The San Diego Symphony Offers a Magnificent ‘Firebird’ to Complete the 2023-24 Season at The Rady Shell

To complete the 2023-2024 season, San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare conducted the orchestra at the Rady Shell on Saturday in Igor Stravinsky’s complete Firebird and Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, featuring Jeremy Denk as soloist. Denk’s commanding account of the Beethoven concerto and the orchestra’s radiant performance of Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet delivered a musically rewarding evening on the San Diego Bay.

Princesses of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird.” Animation by Hilary Leben [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Payare clearly has a special affection for the music of Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet inasmuch as he included the composer’s 1919 five-movement Suite from the ballet on his celebratory August, 2021, concert that inaugurated the Rady Shell. But while the Firebird Suite has occasionally appeared on San Diego Symphony programs—guest conductor David Danzmayr included it on his March, 2016, program—I do not recall encountering the complete Firebird on a San Diego Symphony concert in the last decade or so.

The ballet’s story comes from traditional Russian folklore. With the aid of the firebird, a mythological, magical creature, the young prince Ivan Tsarevich is able to rescue thirteen princesses held captive by the evil sorcerer Kastchei . The great Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev commissioned the music from Stravinsky for the 1910 Paris season of his dance company Les Ballets Russes, because at that time everything Russian was the rage in the French capital.

Stravinsky’s score, a 45-minute tone poem for large orchestra structured in 22 short scenes, is filled with his own inventive themes and a few Russian folk tunes added for good measure. Payare’s judicious pace gently spurred the ballet’s dramatic pulse while allowing time for Stravinsky’s array of delectable solos to gracefully enchant the Rady Shell audience. The music begins with a slow, ominous rumble from the orchestra’s lowest instruments, capped by an eerie solo from Principal Flute Rose Lombardo, passed on to Principal Oboe Sarah Skuster and then to the viola section.

When the firebird arrives on the scene, its excited music is marked with vibrant harp glissandos—three harps on stage, ably led by Principal Julie Smith Phillips—and an animated piccolo solo from Lily Josefsburg. With the arrival of dancing princesses, the woodwinds unleashed animated sinuous themes, capped by Concertmaster Jeff Thayer’s deft solo.

Stravinsky’s jaunty scherzo, “The Princesses Play with the Golden Apples,” sported a delicate arabesque from Principal Clarinet Sheryl Renk, and Principal Horn Benjamin Jaber gave the fanfare for the prince’s arrival a benevolent rather than a stentorian character, as the composer intended. The entry of the evil Kastchei was supported by a round of brass fanfares, and at that moment in the score a series of fireworks exploded above the Rady Shell.

The firebird in victory over the denizens of Kastchei. Animation by Hillary Leben [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Several powerful movements depict the conflict between the denizens of Kastchei and the the prince, including a bravura marimba solo capped by a chorale from the trombone section that propels the full orchestra into a tremendous, dark dance movement. We know that Kastchei has been defeated when Stravinsky follows his turbulent dance with a  lullaby, a gentle theme from Principal Bassoon Valentin Martchev supported by glistening strings . For the finale, another incantation based on a traditional Russian folk-song expands into a glorious full orchestra benediction.

To aid the audience’s engagement with the details of the Firebird story, Hillary Leben devised a series of colorful animations that were displayed across the rim of the Rady Shell as the ballet progressed. Perhaps because the story comes from Russian folk lore, the style of her imagery appeared to that of an illustrated book for young children, a choice that fell somewhere between whimsical and juvenile.

(l. to r.) Rafael Payare & Jeremy Denk [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Jeremy Denk has become a welcome guest artist in San Diego. He performed with the Symphony in 2012 when Jahja Ling was Music Director; he gave an amazing solo recital for the La Jolla Music Society in 2017, and in 2019 he played with San Diego’s Mainly Mozart Orchestra. His return to the San Diego Symphony in the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major fulfilled my high expectations. His approach to Beethoven adroitly balanced infectious drive with nobility of spirit, especially in the spirited outer movements. In the “Andante con moto” his nuanced introspection proved the perfect foil to the orchestra’s needling counter themes. Payare and Denk proved most successfully in sync in the majestic Rondo that brought the G Major Concerto to a triumphant finish.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony on Saturday, May 25, 2024, at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on San Diego Bay.

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