Johannes Debus, not a fit in Southern California. Photo credit: Tony Hauser
The father of my friend rolled a beautiful 25-foot putt right into the heart of the hole — for a triple bogey. For those who don’t speak golf, a triple bogey is bad for a seasoned golfer. “Well, at least that was a nice putt, Dave,” said I.
“Like whipped cream on a dog turd”, was the response. The San Diego Symphony has never given a concert which could be described as whip cream on a dog turd. However, the feeling of a beautiful putt for a triple bogey summarizes how I felt the concert went on Saturday, December 9, at The Jacobs Music Center.
The concert was out of whack from the get go. The French horn quartet which opens the Prelude to Hansel and Gretel played out of sync within the first bar. The orchestra and conductor Johannes Debus failed to find each other throughout the piece. They were lost in the woods just like, ahem, Hansel and Gretel.
Mozart Flute & Harp Concerto
Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp followed. All the notes were there, but they lacked style and conviction. This lack falls squarely on Debus, because when Charles Dutoit conducted Mozart last season that violin concerto sparkled with all the Mozartian style anyone could ask for.
Unfair to compare Debus to Dutoit? Maybe, if the composer were Stravinsky. In this case Mozart is Mozart, and what Debus gave us was something that sounded like Mozart but wasn’t Mozart.
San Diego Symphony’s principal flutist Rose Lombardo excelled during the solo passages, as did symphony harpist Julie Smith Phillips. Their second movement cadenza was imaginative and beautifully executed.
You might think we’re coming to that 25-foot putt with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1: Winter Dreams, but you would be wrong. The first three movements perplexed rather than pleased me. As each movement wandered by I kept waiting for Debus to invest some emotional capital into the music which he was directing.
With the final movement there was no way to suppress the rigor with which Tchaikovsky wrote and the concert holed out it’s 25-foot putt for a triple bogey. There is still a lot of season left, and hopefully the San Diego Symphony can hole some birdies and maybe even an eagle or two. The repertoire doesn’t support the possibility of an albatross.
Debus had scheduled the program around the idea of a cozy winter retreat complete with fire and hound. That type of approach will not read in San Diego. I recalled his previous concert of four French pieces. That concert also proved to be on the tedious side even though I tried to put a happy face onto the review.
We’ve had numerous concerts over that past several seasons which have established what the San Diego Symphony can do as an orchestra, and in these two concerts Debus has fallen short of that standard.
I’ve no idea what the situation with the search for a new music director is, but I’d have to say that after these two concerts Debus doesn’t feel like a fit for Southern California.