Search lights outside Copley Symphony Hall, festive decorations in the lobby, and post-concert soirees heralded the opening of the San Diego Symphony's fall season Friday night. But from a musical perspective, guest pianist Bella Davidovich, soloist in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, stole the spotlight from the orchestra, in whose honor the festivities were mounted.
Music director Yoav Talmi attempted to put his best foot forward with the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, but his determined interpretation of the old warhorse and the orchestra's decidedly earthbound response paled before Davidovich's incandescent performance. The Russian virtuosa captured the romantic poetry of the Chopin Concerto with a sweeping, seamless panache that was absolutely irresistible. Every aspect of her formidable, polished technique enlightened the familiar concerto, from her elegant rubatos and feathery arabesques, to her thundering bass octaves and crisp dotted rhythms. She unfolded the "Larghetto" with a pulse-quickening lyricism and delicate ornamentation that brought to mind George Sand's observation that Chopin "made an instrument speak the language of the infinite."
In the Beethoven Symphony, Talmi's broad tempos taxed the orchestra's ability to sustain such clenched-fist textures with both power and depth. Despite moments of thoughtfully detailed illumination, most of the Symphony seemed dark and ponderous. It clearly lacked momentum. Typically, the first concert after the summer season finds the orchestra's sound out of focus and rough-edged; Friday was no exception. Playing outdoors improves nothing musical except the posture of marching bands.
Jean Berger, a German-born composer who has spent most of his career in the U.S., was present to hear the symphony perform his "Sinfonia di San Petronio" to open the program. Berger is best know for his mellifluous choral music, and this three-movement opus for strings and brass demonstrated that he is no more adventurous with instruments. This pleasant but hardly profound occasional piece juxtaposed busy neoclassical counterpoint with lush harmonic interludes, the kind of well-crafted instrumental writing favored by Ernest Bloch earlier in this century. The slightly asymmetrical rhythmic patterns of the final movement, however, sounded as if they had been recycled from the march in Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale." The work's evident virtue was to allow the symphony brass, notably the trumpets, to display their brilliant tones in discretely spaced, graceful flourishes.