Tchaikovsky was a master at composing themes and variations. The fourth movement of his Suite no. 3 in G major, a Theme and Variations choreographed by Balanchine, and the “Aurora” Theme and Variations from The Sleeping Beauty are works which display the composer’s deftness and expertise in the genre. Perhaps Anton Arensky was inspired by his master’s skills when he composed his Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky played by the San Diego Symphony last May?

The Variations on a Rococo Theme proved a good choice for Tchaikovsky, balancing his Violin Concerto in D major with an equally challenging cello piece of great breadth and virtuosity. Tchaikovsky wrote the work (his closest to an actual cello concerto) to fulfill a commission from his talented young cellist friend Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who was also a composer of cello music. Tchaikovsky considered Mozart his musical god, and composed his only solo cello work for an orchestra of Mozartean proportions – perhaps as a cleansing after having witnessed the 1876 première of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth.

Whatever his motivation, the composer has delighted and challenged cellists with this masterpiece, giving them ample opportunity to shine as if performing a concerto. Soloist Alban Gerhardt was no exception. From the initial espressivo of the theme, to the lyricism and virtuoso pyrotechnics of the variations, Gerhardt proved up to the task. That he feels the music is without question. Certainly his dazzling virtuosity was in clear evidence, and perhaps his experience as a champion of both contemporary and relatively obscure composers’ works (Fitzenhagen’s included) enhances his insight into what makes this vital Tchaikovsky work tick. The difficult thumb position notwithstanding, Gerhardt made the most of every facet the music had to offer, whether technical or interpretive. He is a musician of the highest order, in every sense of the word (his presence in the cello section for the Mahler further validated that view).

As the saying goes, there’s a first time for everything. Music Director Jahja Ling waited until more than a decade of his tenure with San Diego Symphony had passed before programming Mahler’s Symphony no. 7. Though he has conducted the work elsewhere, this performance was the orchestra’s first in its 103 year history. Ever since its 1908 Prague première, Mahler’s 7th has suffered from undeserved neglect amongst his symphonies. It has often been called Mahler’s “problem child.” In recent years, however, the piece has cast off that status to take its rightful place in the repertoire. “It is the most modern of all Mahler symphonies,” says Ling, “but for some people it is considered their favorite work of Mahler.” 

Without a doubt it was a joy and a privilege to hear a live performance of this infinitely difficult work, and Maestro Ling deserves kudos for being brave enough to program it. At 80 minutes the piece seems extraordinarily long (though Klemperer’s interpretation clocked in at 100 minutes!). But the listener’s patience is rewarded: the work is one of Mahler’s most deeply personal compositions.

Often abstract and puzzling, this symphony is not as graspable as Mahler’s other symphonies. Of the work’s five movements, the three inner ones generally are considered the most accessible. Moreover, if one expects the clear tonality of other works in the key of E minor, such as Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, one will be quite surprised with this work. The first movement actually starts, Pathétique-like, in B minor and doesn’t reach E minor until the horns’ unison main theme (powerfully played by the orchestra’s able horn section), gives way to tonal ambiguity, the violins adeptly conquering the uppermost stratosphere of their range. The movement contains a number of often quirky or bizarre musical ideas and motifs in common with Mahler’s Symphony no. 6: for example the use of cowbells to suggest a pastoral feel, and the first of a number of marches scattered throughout the entire work. The addition of the infrequently used baritone horn adds to the uniqueness of the piece.

Mahler himself vaguely compared the second movement (Nachtmusik I) to Rembrandt’s famous painting The Night Watch. With its opening horn calls (one of them muted, recalling the oboe and English horn pastorale of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique) it combines dances, marches, and more cowbells to lighten the atmosphere created by the previous movement.

The third movement Scherzo provides a bit of comic relief, but with touches that are more eerie than humorous (Queen Mab as opposed to Falstaff). Orchestrated brilliantly and creatively, the dance-like touches passed from instrument to instrument give the impression of a satirical play on the Viennese waltz. (In light of last weekend’s La Valse, one is able to appreciate just how much Mahler influenced Ravel.)

The relatively intimate feel of the fourth (Nachtmusik II) movement brings to mind Jan Steen’s amorous painting, Nocturnal Serenade. Despite its dissonances, the movement has a distinct chamber music quality, with the notable silence of heavy brass, magical use of solo horn and violin (concertmaster Jeff Thayer singing sweetly but passionately), and guitar and mandolin adding to the “up close and personal” ambiance.

Though much of the work’s character, reflected by its many themes of night, is frequently referred to as dark, deeply sad and forlorn, the finale is thrilling, even life affirming, if still satirical. The timpani and brass made the most of their always-effective partnership to portray the movement’s sudden energetic ebullience, complete with multiple types of bells in the percussion. The C major ending is reminiscent of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, whose prelude was performed (after the 7th symphony) at Mahler’s Prague première.

In a convoluted work such as this one, both control and insight are of utmost importance. With this performance, Ling showed masterful control of the ever-changing nuances, drawing deep emotion in the melodies and hushed restraint in the quiet, introspective passages. The maestro kept the many simultaneous voices clearly distinct when needed, and also made sure these voices were woven together as a coherent whole: balancing the accumulation of themes in the first movement; bringing out the voluptuous character of the Amoroso movement; holding together the fragmented passages in the Scherzo; playing up the romantic nature of the fourth movement; and capturing the boisterousness of the finale. The partnership between Ling and his ensemble was at its pinnacle in this exemplary display of virtuosity: truly an epic moment. 

A few days ago, Ling announced his planned departure from SDS after the 2016-17 season. In a press release, he said that a few of his objectives still remain unfulfilled. With this Mahler’s Seventh he has now performed each of Mahler’s symphonies here except the Eighth, the massive “Symphony of a Thousand.” One hopes that with his continued presence as Conductor Laureate and guest conductor after his leave-taking, Ling will return to complete the cycle.