“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” Thus spake Confucius in the century before the era from which we measure western civilization. His wisdom represents the San Diego Symphony’s goal to provide high quality concert experiences for their community. The “Scottish Fantasy” weekend that opened their 2014-2015 season delivered a fine start in fulfilling that mission.

Jeff Thayer © San Diego Symphony
Jeff Thayer
© San Diego Symphony

Scotland is the land of Celtic spirits, ghost-ridden castles and mythical water beasts. Coupled with its exquisite landscape, the mystery and legend that permeate the country’s atmosphere and history have inspired poets, artists and composers to capture its magic and distinctive folklore in evocative works of art. In a faithful reprise of one of his all-time favorite SDSO concerts, that of his debut appearance with the orchestra ten years ago, San Diego Symphony music director Jahja Ling opened the 2014-2015 season with three works that conjured diverse aspects of the unique Scottish character.

Kilts were in evidence, both in the audience and sported by the bagpiper in Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise. Highland mystery abounded in Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor, traditionally titled the “Scottish”.

British-born Davies has made the isolated Scottish Orkney Islands his home for the past three decades. Inspired by actual island nuptials at which he was present, the piece conjures up images gleaned from the area’s stormy climate and from the wedding procession itself, with its colorful country celebrations based on ancient Gaelic tradition. The guests, having been plied with fiery Scots spirits in their nightlong merrymaking, shake off their inebriation when the inevitable bagpiper summons the new day. At times the music clearly reflected the influence of Aaron Copland’s works: Billy the Kid and Rodeo transported to the Scottish offshore islands.

With its amply sized orchestration and complement of percussion instruments, Orkney gives abundant opportunity for the orchestra’s first-rate players to display their abilities. Standing out were principal associate concertmaster Jisun Yang, whose extended solos were played with no-holds-barred panache, and of course bagpiper Larry Samuels, who turned heads and elicited murmurs of wonder from the audience, with his grand entrance from the back of the house and polished playing. Maestro Ling’s energetic conducting and engaging balletic movements gave the orchestra the impetus to produce an impressively magnanimous sound: he alternately propelled them forward with aggressive gestures and stood back and let them play full bore, to great effect.

Performing in place of the injured Hilary Hahn, SD Symphony concertmaster Jeff Thayer gave an impassioned rendering of Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. Unlike his compatriot Felix Mendelssohn, Bruch freely admitted to being captivated by the Scottish, their countryside and their folk tunes, and inspired by the romantically idealistic writings of Sir Walter Scott. The extreme virtuosity required of the soloist in this work made his dedication to dazzling virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, who premiered the piece in 1880, eminently logical. The unusual four-movement form is not unprecedented for a violin concerto; Henri Vieuxtemps already had employed that form in 1851 for his Violin Concerto no. 4 in D minor. However, because of the work’s free form, Bruch had doubts about using the term “concerto” and ultimately decided on “Fantasy” instead. It is perhaps the most evocative, atmospheric violin work ever written. Each movement portrays a setting or character worthy of a Walter Scott novel, regaling the listener with one after another of Scotland’s most poignant ballads and rousing Braveheart-like Scottish folk tunes.

Thayer, whose impressive showing in Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 last season established his pre-eminence as a superb, technically accomplished violinist, displayed his violinistic expertise with customary facility and aplomb. The first three movements were especially assured and confidently rendered; the massively difficult fourth movement seemed less secure, but overall his command of the instrument and deeply felt passion for the piece were indisputable.

The dreamy quality of the piece is emphasized through the use of the harp throughout; in some ways, the work could be called “Violin Fantasy with Harp Obbligato.” Principal harpist Julie Smith Phillips’ partnership provided Thayer with a praiseworthy accompaniment. Though miked, I would have liked to hear her fine playing still more prominently. Principal flutist Rose Lombardo stuck to Thayer like glue in their second movement duet, reminiscent of the soprano-flute pairing in the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, the two of them at times sounding like one instrument.

Like the Flying Dutchman of his compatriot Wagner, the young Mendelssohn based his Hebrides Overture on a stormy sea voyage. The Scottish Symphony’s origins are more intricate. From his own account, the composer first found his creative muse for the work after a stopover at the ruins of Edinburgh’s historically significant Holyrood Chapel. Unlike Bruch, Mendelssohn had no great love for Scottish folk tunes; rather, he disavowed all connections to any programmatic characteristics for the piece. No hillside heather waved in the background of the first movement; no embattled Scottish soldier stood testament to the warlike themes of the finale. That being said, it is difficult not to equate some of the work’s themes with the atmosphere of the Scottish heaths and uplands and the sway of the country’s native folk tunes.

Season after season, the orchestra and Maestro Ling continually excel at performing dynamic full-length works that demonstrate the synergy of their partnership. Their performance of Mendelssohn’s crowd-pleasing Third Symphony as a rousing finale in this concert was no exception. It was as if the combined forces of players and conductor, rather than spend their musical capital on the first two strenuous, challenging works in the program, used the accumulated energy as compounded interest to shout their enthusiasm in musical terms for the third and final work. Again, Maestro Ling danced on the podium, but only when called for. He did not hold back in asking for more passion or tenderness as the moment allowed. In doing so he secured the fervor needed for this fiercely powerful masterpiece. The French horns also deserve special mention for their gleeful, unrestrained playing.