One of the most difficult transitions in the orchestral world is that of concertmaster, or leader, to concerto soloist. In last night’s concert, San Diego Symphony concertmaster Jeff Thayer proved himself up to that task, in one of the violin repertoire’s most demanding works Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2. Maestro Jahja Ling rounded out the unusual, ambitious program with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed Symphony no. 3 in D major, Op.29.

Jahja Ling © David Hartig
Jahja Ling
© David Hartig

Throughout his engagement with Maestro Ling’s ensemble, Thayer has established his excellence as an orchestral soloist and leader with true distinction, eminently worthy of the 1708 “Sir Bagshawe” Stradivarius. In this wild, passionate piece, with its characteristically magyarok flavor, Thayer definitely made use of this fine instrument’s capabilities. With extensive double and triple stopping, massively difficult florid runs in rapid succession, and lush melodies reaching into the stratosphere from the G string to the E string, the piece can easily bring even the most proficient violinist to his or her knees.

Thayer prevailed over all the complexities with dexterity and technical command. His most shining moments came in the first movement cadenza, where he was able to demonstrate his superb technique with impressive authority and improvisatory aplomb, and the final Allegro, where he tossed off the frenzied, seemingly impossible passagework so dazzlingly that one wondered how he managed to do it. Whether or not Zoltán Székely, the violinist who originally asked Bartók to write the concerto, was capable of achieving such a feat at the work’s première in 1938, Thayer undoubtedly proved it playable, judging from the roar of applause after his final notes.

Another soloist of note was principal flute Rose Lombardo, who approached the Debussy as if it was also a concerto. The first unaccompanied notes, difficult enough to begin a piece, to say nothing of an entire concert, were both sensuous and assured, and throughout she never failed to produce an effect that wasn't in keeping with the work’s impressionistic character.

Considering the composition’s standing in orchestral repertoire since its debut in 1894, one would hardly believe the harsh reactions Debussy elicited from his contemporaries. The composer had committed atrocities; the piece, with its vague tonality and supposed lack of form, was an assault on the ears; it was no more music than a painter’s palette was equivalent to a painting. Nonetheless, historically the piece was a revolutionary musical turning point. Conductor Pierre Boulez considers the work to be the beginning of modern music; Leonard Bernstein, in his 1973 Norton Lecture series, claimed the Prélude stretched limits of tonality, and presaged 20th century atonality.

Maestro Ling drew shimmering tones from the orchestra, evoking the colors of the Stéphane Mallarmé poem from which the title is borrowed, capturing the effect of Debussy’s whole tone scales, tritones, and sensuous harmonies. The overall harmonic fluidity conjured the dreamscape of a piece that should be listened to emotionally rather than intellectually.

Relative to his five other symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s so-called “Polish” Symphony is little known. Indeed, it has only once been presented with this ensemble, in the 1986-87 season. The nickname is not related to any aspect of the piece except for the final tempo di Polacca movement, which derives from the traditional Polish dance, the polonaise. However, English conductor Sir August Manns saw fit to create a “program” for the piece, symbolically linking its stirring panoply of emotions with an oppressed Poland celebrating its eventual regeneration.

Notwithstanding any particular ethnic flavor, the Third Symphony is unusual for other reasons. It is the only one of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies in a major key, with five movements reminiscent of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. Tchaikovsky wrote the work in 1875, at the age of 35, when he was not yet fully established as a composer, though the première later that year of his Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor shot him to fame. He acknowledged a lack of focus and cohesion between the movements in this early symphony; but undoubtedly he showed his ability to write appealing melodies, many of which gave hints of those he created for his ballets, operas and other symphonies.

The maestro gave a lively, balletic rendering, literally dancing on the podium to inspire equally vigorous playing from his orchestra. The length of the work, and its seemingly unrelated movements, presents a special challenge to conductor, musicians, and audience alike. The maestro maintained energetic control throughout. The orchestra responded with lush sounds from the strings, crisp articulation from the winds and brass, and masterful solos from the principals in the French horn and bassoon sections. And the audience showed its approval with enthusiasm, indicating that perhaps this unfamiliar work will merit more attention in the future.