San Diego Symphony’s return to classical music is cause for celebration

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As the San Diego Symphony returns to classical music this month, music director Rafael Payare conducted a Friday night concert at the Rady Shell in Jacobs Park – a momentous occasion for several reasons.

First of all, the Shell is spectacular, a gigantic egg shape that is also an acoustic marvel. The tinniness and distortion that affected previous Summer Pops setups is inaudible. The symphony almost sounds as if it is playing in an invisible magical concert hall.

The place is magnificent. Turn left and there is the bay. Look to the right and you will see the San Diego Convention Center and downtown. It’s hard to think of places like this, and I doubt any sound will sound as fantastic as this.

A view of Rady Shell in Jacobs Park

(Ariana Drehsler / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Second, Payare missed conducting the live San Diego Symphony, and musicians failed to perform with him for the audience, making Friday a win-win.

Although the musicians were eclipsed by the Shell, ultra-clear video screens showed solo instrumentalists and Payare leading the symphony in large, fluid gestures.

The symphony and the Seashell worked best together in the works of Reinaldo Moya and Ravel. Symphony no. 1, however, highlighted some of Shell’s downsides.

The first movement uses the backstage brass, a dramatic element in a concert hall. This effect did not work at Shell as the video stream showed the brass behind the scenes. Also, the sound was not as muffled as in a concert hall.

Another problem, more apparent in Mahler than in the other works, was the inability to place sounds on stage. From my seat house to the left and 12 rows back, music, beautiful as it was, emerged from the piles of speakers, diminishing the stereo field.

Sometimes the balances between winds and strings seemed extinct, where a line should have passed from one section to another with the same dynamics. The softest passages were obscured by the ambient sounds of the bay

These quibbles aside, it was a gripping tale, although only Mahler’s musicologists and completers needed to hear the “Blumine” movement that Mahler eliminated after three performances.

Pianist Inon Barnatan performs at Rady Shell in Jacobs Park

Pianist Inon Barnatan performs Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G major with the San Diego Symphony at the Rady Shell in Jacobs Park downtown on October 8, 2021.

(Ariana Drehsler / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Inon Barnatan was the effervescent pianist in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. His admirable qualities – uncluttered candor, effortless virtuosity, and devotion to the composer – were all apparent. The ebb and flow of the tempos of the first movement were precisely negotiated by Barnatan, Payare and the orchestra. Ravel’s colorful score shone everywhere.

As a reminder, Barnatan performed Earl Wild’s virtuoso arrangement on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. The corresponding passages made a nice addition to Ravel’s piano writing.

Two generations of composers have been influenced by John Adams, but few resemble him. There were passages in “Siempre lunes, siempre marzo” by Reinaldo Moya, originally from Venezuela, where I could have sworn I heard an unknown orchestral work by Adams from the 90s: long, non-repetitive but tonal melodies, two or three conflicting rhythmic layers and skillful writing for the orchestra.

However, Moya’s music is more episodic than Adams’ slowly evolving forms. Moya works from a wider palette of influences. I can’t imagine Adams writing anything like Moya’s opening marimba and percussion tremolos (so quiet they were hard to hear in the Shell) and the impressionistic flourishes of strings, harp, and celesta.

In two movements, “Siempre lunes” travels through bewitching and seductive soundscapes: diatonic waterfalls like the sunrise in “Daphnis and Chloé”, or jostled rhythms that ring like a broken clock. Aside from the overly quiet passages, Moya’s textures were well served by the amplification of the Shell.

Hopefully Moya returns to the Symphony, and next time with a bigger piece.


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