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Review: The San Diego Symphony Orchestra plays new music for a new venue

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There is much to be proud of for the San Diego Symphony and its music director, Rafael Payaret, but their disregard for San Diego composers has been disappointing, to say the least.

Chinari Ung, Anthony Davis and Christopher Adler have never performed this symphony, and it’s been almost 30 years since we’ve heard anything by Roger Reynolds.

The symphony’s concert Friday at UCSD’s new Epstein Family Amphitheater was a step in the right direction.

Works by UCSD professors Rand Steiger and Lei Liang, as well as one of the music department’s most celebrated alumni, Anna Torvaldsdottirperformed to the music of Stravinsky and Barber.

Torvaldsdóttir’s 2017 composition Metacosmos begins with a low rumble that slowly builds to a cluster that is answered by an equally thick ball of high notes from flute and violin. The paradox of her music is that it seems to be constantly evolving while remaining static. Sometimes the notes become faint airy sounds, as if the orchestra is breathing. A modal melody emerges, fades away only to reassert itself at the end with consonant harmonies tinged with dissonant filigrees that fade into faint noise in the closing bars.

Stephen Schick conducted authoritatively, overseeing a likable performance.

Prior to that, Schick was the percussion soloist in the world premiere of Steiger’s clangor piece Triton’s Rise. It started with Schick smashing four cymbals, followed by a bongo crescendo that led to a rapid flurry of eight drums. The sound of the cymbals moved with sound from stage left to stage right, and it was impressive.

“Triton’s Rise” involves 16 percussionists positioned around the amphitheater to accompany the soloist. Rocks and cymbals boomed throughout the venue, only to be abruptly cut short by a conch blowing from behind right and then back left. This eventually led to a wonderful, short section in which 17 conch shells sounded in amazing harmony that enveloped the audience.

Other memorable moments included an extended section with tuned cowbells and the roar of a giant tom-tom in the middle and at the end.

Stephen Schick, who conducted part of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s Friday concert, performed as a percussion soloist.

(Eric Jepsen/UC San Diego/University of California Board of Regents)

Chic gave his usual dramatic performance. The accompanying musicians were a combination of percussionists from the symphony orchestra, UCSD and San Diego State University. It was an exciting, intense way to open the new amphitheater.

For the most part, the sound system of the amphitheater complemented the performance of the orchestra in Barber’s violin concerto and Stravinsky’s symphony in three movements. Soundboard technicians made the San Diego Symphony sound almost as good as it did at The Rady Shell.

Lena’s “Bamboo Lights” was sharply conducted by Alena Schwartz, but I lacked the acoustic warmth that a good hall would give. This is an ensemble score from each instrument, and the frequent silence of the music would have benefited more from an acoustic after-consecration.

In Barbera’s Violin Concerto, performed by soloist Paul Huang, Schwartz and the orchestra gave many advantages. Well sculpted orchestral phrases.

I have heard the San Diego Symphony Orchestra play Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements twice before; Schwartz had the least cohesive performance. The first movement lacked the momentum to catapult into the next section. It sounded like a bunch of random jumps, not what it could have been. Sometimes the textures were a thicket of notes, where a sharper distinction between the main lines and the background was required. The second and third parts are played better, but still I got the impression that the rehearsal was not enough.

Congratulations to UCSD on an exciting new venue. Congratulations on the UCSD Composers Programming Symphony. Let’s see more such cooperation for both organizations.

Editor’s note: The author of this review, a longtime Union-Tribune contributor, is an employee of UCSD.

Duke is a freelance writer.

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