From the Pacific coast, the San Diego Symphony takes its audience on a tour of the classics this season, all the way from Scotland to Spain, with stopovers in nearby Hollywood.

The tartan-inspired season opener begins with a tribute to 80th birthday boy Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, whose An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise will get things off to a festive start. Hilary Hahn, one of many star soloists rostered, performs music of a different ‘Max’ – Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, with its engaging treatment of traditional folk melodies. Bruch, who never set foot in Scotland, nevertheless manages to conjure up an authentic Scots twang in his orchestration, including prominent role for harp.

Jahja Ling © David Hartig
Jahja Ling
© David Hartig

Felix Mendelssohn did visit Scotland, embarking on a walkng tour in 1829. His visit to Staffa inspired his Hebrides Overture, while Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace gave him the idea for a “Scottish” Symphony. He was also an accomplished artist, sketching and painting watercolours on his journey. Jahja Ling, San Diego’s Music Director since 2004, is at the helm, whisking listeners on this Highland fling around Scotland.

Veteran British conductor Sir Neville Marriner, 90 this year, steers an unlikely course between Hollywood and the Malvern Hills in his January concerts. Erich Korngold’s music is known to many listeners because of his film scores for swashbuckling epics starring Errol Flynn, but his concert works are superb. The most renowned example is his Violin Concerto, the first work he wrote following his retirement from writing for the movies, partly stung by accusations that he had sold his integrity to Hollywood. It was premiered by the great violinist Jascha Heifetz in 1947 and is lushly romantic in tone for the first two movements, before a fiendishly difficult finale. Alina Pogostina tackles Korngold’s challenging score, before Marriner guides the San Diego Symphony through Elgar’s affectionate series of portraits in the Enigma Variations. Elgar never revealed the source of the original ‘enigma’ theme but the variations which follow treat the music as representations of his ‘friends pictured within’.

Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto is about as rarely performed as Barber’s. Dedicated to David Oistrakh, it’s full of lively Armenian rhythms, particularly the wild finale. Philippe Quint is the intrepid soloist stepping into Oistrakh’s shoes. Other soloists of note in the season include Vadym Kholodenko, gold medallist in the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, who performs Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor, and American soprano, Nicole Cabell, winner of the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in Strauss' Four Last Songs. Legendary pianist Richard Goode provides a masterclass in Mozartian playing in the Piano Concerto no. 25 in C major.

Much of the season is filled with established classics, but among the rarer repertoire you’ll find a timpani concerto composed in 1983  by William Kraft, who spent 25 years as a percussionist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s a terrifically virtuosic work and one to test principal timpanist of the San Diego Symphony, Ryan DiLisi. David Bruce’s Violin Concerto “Fragile Light” is given its première by the San Diego Symphony in December, with soloist Gil Shaham, and reflects on the fragility of the planet in an almost spiritual way. It is preceded by three Bach chorales.

Ray Chen © Uwe Arens
Ray Chen
© Uwe Arens

Ling leads the orchestra in an excusion around Spain in the season’s penultimate programme, with two works from Spanish composers and two seen through a French lens. Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole is a violin concerto by all but name. Written for Pablo de Sarasate, it is full of Spanish motifs, reflecting the popularity for Spanish-flavoured music in France at the time. Ray Chen is the soloist in this characterful piece. 

Maurice Ravel was born just miles from the Spanish border, to a Basque mother, and Spain held a strong influence over his compositional life. Alborada del gracioso (Morning song of the jester) originally started as a piano piece, but is commonly heard in orchestral garb. Chabrier’s España and Manuel de Falla’s music from The Three-Cornered Hat add authentically Spanish colours to a lively programme.

In the final San Diego programme, Stephen Hough performs Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto before Ling closes the season with Brahms’ sunny Second Symphony.