By Richard S. Ginell
SAN DIEGO – It may be astonishing to some that San Diego has the oldest major symphony orchestra in California – time off due to fiscal disruptions notwithstanding. They play in a converted 1929 downtown movie palace, the Copley Symphony Hall (formerly the Fox Theatre, now part of a 34-story building that also houses the Marriott Vacation Club Pulse hotel), as opposed to the modern dedicated symphony halls of its principal rivals, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pacific Symphony, and San Francisco Symphony. Its profile never has been as prominent as those of the above three.
Yet the San Diego Symphony is making moves that are geared toward putting the orchestra on a higher level of visibility as befitting the nation’s eighth largest city. Starting in the 2019-20 season, another youthful Venezuelan hotshot with a mop of curly hair, 39-year-old Rafael Payare (you know who the other one is) is taking over as music director. A new outdoor concert facility resembling a seashell at Bayside Performance Park is tentatively set to open in 2020 for the orchestra’s Bayside Summer Nights series; it juts out into San Diego Bay the way the Sydney Opera House does in Australia. Januarys are now devoted to a very interesting Hearing The Future festival; the last one was curated by composer/conductor/pianist Matthew Aucoin and featured Payare’s first concerts as music director-designate.
And in another sign that the orchestra means business, it hired its first principal guest conductor ever, an old friend of California audiences, Edo de Waart – also in Fall 2019. De Waart’s first appearance at Copley as principal guest conductor-designate happened March 1. He had already opened San Diego’s season in October with three different programs, so his new title just makes it official: he’s in the family now.
For de Waart, it has been 34 years since his directorship upstate at the San Francisco Symphony, where he invigorated the orchestra’s new music and recording profiles, put John Adams on the map, opened Davies Symphony Hall in 1980, and as a parting shot, led the San Francisco Opera’s 1985 Ring cycle across the street. Since then, de Waart has had posts all over the globe; he probably has more frequent flyer mileage than he knows what to do with. We see him in Los Angeles now and then as a guest with the LA Phil, but apparently he really clicked in San Diego, where he first appeared in January 2015.
At 77, de Waart is presumably there to give these players the benefit of decades of experience as a contrast and supplement to the pizzazz of Payare. Hopefully, new music will be a bigger part of his mix; two of his October programs suggest that it will be. On March 1, he stayed in the first half of the 20th century, but his choices strayed gratefully a bit off Main Street.
The music of Frederick Delius is rarely heard in America; conductors simply aren’t interested. Maybe they feel that they can’t live up to the example of Thomas Beecham, and that’s understandable, for Beecham somehow produced a rapturous, special atmosphere in Delius that no one – save John Barbirolli – has been able to match. If we hear any Delius in concerts, it is usually the gorgeous “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” from his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, which is what de Waart programmed. The SDSO has played no Delius in its 109-year history, so one shouldn’t have been disappointed by this mostly straightforward run-through, though de Waart and company were able to make a good stab at a haunting Delian ambience down the stretch. I’m just happy that they played it at all.
Samuel Barber’s symphonic song Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is another beautiful, nostalgic, hopelessly untrendy, unjustly under-performed piece of music, one that made a good match for the Delius. Soprano Joélle Harvey displayed a lovely, silvery voice, though often recessed within the orchestra from my seat upstairs in the first tier balcony right, and de Waart got the SDSO to produce a good flow and sway in the rhythm.
All of this was a prelude to Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, and here it became apparent that the SDSO is going to need some work. In 1982, De Waart made a gorgeous recording of Mahler 4 for Philips in San Francisco in which the music seemed to float in the room. This performance didn’t float, though de Waart’s approach had similar characteristics and tempo relationships, with more emotion and expression in parts of the second movement. There were patches of less-than-unanimous ensemble in the cellos, some jarringly harsh sounds from the horns in the first two movements (they settled down in the third and fourth movements), and de Waart sometimes rushed ahead of Harvey – who nevertheless sang beautifully – in the fourth movement. Copley Hall, which seats 2,248, has decent reverberation, but there was little luster in the instruments’ timbres; nothing truly sings.
So the new leadership is in place for this fall, the hall is problematic but it will do for now, and the agenda seems to balance invigorated tradition with fresh energy. Let’s hope that San Diego’s audiences turn out in a region where there are many sunlit alternatives for leisure time budgets.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.