Frisson Of New Music Puts Al Fresco Edge On S.D. Symphony Summer

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The San Diego Symphony’s outdoor performance space, the Rady Shell, on the downtown waterfront. (Photos by Gary Payne)

SAN DIEGO – The San Diego Symphony is trying to be an organization on the move — in some respects, literally. First by acquiring a wise veteran principal guest conductor, Edo de Waart, and then a hot, younger Venezuelan music director, Rafael Payare, the SDSO nailed down a balance of experience and dynamism. Then in summer 2021, as the pandemic shutdown began to lift, they opened a snazzy new outdoor performance space, the Rady Shell, on the downtown waterfront.

Next, they finally started a much-needed total renovation of the orchestra’s indoor winter home, the 1929-vintage converted movie palace known as Copley Symphony Hall at the Jacobs Music Center. While the hall is being prepared, meanwhile, the orchestra has been, and will be, playing all over San Diego County — including the Rady Shell well into November — until the proposed re-opening of Copley late in 2023. The first SDSO recording with Payare, a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 that hits all the right spots, came out as a stream in the spring.

Mason Bates introducing his work ‘Philharmonia Fantastique’ at the San Diego Symphony’s Rady Shell.

Thus far, the orchestra’s programming at the Rady Shell in the summer has not exactly been what you might call adventurous: lots of evenings backing pop stars of various generations, the inevitable film nights, and only three classical nights. They seem far from realizing the potential of such a photogenic space to create something unique artistically, instead relying on easy-sell gigs that are probably better for the box office.

Yet one of the classical events did point to some out-of-the-ordinary thinking — an all-American music program Aug. 5 called “Philharmonia Fantastique,” which didn’t involve either the music director or the principal guest conductor. (In the other classical concerts, Payare plays it safe with all-Tchaikovsky Aug. 26, and de Waart did all-Beethoven in July.) Three of the four pieces on the program were new, and the fourth, though standard repertoire, is still relatively contemporary compared to the majority of what passes for the standard rep today, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

It had been one year, minus a day, since the San Diego Symphony opened the Shell, and that landmark did not go unnoticed. The orchestra had Mason Bates and his laptops on hand for a repeat performance of his Soundcheck in C Major, the first music played in the Shell at its opening. It’s a fun, busy, loud scherzo with electronic surround-sound effects whose shock waves shook the central screen. Jason Seber from the Kansas City Symphony was the conductor, leading in a composed, formal, physical manner.

The evening’s closer, Philharmonia Fantastique is also the name of Bates’ new multimedia project, a sort of 21st-century variation on the theme of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra — or for some of us growing up, André Popp’s wonderful Piccolo, Saxie and Company. I can’t say if it was a coincidence, but Teddy Abrams and the San Francisco Symphony were also playing Philharmonia Fantastique on that very same night upstate, and the West Side Story Dances was a coupling on that program, too! So much for unique.

The Sprite is the silent guide through the four sections of the orchestra in Mason Bates’ ‘Philharmonia Fantastique.’

The 23-minute piece has already made the rounds as an audio stream played by Edwin Outwater and the Chicago Symphony (released last April by Sony), but the piece makes a lot more sense when seen and heard with Jim Capobianco’s animations. As the orchestra tunes up, spectroscope lines show up on the screen, and what follows is a scherzo underscoring a dazzling show of abstract, vividly colored, animated shapes that eventually coalesce into a Disney-esque Sprite, who turns out to be our silent guide through the four sections of the orchestra.

When the tour is finished, at the point where Britten would start a razzle-dazzle fugue, Bates tries in vain at first to get the sections to play together, but everything, including the Sprite, gets blown up in a dissonant blast. Gradually, and delicately, the instruments pull themselves together and revive the Sprite for a finale of restless, syncopated energy that is supposed to symbolize people of different backgrounds and races learning to live and work together. If only …

Composer Mason Bates and conductor Jason Seber take bows with the San Diego Symphony.

Valerie Coleman’s Umoja: An Anthem of Unity has a a goal similar to that of Philharmonia Fantastique. The word “umoja” means unity in Swahili — and it has gone through an odyssey from just a song for women’s choir to a piece for woodwind quintet and a 2019 version for full orchestra. With a soulful tune to start, a lively center with string minimalism and a sprinkling of xylophone, and a finale of spiritual Americana in triple meter that seems to take cues from William Grant Still, it’s an appealing work that says its piece in less than 14 minutes.

West Side Story was sandwiched in between the newer pieces. The playing was OK, maybe a tad too relaxed where it should pop, and the rhythms weren’t consistently jumping. But this, too, fit in with the night’s general theme of unity among diverse people — or at least the last minutes of the musical and suite are supposed to.

The weather was perfect — low-to-high 70s — and we could see fog dramatically starting to form at dusk over the Coronado peninsula as sailing craft floated by in San Diego Bay. The sound was a little on the tubby side but quite acceptable for a facility out in the open. Unfortunately, some thoughtless idiots in the adjacent marina were blasting loud party music throughout much of the evening; whenever the orchestra’s volume level dropped below a mezzo-forte, that’s about all you could hear. Overall, though, I’m reluctant to complain; the Shell remains a marvelous all-season setting in which to hear music.