When planning its subscription concert for Super Bowl week, the San Diego Symphony wisely chose a macho lineup of Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich. No dainty Mozart serenades or frilly Baroque suites would suit the mood of a city high on the elixir of this athletic extravaganza.
Fortunately, the orchestra was up to such a blockbuster challenge, proving its mettle in both the frothy effusions of Strauss' tone poem "Don Juan" and Shostakovich's heroic, emotionally exhausting Fifth Symphony. Guest conductor Maxim Shostakovich, the son of the composer, made his local debut on the podium.
The slight conductor, who appeared to be a rather boyish 50, made an unsettling first impression leading the opening work. His conducting contortions were exaggerated, almost cartoon-like, swooping and swooning over each change of orchestral palette. However, it became clear that the conductor was able to get what he wanted from the orchestra, in spite of his idiosyncrasies.
The symphony gave a sensuous account of Strauss' "Don Juan," indulging its long crescendos with shapely precision. While the brass sections proved dependable, the French horn section distinguished itself, slicing through opaque textures with secure, sweet lines. Acting co-concertmaster Igor Gruppman turned out several stylish solos, his rich, silverly timbre matching Strauss' lush idiom.
If the Shostakovich Fifth tempts some conductors to stoop to bombast, the composer is at least partially at fault. From second movement's cock-eyed waltz to the finale's boisterous military march, the symphony threatens to descend to the level of poster art.
But Shostakovich, who was born but a year after his father wrote the symphony to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Socialist Republic, was attuned to the work's inner development. He chose a pace that tied the exterior drama to the slowly building inner tensions. One left Symphony Hall remembering equally the tuneful march and the serene close of the first movement.