous sound is always tempered by her impeccable musicianship, and with Payare and the orchestra at her command, the this Elgar outing proved transcendent.

When Elgar strikes a somber mood—notably in his two Adagio movements— Weilerstein displayed that deep, dark, soul-penetrating timbre that most cellists only approach, but when he invents high-spirited, complex figurations, Weilerstein subdued them with impassioned bravura. From the orchestra Payare unleashed waves of robust support, especially from the deep bass sections, a thrilling counterpoint to Weilerstein’s magnificent flights.

This concert by the San Diego Symphony was presented on May 27 & 28, 2022 at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on San Diego Bay. The performance of May 28 was attended for this review.

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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2 Comments

  1. Liam Allan-Dalgleish on May 30, 2022 at 9:36 am

    A worn-out piece that has nothing to say anymore, is bound to Napoleon, and is a musical contortion. It’s certainly interesting but should be retired for a while.

  2. David Rogoff on May 31, 2022 at 12:20 pm

    Great review of an amazing concert. I should disclose that my wife is a soprano in the chorale but I think everyone there agreed that Payare and the musicians hit this performance out of the ballpark! I’ve heard both pieces many times including at least a couple of live performances of the Beethoven and none of them approached the energy and musicality of Saturday. Payare must have burned a thousand calories during his energetic conducting and we could see him excitedly singing along with the choir. Can’t wait for next season!

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