Payare and the San Diego Symphony Deliver a Sumptuous Mahler Fourth at The Rady Shell

Friday’s balmy weather provided the ideal al fresco return of the San Diego Symphony to the bayside Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. Because of the ongoing major renovation of the Jacobs Music Center, the orchestra’s downtown home, for the last four months the orchestra has been playing in a series of halls around San Diego County, from Escondido to Chula Vista.

Hera Hyesang Park [photo courtesy of the artist]

Under the baton of Music Director Rafael Payare, the San Diego Symphony played an inspiring program of Debussy and Mahler, perhaps a collective sigh of relief for their return home to the magnificent Rady Shell.

Although frequent guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was on hand to solo in Debussy’s rarely performed Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra, the star of the evening was the Mahler Fourth Symphony with South Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park. Mahler’s hour-long symphony unfolds a treasure of gorgeous themes, but its moods tend to bucolic contentment rather than dramatic propulsion. Fortunately, Payare had a clear vision of this expansive symphony, and he persuasively guided the orchestra in a polished and at times radiant account of the work.

Mahler’s Fourth is identified with the poetry taken from a celebrated German book Das Knaben Wunderhorn, and the lied “Life in Heaven” from that collection is sung by the soprano in the symphony’s final movement. Although this naive children’s poem about popular European Catholic saints preparing a celestial banquet no doubt spoke persuasively to the Viennese gentry at the turn of the last century, I imagine today’s American audiences simply find it quaint. Fortunately, Park’s resonant soprano and her exuberant interpretation of Mahler’s exultant themes overcame this odd text and won a highly enthusiastic response from Friday’s audience. Park sings coloratura roles in the opera house, but Friday her supple soprano revealed ample dramatic flair and the winning shimmer of a spinto.

While Mahler marked his opening movement “Deliberately” and warned the conductor not to hurry, Payare’s gently animated tempo prevented this long movement from overstaying its welcome. Principal Horn Benjamin Jaber and his section offered rich, glowing solos throughout, and the vibrant solo passages by the four flutes led by Principal Flute Rose Lombardo added welcome excitement.

The warmth of the string sections in the second movement, titled “Moving leisurely,” especially their sentimental melodies and perky carnival carousel themes, pleasantly dominated this section of the symphony, contrasting with Concertmaster Jeff Thayer’s intentionally bright fiddle descant and gurgling low themes from the bassoons. The low strings, especially the gorgeous cello section, prevailed with distinction in the third movement, titled “Peaceful.”

I have a strong intuition that Payare will work his way through the entire canon of Mahler symphonies.

Claude Debussy wrote his Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra in his late twenties, before he had developed his own harmonic language, so this piano concerto in disguise sounds more like a work by, say, Camille Saint-Saëns than by Debussy. Thibaudet, always a welcome soloist with the orchestra, gave Debussy’s effusive piano part all the Gallic panache it deserved, although his prowess could neither overcome the work’s structural deficiencies nor turn it into a work I would eagerly seek out for a second hearing. There is no mystery why this 1890 score has gathered dust on library shelves.

Payare opened the concert with Debussy’s Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun, and the orchestra delivered a sensuously satisfying account of this rightly beloved score. If Debussy’s sumptuous wafts of melody were not enough, seagulls soaring over the Rady Shell added their own descants.

This concert by the San Diego Symphony was presented on Friday, April 21, 2023, at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on San Diego Bay. The program will be repeated in the same venue on April 22.

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