San Diego Master Chorale & Jahja Ling Celebrate Haydn

John Russell [photo courtesy of the artist]

John Russell [photo courtesy of the artist]

During Jahja Ling’s tenure as San Diego Symphony Music Director, we have come to expect a major choral work in December on a Jacobs Masterworks program, with Handel’s Messiah and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as the maestro’s typical alternating choices. Just knowing that this season we would hear Haydn’s magnificent Mass in Time of War (also known by its German name Paukenmesse), put me in a favorable frame of mind all fall, but after hearing the Friday (Dec. 5) performance of the Mass at the Jacobs Music Center, the mere “favorable” turned to downright elation.

Ling consistently brought out the wit and drama in Haydn’s orchestral writing—the composer wrote his large concert masses at the end of his prolific career as Europe’s premier symphonist—and the orchestra responded with crisp attacks and elegant phrasing. From the Master Chorale, Ling demanded a wide range of dynamic contrast and textual nuance, and the result was an unsually vibrant performance that embraced equally the composer’s musical and theological acuity.

I doubt this would have been possible without the Master Chorale’s astute training from its new director, John Russell. From the quiet opening incantations of the Kyrie, the choir displayed a more unified ensemble and richer sonority, a color and sonic balance it maintained even in the boisterous fugues Haydn constructed for the doxological sections of the Gloria and Credo. The Chorale’s Church Latin has also improved, or perhaps the singers were simply shaping phrases that reflected the appropriate textual accent that so enlivened and clarified this Mass. And the choristers stayed on top of Ling’s driving pulse to underscore the urgency of the text.

Unfortunately, soprano soloist Heidi Grant Murphy was not paying much attention to the Master Chorale’s good example, choosing her own wayward tempos and annoyingly irregular passagework in her fast-paced solo assignments. Regular readers of SanDiegoStory know that I am no foe of singers with an unforced vibrato, but this soprano’s vibrato has graduated to wobble.

The score gave mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby fewer solo opportunities, but she handled each with great poise and projected her resonant mezzo generously in the hall. Bass Charles Robert Austin and tenor Benjamin Butterfield each displayed bright, colorful voices that solidly undergirded the solo quartet, especially in the Benedictus, which the soloists infused with dramatic—almost operatic—élan.

Among the many fine instrumental solos heard in the Mass, I would praise Principal Cello Yao Zhao for his dulcet yet impassioned solo in the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” section of the Gloria.

Since the instrumental forces for a Haydn Mass are somewhat smaller that the full complement of a modern symphony orchestra, it was not surprising that Ling chose two larger, robust works from the Russian tradition for the opening half of this program. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Overture to his little-known opera May Night proved a toothsome appetizer, 13 minutes of cheerfully insistent string peregrinations that unexpectedly climaxed in razzle-dazzle fireworks.

Russian-born but American educated violinist Philippe Quint gave a commanding account of Aram Khachaturian’s 1940 Violin Concerto, ardently supported by Ling and the San Diego Symphony. In the middle of the last century, Khachaturian was often grouped with Prokofiev and Shostakovich as the three great Soviet classical composers, but time has not been kind to the Armenia’s favorite son. Khachaturian won the Stalin Prize for the arts in 1941 for his Violin Concerto, and the bouyant, dissonance-free textures of this concerto followed the precepts of Socialist Realism, Stalin’s simplistic, populist aesthetic that compromised painting, sculpture, music and architecture.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union, Khachaturian’s unadventurous style and his later collaboration with the Soviet state—he was head of the U.S.S.R.’s all-powerful Composers Union the last 20 years of his life—caused his reputation to suffer significant devaluation. Still, his Violin Concerto contains many thrilling moments, and Quint burnished them with fierce determination. In the two cadenzas of the first movement, Quint flaunted his steely yet lustrous, old-world timbre and infused each with film-score exhilaration. He indulged the melancholia of the slow middle movement without falling into bathos, and he valiantly met the relentless technical demands of the finale with panache.

For those who treasure the Erich Wolfgang Korngold or Samuel Barber Violin Concertos, the Khachaturian Violin Concerto is but a kissing cousin. But I’ll take the substance, challenge and edge of the Violin Concertos of Prokofiev and Shostakovich as a first choice any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Symphony Haydn & Khachaturian program

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  1. KMW on December 10, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Here’s hoping Mr. Ling programs the Berlioz’ “L’Enfance du Christ”” next December.

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