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San Diego Symphony in midst of transition

Will it jettison the overture?

Rafael Payare is taking us some place glorious.
  • Rafael Payare is taking us some place glorious.

The San Diego Symphony is benefitting from a six-week installment of music director Rafael Payare to start the 2019-2020 season. While the orchestra has not accomplished a complete transformation, and we should not expect such a miracle, it is possible to hear where Payare is taking the orchestra and the destination shall be glorious. I have no doubts.

On Friday, November 1, I went downtown to hear Payare conduct Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Schumann’s Manfred Overture started the concert but was of such little consequence in and of itself that I had never heard it and have no plans to explore it in the future.

I can imagine a time when organizations jettison the overture and go to a shorter concert format of a concerto and a symphonic piece. The concert on this night was neither helped nor hurt by Schumann’s presence and that tends to be the case with most concert overtures. There are some exceptions but that opening spot almost always tends to be filled by a 19th Century overture of little consequence or a contemporary piece of even less consequence.

The concerto on this occasion was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. I am convinced that Kirill Gerstein is a pianist of significance but I did not like his approach to this piece. There were moments of phenomenal technical ability but they did not serve what I consider to be the tone of the piece.

The tone is one of lyrical grace surrounded by a tornado of pianistic brilliance. The opening phrase of the piece speaks of tender simplicity yet Gerstein played it with neither. This was his “take on Beethoven” and that’s valid but it’s valid to disagree.

In the opening movement, the rhythmic intensity with which Gerstein played was so extreme that it sounded as if he were dropping notes, and this interpretation broke the line of the music. I expected this approach to be offset by a relative extremity in the overtly lyrical moments yet Gerstein was intent on keeping any and all sentimentality out of his unique take.

The second movement was beautiful beyond description and almost erased the idiosyncratic first movement. Yet when the piece concluded, the audience response was cool. San Diego audiences give standing ovations to just about any soloist who comes through and especially one playing Beethoven. In this case a few stood in the orchestra seats, no one stood at all in the grand tier and about six people stood in the mezzanine.

The balcony was on their phones.

The performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 was beyond what I was expecting. The playing was not clean and there were some ragged moments, but I was impressed and moved by the performance.

Payare didn’t budge an inch on his tempi. I could feel the orchestra breaking old habits and creating new ones as Payare led them. And lead he does. However, he’s not going to stop and wait for anyone to catch up. As in the Mahler on the opening weekend, this gave the performance a breathless quality but it is a necessary part of the transition which is clearly taking place.

I am fascinated with this process and can’t wait to see how far it goes.

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