The San Diego Symphony gave a concert on May 11, 12, and 13 with music director emeritus Jahja Ling conducting the music of Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and Ludwig van Beethoven. The programming was puzzling.
Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings opened the proceedings. That piece of music often opens a concert, but it’s not a starting pitcher. Barber’s poignant music belongs at the conclusion of the concert or, at the very least, at the end of the first half of the concert.
Why? Because of what happened at the performance I attended. The piece was tossed off in about seven minutes and devoid of any conviction. It was bizarre. The Adagio for Strings isn’t a prelude.
Later in his career, Barber set this music to the text of Agnus Dei, Lamb of God, signifying that this music was indicative, in the composer’s mind, of the passion of Jesus on the cross dying for the redemption of all humanity. Even if you consider Jesus to be a fiction, there is no denying that the stakes are quite exalted. The performance I heard was less than exalted.
Following the perfunctory Adagio was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah. The concluding movement includes text from The Book of Lamentations which was sung by mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor.
I’d never heard this music before and I found it to be both dramatic and lyrical. I will admit the rendition of Barber’s Adagio continued to nag at me during most of the first movement. I couldn’t let it go.
Kelly O’Connor did a fine job of singing. Symphony Hall does singers no favors, yet her voice was present and beautiful throughout the concluding section of the symphony.
Zimerman - Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 - II Adagio
The second section of the concert was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5: Emperor as performed by pianist Martin Helmchen. I thoroughly enjoyed Helmchen’s approach. There was a buoyancy in his playing which made it feel as though he were levitating the piano in a fantastic feat of mental metaphysics. Yet when required, Helmchen could smash the keys with the best of them.
The second movement, which contains some Beethoven’s most tender music, was much like the Barber Adagio. It felt as though maestro Ling was rushing through and trying to avoid any hint of rubato.
It’s an approach conductors take from time to time — you know, a “the notes are enough by themselves” approach. I, for one, don’t care for it. Imagine an actor removing all inflection from a performance of Hamlet because the words are enough by themselves. They’re a lot by themselves, but not enough.
Now, I have no idea if that was indeed Ling’s philosophy, but I found it to be a complete break from the slow movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in the previous concert Ling conducted. In that performance, Ling squeezed every drop of emotion he possibly could out of the music. That was not the case with his treatment of Beethoven and Barber on this night.