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Indulging in symphonic lush among the eucalypti

Ken Bell, alto and chorus conductor on cow horn

Continually, I find great, sometimes unheralded, treasures here in America’s Finest City that prove otherwise. One such is the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, now actually in its 57th season of bringing classical music to Southern California. I had the opportunity to experience this orchestra with more than a half century of legacy for the first time, May 5, at its Spring Symphonies at the Mandeville Auditorium on the UCSD campus. The sky was bright because May 5 was the night of the “super moon;” but there was some considerable shining going on inside as well.

Sometimes it is best to view a theatrical performance, whether a play or a concert, with no pre-conceived expectations and just absorb it, allowing it to be enlightening and take you where it will. That is how I approached the evening. The first surprise was the Mandeville Auditorium itself, in an almost classic, idyllic setting among the eucalyptus trees on the beautiful UCSD campus. But more on that in a moment.

The evening began with a half-hour lecture by conductor David Chase. It was informative and prepared the audience for the performance. I never knew that most symphonies have a structured format of four movements or parts, each with a different energy and purpose. As with most musical productions, there is a build-up with the first movements generally being quieter, and the fourth movement pulling out all the stops. Chase affectionately referred to the fourth movements of the evening’s two largest pieces as “romps in the park.” And to be sure, symphonies convey a story, a mood, a place or time through a variety of rhythms, saving the “best for last.”

The focus of all the evening’s pieces was obviously “spring.” They musically related such seasonal aspects as the melting snow of winter, the bursting forth of spring blossoms, the fanciful interest in love and the rollout of summer. The symphony’s approximately 80 musicians, and the chorus’ more than 120 members, were joined by the San Diego Youth Coast Singers, a 100+ voice youth chorale.

The evening began with two relatively short elegies for string instruments by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. Chase described them as “character pieces,” the first about broken hearts, the other, remembrances. Next was Robert Schumann’s robust “Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major: Spring.” As the title suggests, it was Schumman’s first symphony and full of his youthful exuberance. But I also found it exceptionally melodic and peaceful. Filling the second part of the evening after an intermission was Benjamin Britten’s “Spring Symphony,” a true melding of poetry and music. As the highlight piece, it brought together 13 disparate poems sung by the chorus with three soloists and the power of all the instruments. Soloists Kerrie Caldwell, Martha Jane Weaver and Christopher Bingham all brought to the stage outstanding voices and a commanding professional presence. Together they created a memorable crescendo in the fourth movement finale that Chase said included “everything but the kitchen sink,” including a cow horn.

The Mandeville Auditorium, while not overtly stunning, is more than adequate with very fine acoustics and a distinctly wide-open, airy and inviting feel. With about 800 seats, no one feels remote to the performers. Seating is available in movable chairs close to the stage or in theater seats covering the back two-thirds of the auditorium. Neither are exceptionally comfortable. The “orchestra” seats offer a trade-off: less comfort (think thinly padded plastic chairs) but a delightful, more intimate closeness to the stage. Choose your priority. I suspect that plush seating is avoided to prevent the audience from being lulled to sleep by beautiful concert music. The lobby is small and intimate with a separate box office area that is actually a pleasant reception room.

I cannot say enough about the physical setting for the auditorium that makes one forget they are in a large city. Relish the stroll through the campus from the parking lot, and if conditions are right, breathe in the fresh eucalyptus smell. One recommendation I heartily make: arrive early to enjoy the musicians practicing and tuning their instruments. It gives a sense of their seriousness and dedication to their craft. Indeed, by the end of the evening, I had an even greater appreciation for the marriage of the musician and his or her instrument. The orchestra’s members encompass a wide age range from 20s to 80s, slightly slanted toward the more mature, much like the audience. It was especially intriguing to see a silver-haired woman plying her cello with youthful exuberance. Though the musicians and chorus were all formally dressed in black and white, the audience showed a wide variance, more dress-casual than not.

In welcoming the audience, La Jolla Symphony & Chorus Executive Director Diane Salisbury offered a major announcement. They will be performing Britten’s “Spring Symphony” May 27 at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. If you are unable to catch them there, learn more about upcoming symphony performances and their new season at lajollasymphony.com. If you feel that classical music is not your forte, give it a chance to expand your horizons. You will find it a refreshing treasure, especially set peacefully at the Mandeville.

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Posted by on May 10, 2012. Filed under Entertainment Feature. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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