As this year draws to a close, musicians and audiences have one last chance to celebrate the 200th birthday of Franz Liszt (1811-1886). The program this afternoon featured a couple of less-familiar orchestral pieces as well as the First and Second Piano Concerti. (Liszt’s orchestral works are infrequently performed, these ones especially so.) His Orpheus and two Légendes are tone poems, a genre pioneered by Liszt himself. They are more proto-impressionistic than the tone poems of say Richard Strauss; rather than a programmatic musical depiction of events and actions, Liszt aimed in these pieces to create atmospheres influenced by the mythological or religious figures of their titles.

Liszt’s orchestral works certainly deserve to be heard more often, even if some elements of his style can sound stilted when scored for orchestra. For example, it requires a great deal of musical inertia to vary the tempo or inflect an orchestra’s playing with any rubato. This metrical solidity makes it difficult to render Liszt’s less-inspired passagework, full of long formulaic sequences, with the requisite impulsiveness to avoid sounding predictable. On the other hand, a single instrumentalist (a solo pianist, for instance) can take more liberties and “help” the work along in its compositionally weaker moments. As it happens, the more famous version of the two Légendes is for solo piano, published in 1866 – three years after the composition of the orchestral version, which was published only in 1984 (it is unclear which was written first).

Despite any compositional inconsistencies, Liszt was certainly done justice in this concert. The San Diego Symphony is one of a handful of American ensembles to have seen its artistic level improve dramatically in recent years, and with it, financial stability. (Critic Alex Ross touches on the same phenomenon in opera companies in a recent New Yorker magazine piece.) In eight years under the direction of Indonesian-born Maestro Jahja Ling, the orchestra has hired 44 new players, including twelve in principal positions. The assumption that young talent directly translates into higher quality usually smacks of ageism – as it happens, the more recent hires range widely in age – but in this case the improvement has been profound, as the ensemble recently earned a “Tier One” designation by the League of American Orchestras.

Maestro Ling seemed to prefer to ration true climaxes, and while vivid colors weren’t always there to fill in lulls in excitement, there is something admirable in the desire to let these works speak for themselves. Mr. Ling pulled out of his string players a beautiful, cohesive sound – solos by principal cellist Yao Zhao were especially elegant – and the winds and brass played quite well. The only question marks were in the percussion. Dubbed the “triangle concerto”, the E-flat Concerto received a lackluster solo on that instrument, and the excitement of the A major Concerto’s Allegro marziale and finale was undermined by truly awful cymbal playing.

Pianist Stephen Hough was brilliant as usual. His playing is always striking in its idiosyncrasies, which sometimes border on sounding mannered but are preferable in any case to an uninspired, staid approach. Mr. Hough favored the wistful over the dramatic – recitativo passages more often evaporated in gossamer runs rather than expanded into grand, operatic gestures. Sometimes this disrupted the larger lyric arch of certain sections, but it always kept things fresh. Such understatement was especially poignant in Grieg’s Notturno, op. 54, no. 4, played as an encore.

The SDS employed two extra-musical methods of reaching out to its audience. The more successful of these was a spoken introduction to the Légendes, which presented the different motifs heard and provided some background material on Liszt’s inspiration. The other innovative touch was a large screen lowered from the ceiling of the hall, onto which a video of Mr. Hough was projected as he played. Having a high degree of intimacy with these two concerti, I expected not to be easily distracted, but ended up feeling farther from Mr. Hough rather than closer. Despite seeing him with the orchestra out of the corner of my eye, watching his image on the projection screen gave me a feeling indistinguishable from watching it on a televised broadcast or a film recording. All novelty aside, I’m afraid the biggest impression of this experiment was that of distilling, and diminishing, the effect of live performance.

Next year will be the first since 2008 not to commemorate a significant composer; before celebrating Liszt, we observed the bicentennials of Chopin and Schumann in 2010, and in 2009 the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth and Haydn’s death. The music world will have a full year to catch its breath before being inundated by all things Wagner in 2013.

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