San Diego’s Copley Symphony Hall resounded with the noble key of C major this weekend as San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling provided yet another example of his creative sense of programming. Music by living Pulitzer Prize winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, along with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25 in C major performed by renowned pianist Richard Goode, comprised a winning prelude to the evening’s monumental masterwork, Schubert’s Symphony no. 9, the “Great” C major.

At only four minutes’ length, Zwilich’s Upbeat! made its debut with the orchestra. Zwilich draws upon her background as a violinist by brilliantly quoting from the Preludio to J.S. Bach’s Solo Violin Partita in E major. The genius of Bach as demonstrated by the virtuosity required to play the piece heightens the skills shown by Zwilich in her deft use of animated rhythms and keen familiarity with the technical possibilities of her favored instrument. The composer describes the piece as a buoyant concert opener, intended to energize the audience. Upbeat! not only delivers on that premise, but also provides an active workout for the strings, the violin sections especially. Playing strains of solo music en masse is always a challenge, as demonstrated, for example, in Rossini’s String Sonatas, and the San Diego strings performed with remarkable togetherness. Adding to the overall energy of the atmosphere, Zwilich painted her lighthearted landscape with tones of Bernstein and Stravinsky.

Richard Goode © Sasha Gusov
Richard Goode
© Sasha Gusov

Goode, who has professed a great fondness for Mozart’s 25th Concerto, says the work contains some of “the greatest moments that I know in Mozart”. Though the piece has been neglected in comparison with the other concerti of that period, and in some cases has been described in lackluster terms, Goode has said he finds the work in some ways revolutionary and he has diverged from the dearth of critical praise to give the work the loving attention it deserves.

Known for his warm, sensitive approach to the classics, Goode crafted a debut performance filled with richness and clarity. He shaped phrases with delicacy, always keenly aware of the dialogue between his instrument and the orchestra. In the opening Allegro, which embodies the term maestoso in its every phrase (and shares an undeniable  bond with Mozart’s Symphony no. 34, also in C major), Goode’s fingers were at one with the keyboard, hardly lifting off the keys, as if guided by an angel who happened to be communicating directly with Mozart himself. In the Andante second movement, he made the most of the dovetailing between the piano and woodwinds, leading to the Allegretto, which sparkled with rapid-fire effervescence and razor sharp precision.

With its majestic C major opening, the concerto resembles the overture to Mozart’s later opera Così fan tutte as much as Don Giovanni, which the composer was also working on during the period in which he wrote this concerto. Ling accompanied the soloist with his usual attention to detail, using his keen Mozartean sensibilities to emphasize the dramatic and operatic aspects of the piece.

“Revolutionary” in terms of this work may serve as a double entendre, for the second theme of the first movement bears an unmistakable resemblance to the opening of the Marseillaise, the emblematic theme written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. This note pattern also evokes Papageno’s second-act aria in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte; and would seem to have been lifted note-for-note for the second act celebration scene in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, which ends with a cameo appearance by Catherine the Great. With the revolution in France making its indelible mark in the late 1700s, these references can hardly be considered coincidental.

Those who know and love another of  Schubert’s late C major works, the sublime String Quintet, would likely acknowledge an equal affection for the far less intimate but more monumental nature of the composer’s Symphony no. 9. The work’s difficulty and length may have intimidated the musicians of Schubert’s time, but in fact these elements contribute to the symphony’s immensity and profound character, and the composition itself comprises a true culmination of the life’s work of a genius.

Ling’s experience clearly showed in his interpretation of the massive work, which he conducted without a musical score. He clearly demonstrated with his expansive interpretation that the expression “Great” related less to its more major status compared to the “Little C major” Symphony no. 6 than its position as one of the most formidable symphonic works of its century. Of special note were the conductor’s skillfully executed dynamic contrasts, which are of prime importance in a piece of such breadth. He kept the pacing active, always moving forward, in the opening Allegro. In the slow movement his tempo was contemplative but never too slow, allowing the concerto-like oboe writing to dominate. The final two movements, both designated Allegro vivace, moved at a brisk pace, but never rushed 

Overall the tempi of all four movements were perfectly integrated, each leading to the next, all of them enmeshing with one another to give the impression of a work comprised of one long, extended line growing and developing each out of the other.

That is a truly remarkable feat, and Maestro Ling accomplished it with great flair and dexterity. From Mozart to Schubert, with some help from Zwilich, a jubilant C major-themed concert resulted in a joyous, Upbeat experience.