by Melanie Wong
San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling has said, "We should never call ourselves a world-class orchestra . . . only other people will say what kind of orchestra we have." Well, Maestro Ling, you'll be happy to know that after Tuesday night's exhilarating Carnegie Hall debut—a historic moment for the nearly 103-year-old orchestra—a world-class orchestra is exactly what we will call you.
The 82-member orchestra opened with the New York premiere of David Bruce's Night Parade. Perfectly timed for Halloween, Bruce has accurately related his orchestral showpiece to "a city night—with the kind of weird shadows that you see under a neon light." With wailing clarinet solos, spontaneous honking, sneaking quiets that led to screaming trumpets, and a funky groove that made the whole thing sound like some sort of demented dance, Night Parade took the audience on a trip through an excitingly dark version of Wonderland or Oz. The brass suffered mild intonation issues, but overall the orchestra expertly tackled tricky metric changes and mood shifts, resulting in constant anticipation of what could be lurking around the next corner.
Preeminent pianist Lang Lang—recently named one of TIME Magazine's 100 most influential people—joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. The performance was truly mesmerizing: the orchestra was heart-wrenchingly romantic, the pianist's wildly dramatic showmanship was fascinating, and the orchestra and pianist fluidly melted into each other's sounds. Lang Lang was at his best in the Allegro scherzando, where his technique and musicality perfectly fit the movement's march-like spirit. The strings were notably luscious throughout, and solos in the horn and clarinet were divine.
At the work's end, the orchestra and Lang Lang whipped out a jaunty version of "Happy Birthday" for 80-year-old Irwin Jacobs, who was in the audience. (Mr. Jacobs and his wife are staunch supporters of both Lang Lang's International Music Foundation and the San Diego Symphony—whom they gifted $120 million in 2002, the single largest donation ever made to an orchestra.)
The program ended with Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, and it was here that the orchestra was truly at its best; Ling's exciting and masterful interpretation showcased the players' resplendent sound and fiery energy. On the whole, the ensemble captured the first movement's sinister undertones, the third movement's deep pain, and the fourth movement's vivacity.
Soloists throughout the evening were notable, but it was clarinetist Sheryl Renk, who had solos riddled throughout the entire concert, who stood out most for her confident playing, flexibility of sound, and ability to set the tone for entire movements.
At the evening's close, Ling glowed with delight. His excitement was so much so that he began the encore (Bernstein's overture to Candide) a bit faster than the brass was ready for. However, it all came together beautifully and even further conveyed the incredible musicianship in the strings and woodwinds, who perfectly performed the work's many technical solos, even at lightning speeds.
Following the debut, Ling and the San Diego Symphony embark to China for their first international tour, with guest stars Lang Lang, Joshua Bell, and Augustin Hadelich. In the face of adversity—with orchestras shutting down left and right—San Diego is instead climbing to the top, having found a way to grow by artistically engaging their audience and community.