San Diego Symphony: Great Night for Shostakovich but not for J. S. Bach

David Chan [photo (c0 Pedro Diaz]

David Chan [photo (c) Pedro Diaz]

When it comes to the music of Dimitri Shostakovich, Soviet politics is always a contributing factor. Not that his music necessarily portrays a political message, but the origins and first performances of his 15 symphonies were always intimately connected to the climate of Soviet politics.

Some works such as the Fourth Symphony and his Violin Concerto No. 1 simply sat in the composer’s desk drawer for years until the government’s omnipresent musical censors were off his back. He did not even commence his Tenth Symphony, which the San Diego Symphony under the baton of guest conductor Pinchas Zukerman played so powerfully Friday (March 27), until his nemisis Joseph Stalin was dead and buried several months.

Students of Russian history recall the case of Rasputin and Czar Nicholas II—they had to kill the bizarre faith healer several times before he actually stayed dead.

The orchestra’s excellent account of Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, which most acclaim as Shostakovich’s finest symphony, certainly pulsed with life in all of its challenge and complexity. Added wind players in generous number gave the orchestra unusual heft, which Zukerman used to great advantage in the exhilarating Scherzo. He added molto to the composer’s Allegro marking, but even at this potentially dangerous break-neck tempo, the orchestra held together securely and infused the sense of danger and alarm into the raucous, edgy motifs that propel this amazing movement.

Pinchas Zukerman [photo (c) Paul Labelle]

Pinchas Zukerman [photo (c) Paul Labelle]

Because the Tenth Symphony’s expansive opening movement is as long as many complete classical symphonies, Zukerman kept a tight rein and did not linger, although temptations abounded. Notable contributions to the pleasure of hearing this movement were Principal Clarinet Sheryl Renk’s plaintively understated incantations of crucial themes in the quieter sections and well-matched responses by Principal Flute Rose Lombardo. In the denser orchestral outbursts, the horn section’s well-modulated brawn, led by Principal Benjamin Jaber, cut through the din superbly.

The upper strings sounded persuasively mysterious in the third movement as they stole the juicy thematic ideas the composer first gave to the winds and then put their own suave stamp on them. Guest violinist David Chan, who shared the solos with Zukerman in the J. S. Bach Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins earlier in the concert, served as concertmaster for the Shostakovich.  As Concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, he is completely at home guiding string sections through the knottiest scores, and his presence significantly bolstered the Symphony’s fine performance of this monumental work, which the San Diego audience lauded with an enthusiastic, instant standing ovation. (Not the typical San Diego “standing ovation” where a couple of people stand and scattered folks slowly join them—except for those who bolt up the aisles to be first out of the parking structure!)

My immense affection and esteem for the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony was amply rewarded by the orchestra’s brilliant and probing performance.

I have to say that David Chan was the best part of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins: his brighter timbre and stylish, incisive phrasing overshadowed Zukerman’s politely correct contribution, although each soloist proved more stylish than the San Diego Symphony strings that accompanied them. Thick textures and indifferent phrasing—notably in the cellos—bogged down this otherwise lively and engaging work. Although Zukerman played one of the solo violin parts, he still had the conductor’s function in the concerto, so the imbalance between soloists and accompaniment may be chalked up to his judgement. But if the San Diego strings had listened carefully to Chan and had taken their cues from his shapely phrasing, the work would have sounded significantly better.

The concert opened with Richard Strauss’s Serenade in E-flat Major for Winds, a student piece that proved more interesting for clever instrumentation than for compelling thematic development.

This concert was given in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall at 8:00 p.m. on March 27. It will be repeated in the same venue at 8:00 p.m. on March 28 and at 2:00 p.m. on March 29.

San Diego Symphony Program

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Photo of Copley Symphony Hall
Copley Symphony Hall
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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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