The San Diego Symphony’s concert on Saturday was billed as “Edo de Waart & the Russian Romantics,” and it certainly delivered on that.
Principal guest conductor de Waart led the orchestra through finely crafted performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45.
However, the most interesting work on the bill was a 20-minute piece by the contemporary British composer Anna Clyne. From the publicity, you would not have noticed that her composition “Abstractions” was on the program.
So it goes with American orchestra advertising. Emphasize the standard rep and soloists. Hide the recent compositions, so ticket buyers aren’t scared off.
Works by living composers should be features, not bugs, especially when they’re as substantial as “Abstractions.” This was no five-minute concert opener, but a five-movement suite, each one inspired by a painting or photograph.
Listeners who like more harmonic change or melodic development might dismiss “Abstractions” as too simple, but those surfaces are more complex than one might gather after a single hearing.
Take the first movement, inspired by Sara VanDerBeek’s “Marble Moon.” An E major chord passes through different configurations of instruments. A slow five-note melody, to be heard in other movements, repeats, each time with different instrumental combinations. But listen to it again. That five-note melody descends, gets stretched out. Notes are held that blur the E major sonorities.
This sonic blurring happens in all five movements. Textures are never clean; there’s always some note that doesn’t quite blend in with the harmonies.
Pitches are held as the music moves on, hanging around and muddying up the harmony. It’s reminiscent of the video effect where a moving object leaves frozen frames behind, creating a smear trailing the original object.
The last movement, inspired by Brice Marden’s “3,” is the most audacious of them all. Strings arpeggiate a rising minor chord, followed by a descending dominant seventh. Back and forth, back and forth, the same two chords for the entire movement. However, the repetitions are never quite the same, and the winds and brass sound conflicting chords which crescendo from nothing and fall back again. There’s always some sort of contrast happening against the strings’ harmony.
The rest of the concert was very Russian and very Romantic. Simon Trpčeski was the valiant piano soloist in Tchaikovsky’s concerto. He romped through his part extremely well. After the first movement, the audience loudly applauded, joined by a loud horn blast from a passing boat. Wind and brass solos were excellent throughout.
Is anything claiming to be a dance so undanceable as Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances”? This bloated composition has its admirers, and they would have been happy to hear the quiet details and the monstrous crescendos that de Waart and the musicians produced.
In the end, it was the mysteries of Clyne’s “Abstractions” that resonated with me.
A Tchaikovsky piano concerto or Rachmaninoff work is business as usual for the symphony. More should be made of the living composers on the schedule.
There seems to be more music by contemporary composers on the symphony’s schedule this season than in previous years. I wish the Symphony’s publicity would celebrate these occasions, instead of covering them up.
Most of the composers on San Diego Symphony programs are already dead and buried. That’s no reason to bury the living ones.
Hertzog is a freelance writer.