Conductor David Danzmayr propels San Diego Symphony to brilliance

Conductor David Danzmayr, currently chief conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic, returned to the San Diego Symphony on Friday night to conduct three large-scale works that demand stylistic versatility.

The world premiere of Mexican composer Javier Álvarez’s “Brazos de niebla” (“Arms of Mist”) — commissioned by and dedicated to the San Diego Symphony — addresses a current sociopolitical dilemma: immigration. But this is no political screed: its thrumming orchestral texture (augmented by four small Mexican guitars called vihuelas) chugs ahead like a train, with underlying dance rhythms (even a haunting snatch of mariachi) alerting us to the embedded culture that migrants carry in their hearts on the journey toward a new life.

And it is searing emotional memory to which boy soprano Gonzalo Ochoa gave voice in the work’s central section, with a desolate, loss-filled lament based on text by Fresno-based writer and 51st United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, the son of migrant farmworkers who found his artistic calling while growing up in San Diego. If appropriately balanced amplification was necessary to buttress Ochoa’s pure tone against a full orchestra, it did not diminish the impact of his fierce concentration and disciplined musicianship.

Make no mistake: This is a commission that has yielded important music that audiences deserve to hear again, even often, in years to come.

Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot said that the definition of a classic — in any art form — is one that does not yield up its secrets easily. Guest pianist Conrad Tao found undiscovered secrets in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 that have been there all along, I suspect, but take a musician with admirable musical scruples to ferret out. I do not know if the mellow, almost contemplative approach to this concerto was Tao’s conception or Danzmayr’s, but I know this: Their collaboration was extraordinary.

How? Less volume, more finesse, a sense of restraint, and of examining each phrase as if it were brand-new.

Tao is not afraid of displaying his technical brilliance, especially in blazing octaves up and down the keyboard, where his speed — and accuracy — are astounding. Together, Tao and Danzmayr searched for small things that make a big difference, especially crucial gradations between piano and mezzo-piano, fortissimo and mezzo-forte, to allow us to hear not only the soloist but all the way down through the orchestra’s texture.

Tao is only 24. He has a brilliant career ahead — and many more secrets to discover. If I could, I’d hear every performance he plays.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is anything but the “children’s symphony” it was purported to be at the time of its composition. It is the last music Prokofiev wrote, completed in October 1952; he would die on the same day as Stalin in March 1953. And it is in this last piece of “simple” music that he opens his arms to both life and death. Frail as he was and barely able to work, he filled this symphony with light and happiness — fragments of “Peter and the Wolf,” echoes of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” flicker by, and the slow movement’s yearning is not sad but sublime in its calm acceptance of life’s approaching end. In the last bars of the final movement, mortality’s clock ticks inexorably in the flute and English horn — and finally stops.

How did the orchestra play it? Brilliantly, simply, led by a conductor who clearly knows this underestimated work’s great value.

San Diego Symphony: Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev

With: David Danzmayr, conductor; Conrad Tao, featured pianist

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Copley Symphony Hall at Jacobs Music Center, 750 B St., downtown

Tickets: $20-$100

Phone: (619) 235-0804

Online: sandiegosymphony.org

Overton is a freelance writer.

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