San Diego Symphony Opens Jacobs Masterworks at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park with Powerful Mahler and Ravel Concert

Given San Diego’s mild climate and proximity to the Pacific, detecting the customary change of seasons can be difficult. With the opening on August 6, 2021, of the San Diego Symphony’s magnificent new outdoor venue, the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the orchestra’s traditional summer season ushered in its usual array of pop artists, including Jason Mraz, Bobby McFerrin, the Indigo Girls, as well as groups that cover the likes of Pink Floyd and the Beatles.

Eight weeks later on Friday, October 8, the orchestra’s Jacobs Masterworks Series opened with Music Director Rafael Payare conducting Mahler’s First Symphony and the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto with Inon Barnatan as soloist. And we are still seated bayside at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.

Inon Barnantan [photos (c) Marcco Borggreve]

That the San Diego Symphony has not returned to its regular downtown venue, the Jacobs Music Center, may be attributed to lingering reservations some patrons may have about returning to an indoor venue while Covid-19 remains in the picture. But the tremendous success of the new Rady Shell with patrons and orchestra musicians cannot be discounted.

Symphony management has just announced that the total attendance of 88,000 at concerts during the eight weeks of the 2021 series at The Rady Shell has exceed attendance figures for any two-month period in the Symphony’s prior summer series, held at its temporary venue. Although the current programming at the Rady Shell extends through mid-November, in her opening remarks to the audience at Friday’s concert, C.E.O. Martha A. Gilmer promised the orchestra would be performing at the Rady Shell through Christmas.

Payare opened Friday’s concert with “Siempre lunes, simper marzo,” an intriguing new piece by the young Venezuelan composer Reinaldo Moya. The cryptic title, which means “always Monday, always March,” comes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s celebrated novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. In his program note about this work, the composer has elaborated on how certain characters in the novel have inspired his composition, although he claims the piece is “not programmatic or narrative.”

Like many contemporary compositions, this 20-minute work opens with the percussion section—especially those players wielding mallets—doing all the heavy lifting while the string section counts rests. Out of this gently rustling texture, motifs from the celesta slowly emerge, followed by a languid, melancholy trumpet solo, gracefully executed by Principal Trumpet Christopher Smith, the first of several eloquent solos Smith offered throughout Friday’s concert. Eventually the strings enter with vibrant, agitated themes that introduce a section bubbling with Latin dance rhythms. “Siempre lunes, siempre marzo” ends with a solemn, glowing chorale from the full brass section.

Moya, who came to the stage for a bow after the performance, was trained in Venezuela’s famous national music program El Sistema and completed his music degrees at New York’s Juilliard School. Currently he serves as a member of the music faculty of Augsburg University in Minneapolis, MN. I hope Payare will bring more of Moya’s lush, inventive scores to San Diego.

Even prior to pianist Inon Barnatan’s appointment as Music Director of the La Jolla SummerFest three years ago, he was well-known to San Diego audiences as a guest soloist. His electric yet astutely nuanced account of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major exceeded my highest expectations for this gem of the concerto repertory. Although Payare chose a delightfully spirited but unforgiving tempo for the opening movement, Barnatan maintained his trademark immaculate articulation, elegantly sculpting the composer’s fleet, jazz-inflected phrases insinuating sensuous undertones in spite of abundant bravura flash.

Barnatan played the extended opening solo of the “Adagio assai,” the slow middle movement, with serene tranquility, the sort of intimate communication you might expect if you had invited him to play for friends in you own living room. Andrea Overturf’s dreamy extended solo towards the end of the movement crowned the earlier eloquent solos of her first-chair compatriots in the woodwind section.

Ravel was a respected concert pianist, and in his final movement of the G Major Concerto he supplied future virtuosos with teeming technical challenges, which Barnatan apparently relished. Even at Payare’s breathless pace, an apt tribute to the movement’s carnivalesque gaiety, Barbatan tossed off every challenge with exuberant vigor that never compromised his crystalline textures. And after this potentially exhausting account, he returned to the stage to play Gershwin’s variations on “I Got Rhythm” with unfailing panache.

It has been some time since the San Diego Symphony has offered Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, “Titan,” and performing it outdoors proved a brave decision on Payare’s part. The sprawling symphony offers many hushed moments that require the audience’s complete focus and concentration for the work to work its magic. Even with the Rady Shell’s state-of-the-art acoustical system, those heavenly pianissimos are the most difficult to communicate al fresco, not to mention the unpredictable intrusions of passing boats on the bay, planes or helicopters overhead, and even pedestrians on the walkways adjacent to the venue.

After the opening of the First Symphony—so mysterious that it was actually imperceptible—Payere deftly balanced Mahler’s alternately boisterous and bucolic excursions. A bonus of watching the big screens placed on either side of the Rady Shell was viewing Mahler’s requisite offstage brass ensemble tucked in the screen’s corner. The stirring fanfares by the eight-member horn section and the exultant climax of the first movement certainly affirmed Payare’s choice to play this hour-long symphony at the Rady Shell.

Payare included the “Blumine” movement as the First Symphony’s second movement, a controversial movement that Mahler performed in some of his first presentations of the work, but which he later removed, giving away the manuscript to a friend, whose heirs eventually sold and resold it. In 1966 a musicologist rediscovered “Blumine” in the Yale University Library archives, which caused some conductors add it—or perform it separately—to their accounts of Mahler’s First.

A surprisingly gentle trumpet solo opens “Blumine,” which Principal Trumpet Christopher Smith delivered in his most deft, liquid tone, followed by reiterations and extensions of the theme by other wind players. I am not convinced that this slight movement is essential to this grand symphony, but who could turn down the opportunity to hear the trumpet solo. It will come as no surprise that Mahler borrowed this theme from an earlier work he wrote titled “The Trumpeter of Säckingen.”

Payare’s high spirits animated the middle movement, a kind of frolicking minuet, with its customary trio replaced by a cheerful Ländler, suavely rendered by Payare and the orchestra. I am always amused by Mahler’s clever orchestration of the fourth movement, a tongue-in-cheek funeral march based on a minor-mode version of the popular folksong “Frère Jacques/Bruder Jacob,” in which all of the initial iterations of the theme are played by the lowest sounding instruments in the entire orchestra. When the full orchestra gets hold of the idea, Mahler instructs the clarinets to wail with the acerbic cry of a klezmer ensemble. Payare and the orchestra gave the powerful final movement its due as it triumphantly gathered many of the work’s main themes for reprise and exultation.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on Friday, October 8, 2021.

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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4 Comments

  1. Mark Danisovszky on October 11, 2021 at 5:37 pm

    It was another brilliant concert by the San Diego Symphony. I think it’s also important to note how truly amazing the sound system is at the Shell. When I close my eyes there I feel that I’m in a concert hall…which is an astounding achievement when sitting by the bay in an astroturf field. The highest compliment that can be paid is not noticing it or commenting on it at all. The technology chosen and executed the Shell represents the state of the art…audiophiles should attend a concert just to be astounded!

  2. Ken Herman on October 13, 2021 at 9:27 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, Mark. Yes the sound system is indeed remarkable, an observation I have made in my two previous reviews of the San Diego Symphony’s concerts at The Rady Shell. I fear praising the sound system in EVERY review will appear tedious to my regular readers. (Both of them!)

  3. KMW on October 14, 2021 at 10:34 am

    Regular reader here! Curious to know where the reviewer was seated and same question to Mark.

    • Ken Herman on October 17, 2021 at 3:55 pm

      I was seated at a table in row 12 rather close to the bay–as opposed to the center.

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