At San Diego SO, An American Fest And Maestro Hunt

James Gaffigan offered a program of Barber, Ellington, Cowell, Gould, and Bernstein at a San Diego Symphony festival of American music in a season heavy with guest conductors. A search for music director is underway. (CM Artists)
By Timothy Mangan

SAN DIEGO – January was quite a month for the San Diego Symphony, especially the tail end of it. The organization devoted itself, with both sleeves rolled up, to a festival, this one dubbed “Our American Music” and featuring our ever-neglected home grown product. In quick succession the orchestra was called upon to perform the Piano Concerto by Copland, City Noir by John Adams, symphonies by Stravinsky, Barber, and Ives, pieces by Andrew Norman and Steven Stucky, and film music by Korngold in addition to slightly more common fare.

San Diego Symphony’s January festival: “Our American Music”

What’s more, the orchestra did it all (save for one concert led by the associate conductor Sameer Patel) under the guidance of guest conductors. Outgoing music director Jahja Ling, who leaves the orchestra in May after 13 years, did not participate in the proceedings. Instead, the search for Ling’s replacement continued apace during the festival.

The organization has made no official statement on its music director search other than to say that there is one. A page on its website dedicated to the visitors on the podium is headed “Meet Our Guest Conductors,” and continues, “This season we have 12 guest conductors coming to San Diego to lead the Orchestra as we continue our search for our next Music Director!”

There are some eminences in the list [as pictured on the website] including Edo de Waart and Charles Dutoit. Markus Stenz, Matthias Pintscher, and Cristian Măcelaru are also named. Presumably, not everyone is trying out for the gig, especially since these aren’t officially auditions anyway and the visits might be as much for the conductors’ sakes as the orchestra’s, both sides gauging interest.

The American conductor James Gaffigan, currently chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland and principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, seems to be officially in the running for the music directorship, however, if the local newspaper is to be believed (and why not?).

Curiously, though, for a conductor auditioning, Gaffigan did not get to pick his own program. In the same newspaper article, he is quoted saying that the orchestra chose the two biggest pieces on the slate, Barber’s Symphony No. 1 and Duke Ellington’s Harlem,and that another, Morton Gould’s Tap Dance Concerto, was introduced to him by the group.

The other works on the agenda for this Jan. 27 concert — the “Hymn from the Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 2 by Henry Cowell; Stucky’s Rhapsodies; and Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs — may or may not have been previously known to Gaffigan. As for the orchestra, it had played only the Barber symphony. The performance was held in the orchestra’s home venue, Copley Symphony Hall, a converted and restored 1929 movie palace, now subsumed into the structure of one of the city’s tallest buildings

It looked like a great program, on paper. But as the evening wore on and the pieces were heard, this listener began to wonder if there really was much of an interesting connection among these works beyond the alliterative program title: American Riffs and Rhapsodies. It might have been pertinent, for instance, to pair Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, written for Woody Herman’s band, with that other crackling work of the era for jazz ensemble, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, written for the same players. Instead, the Bernstein was followed by ten minutes of silence and stage set up for Gould’s concerto.

But that’s what festivals are for, to engage in impracticalities, to bring you music that fits nowhere else. In the end, call the program an engaging sampler.

The concert opened with Cowell’s simple and glowing Hymn, serving as a prelude to Rhapsodies, which followed without pause. Written in 2008 for the New York Philharmonic, Stucky’s work is a sparkler with substance, unmoored and floating at first, but then gaining rhythm and a river-like flow and even introducing a melody. Before its performance, Gaffigan asked for silence at the end, in tribute to the recently deceased composer, and got it.

Barber’s seldom-ventured Symphony No. 1 from 1936 is a big, muscular, and dramatic affair, put together with a Brahmsian science. The main theme of the first movement, leaping and angular, doubles as the theme of the scherzo, which comes where the recapitulation should be. The more lyrical second theme is also the melody of the slow movement. Both are combined in the finale, which is nothing less than a formidable passacaglia.

Cartier Williams performed Gould’s Tap Dance Concerto.

The second half convened with the Bernstein, for jazz band (no strings) and solo clarinet (a splendidly rambunctious Sheryl Renk, principal in the orchestra), and then proceeded with the Gould, the biggest hit with the audience, thanks to a sensationally exhausting performance from tapper Cartier Williams. It’s a charming, if somewhat monotonous piece in a Boston Pops vein, the tap rhythms apparently all written out by the composer. (Without score we had no way of telling if Williams was on the mark or making it up.)

Harlem, from 1950, arranged by Luther Henderson, is an Ellington tone poem of sorts. The piece begins with what will become a recurring motif, the solo trumpet playing the rhythm and falling interval of the word “Harlem.” It then unwinds as a visit to various parts of the neighborhood, where jazz styles from glitzy to raucous are explored. The San Diegans, with some guest musicians in their midst, gave it a suitably outgoing performance, the brasses blaring.

It’s a versatile group, in fact; it took to everything thrown at it with poise. The Cowell was plush, the Stucky supple and snappy. There were some unsettled bits in the Barber (that scampering scherzo), but only slightly so. At any rate, one of the strengths of a concert such as this one, minus hoary standards, is that a listener is more focused on the music itself than on the minutiae of performance and interpretation.

Gaffigan, too, showed himself a capable musician, comfortable in all the assignments here and never going for undue effects, exaggerated drama, or self-aggrandizement.

Timothy Mangan is a freelance music critic living in Southern California who has written for The Los Angeles Times, Gramophone, Opera News and many other publications. He has been writing about classical music for more than a decade on his award winning website, Classical Life.


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