San Diego Symphony’s “To the Earth” Festival Concludes with the Drama and Solace of Evening

The San Diego Symphony’s To the Earth online festival concluded Friday with music for “Evening,” the fitting climax to the previous themes of “Morning” and “Noon.” Following that pattern, if was also fitting that Music Director Rafael Payare conducted Haydn’s Symphony No. 8, “Le Soir” (“Evening”), having offered accounts of No. 6 “Morning” and No. 7 “Noon” on the two earlier festival concerts. On Friday, Festival Curator Steven Schick complemented the Haydn Symphony No. 8 with chamber works by Lili Boulanger, Osvaldo Golijov, and Frederic Rzewski.

Appropriately, Symphony No. 8 was filmed in the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park after dark, giving viewers a taste of what they will experience starting this August, when the orchestra officially opens the new season in its new venue. The spacious stage and high arch of the shell itself could not be more welcoming to the orchestra and its music making; the seats are unusually comfortable, especially for outdoor seating (we tested them out last month at an opening event for donors and members of the press); but we will know what the sound is like only when the audience is present in a live concert. The recorded sound in the shell, not surprisingly, it excellent.

Payare’s jubilant drive through the opening movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 8, Allegro molto, suggested a festive late night party—perhaps a bit on the raucous side—illumined by blazing torchlight. The orchestra gave him the exuberance he requested, but nothing that compromised the players’ clean ensemble unity. Like Haydn’s other two symphonies of this day-themed set, No. 8 abounded in colorful solos, notably spirited fanfares from the horns in the Menuetto, echoed cheerfully by the oboes, and another extended solo in that movement for the contrabass, which Principal Contrabass Jeremy Kurtz-Harris played with the perfect balance of charm and panache.

Haydn titled his finale, an unrelenting Presto, “Storm,” a convincing depiction of nature’s ferocity carried out by sizzling, arched themes from the violins and violas supported by ominous tremolandos from the low strings. Did some lazy music appreciation teacher tell you that the 19th-century Romantic composers “invented” program music? They should have studied more Haydn!

To open this program, Steven Schick and Principal Cello Yao Zhao offered a moving account of Golijov’s “Mariel,” in which the cello floats a burnished, sustained theme that slowly grows with compelling intensity over deftly undulating chords from the marimba. Golijov wrote this work in 1999 in memory his friend Mariel Sturbin, and Schick was one of the performers who premiered it in New York City. Zhao evoked a laudable spiritual presence, and Schick did not strike the marimba with his mallets—he caressed the shimmering tones from his willing instrument.

A less spiritual but more melancholic piece, Lili Boulanger’s “D’un soir triste” (“A Sad Evening”) written in 1918 for piano, violin and cello, nicely complemented the Golijov. Pianist Tina Chong’s command at the keyboard effectively communicated the composer’s anxious textures and highly chromatic harmonic palette.

Since the festival commissioned Gill Sotu to write a poem that captured the emotional character of evening, it was fitting that he was filmed reciting “The Moonlight and the Melody” at night on the otherwise empty stage of the Rady Shell. In his poem he encourages the listener to go to nature to imbibe its traits of evening. “Let the crickets be your rhythm section,” was my favorite line of his evocative poem.

On other occasions I have heard Schick perform Frederic Rzewski’s 1985 “To the Earth for Speaking Percussionist,” so I am rather certain this is a piece that is close to his performer’s heart. Using just four tuned flower pots and two simple sticks, Schick recited the composer’s Homeric poem in praise of Mother Earth while tapping out sometimes simple, sometimes complex patterns that accompanied or embellished the text. It is easy to find online numerous interpretations of Rzewski’s piece, but most performers make it appear to be a clever stunt. Schick performs this piece as a musical offering in which his simplest of gifts always come ‘round right.

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