Hailed as “San Diego’s most première black-tie event of the year,” the much-anticipated San Diego Symphony OPUS event commemorated the Greatest Generation with Jahja Ling programming works of Leonard Bernstein and Rachmaninov, composers active during that generation’s era, to bookend excerpts from Bizet’s ever-popular L’Arlésienne Suites.

Currently in a stunningly reviewed revival on Broadway, On The Town, the fruit of a  now legendary collaboration between Leonard Bernstein and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, was loosely based on Bernstein’s 1944 breakout hit ballet Fancy Free. In an interview for Vanity Fair, Green’s son Adam remarks that the work “announced the arrival of a new generation in the American musical theater”. He cites a poem Bernstein wrote for the elder Green’s 50th birthday, and remarks that his father would have been gratified to see so many of his works still being produced.

Lola Astanova © Nancy Ellison
Lola Astanova
© Nancy Ellison

The enduring popularity of On The Town is not surprising: Bernstein’s youthful composition, an icon of the period that inspired this event, remains captivating after many decades. Maestro Ling chose a trio of contrasting excerpts from the show: the vivacious “The Great Lover”, the introspective, melancholy “Lonely Town” and the toe-tapping “Times Square 1944”.

Ling, who studied with Bernstein and credits his mentor for providing much of his inspiration to pursue a career as a conductor, showed a clear grasp of the composer’s jazz and blues background. One of the most winning qualities of Ling’s conducting is his ability to physically demonstrate a work’s dancelike character without its seeming out of place, and numerous audience members, albeit seated, danced along with him. The clarinets, flute and piccolo outdid themselves with splashy, technically proficient virtuosity. To hear this music of a much beloved American composer for our times, played with such keen understanding by an American orchestra, was truly a pleasurable experience.

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is every bit as challenging for the pianist as any of the composer’s four concertos. Written in 1934 on a newly minted instrument provided by Steinway for his Lake Lucerne country house, Rachmaninov’s version of variations on Paganini’s notoriously difficult 24th Violin Caprice remains the most celebrated of all the settings of the piece. The  première, with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the composer at the piano, was wildly successful, though the composer felt somewhat skeptical about that success.

Rachmaninov’s tour de force not only remains the most often played, but also represents one of the premier tests of any serious pianist’s mettle. Soloist Lola Astanova, who started performing publicly from the age of eight, is recognized as one of the top interpreters of the music of Franz Liszt, as well as that of Chopin and Rachmaninov. Astanova’s detailed, meticulous interpretation reflected her impeccable background as a student of celebrated Russian pedagogue Lev Naumov (a pupil of a pupil of Liszt, thus separating Astanova from Liszt by only two generations). She showed clear technical command from the opening phrases of the work, and a great proficiency in accomplishing the pianistic gymnastics, her fingers flying over the keys so rapidly as to seem to defy gravity. Though her rendering could have been more heartfelt and lyrical, overall it was skillfully performed. Astanova’s previous collaborations with Maestro Ling proved to be a great advantage: they clearly communicated well, and Ling provided a seamless accompaniment, especially in the numerous tricky orchestral passages.

Written in 1872 for Alphonse Daudet’s tragic play L’Arlésienne (The Girl from Arles), Bizet’s incidental music anticipated the genius of his enduring masterpiece Carmen. Unfortunately for both Bizet and Daudet, the production bombed miserably (as did Carmen in its 1875 première), probably due to audience reaction to its sensuous nature. Nonetheless, the intrepid Bizet optimistically set to work arranging four of the pieces into his L'Arlésienne Suite no. 1. Four years after Bizet’s death in 1875, composer Ernest Guiraud, who also wrote the recitatives for Carmen, arranged a second L’Arlésienne  Suite made up of themes from the incidental music along with some of Bizet’s other works (such as his early opera La jolie fille de Perth). Bizet lived just long enough to enjoy the success of only the First Suite, and died before he was able to benefit from the popularity of L’Arlésienne Suite no. 2, and the ultimate triumph of his final opera, which arguably has become the most popular work of all time in that genre. Nonetheless, both Carmen and L’Arlésienne have become perennial favorites of classical music lovers.

Maestro Ling chose two excerpts from each suite, all of them demonstrating Bizet’s brilliance as an orchestrator and robustly displaying the orchestra’s virtuosity and lush sound (the violins were especially pleasing in this regard). The clarinet, flute and piccolo sparkled in the Pastorale, which alternated between majestic grandeur and southern-France playfulness. In the fleeting Menuet, the subtly matched interplay between winds and strings grabbed the attention. At only four-plus minutes, the Farandole, with its majestic opening and mid-section, built to a fitting climax for the gala evening, for which the audience showed their overwhelmingly appreciation.

Maestro Ling has again created a program that was varied and interesting, with many contrasts appropriate to the gala occasion. American, Russian, and French music, deftly played. One could hardly ask for more.