SAN DIEGO -- All seems calm around this city. Fires have raged and subsided. The air is fresh. Restaurants and bars, beaches and parks, are full. But once more nature has asserted herself over man. The excuse for sluggish service at a downtown cafe is that the sushi chef is still pretty shook up.
Concert halls over the weekend were also full. Saturday night, the La Jolla Symphony began a new season under a surprising new music director, the percussionist Steven Schick. Sunday afternoon, the San Diego Symphony played Mahler's lengthy Third Symphony. These were communal events. Our relationship to the environment was central to both programs.
The La Jolla Symphony -- which performs in the Mandeville Auditorium at UCSD, best described as a barn with seats and a makeshift stage -- is a community orchestra. Its members include students, faculty members and various other volunteers. Its performance standards are not professional. But its influence is. And that influence seems likely to grow under Schick, given his commitment to new work.
A former member of New York's Bang on a Can All-Stars and a prominent figure in new music, Schick has next to no credentials to be music director of a traditional symphony orchestra. But in 1994 he put out a terrific solo percussion CD titled "Born to Be Wild," so aversion to risk is not his problem.
Saturday's concert began boldly with John Luther Adams' "The Light That Fills the World" followed by the North American premiere of Philip Glass' Cello Concerto. In different ways, both works deal with the responsibility of the individual to the wider world.
Born in Mississippi, trained at CalArts and long a resident of Alaska, Adams is often called an environmental composer. He likes to explore a single sonic and find the teeming life inside. "The Light," written in 1999, may have been intended to evoke colors reflected on Alaska's snowy fields as winter turns to spring, but for San Diegans a different light has filled their world, and this 12-minute piece of shifting, crackling timbres had a burning intensity.
Glass' concerto, commissioned by Julian Lloyd Webber, has not had much currency since its 2001 premiere in Beijing. Glass, who was at Saturday's concert, said in a preconcert talk that this was his first time hearing it live and that he wasn't so keen on the recording with a wimpy-toned Webber, even though Glass released it on his own label. On the recording, the concerto sounds moody, as Bachian cello lines blend into soft, inoffensive orchestral textures.
The soloist was Wendy Sutter, the Bang on a Can cellist and a current favorite of Glass (he wrote a prominent part for her in his recent Leonard Cohen song cycle, "Book of Longing"). She is not wimpy. Neither was the gripping sound Schick's orchestra made. And suddenly the concerto became a major rhapsodic statement.
Glass makes a point that the soloist and the orchestra not be in opposition. Cello accompanies the ensemble, and the ensemble accompanies the cello with the same material. A symbiotic sense of belonging to an environment needs to be the effect, but that doesn't necessarily mean something New Agey. The finale is hard-driving Glass, and so it propulsively was here.
If the second half of the program, Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, was wild as well, that was because it pretty much got the better of conductor and orchestra. But this was an evening when catharsis was more important than intonation.
For the 100 minutes of Mahler's Third Symphony, nature takes over the concert hall. In a huge first movement, summer is meant to march in with terrifying force. Mahler then moves on to flowers, the cuckoo, long-suffering man, angels and finally a vision of heaven as a wondrous realm of all-embracing Love.
Jahja Ling, who is in his fourth season as music director of the San Diego Symphony, is in the midst of a Mahler cycle. The fires may have disrupted the lives of his players, but here they all were, nearly 100 strong, performing one of the most demanding works in the standard repertory with impressive cohesiveness, care and polish.
In fact, it was all a little too cohesive and polished. Ling took considerable pains to show that he was not born to be wild. Through tight, tidy playing, nature was mostly kept in its place.
But then Copley Symphony Hall -- an old movie-house encased in a corporate tower -- is a spirit-sapping, sound-zapping venue. So part of the lack of sonic presence may have been simply that the orchestra sounds one room removed from the audience. Jane Irwin, the mezzo-soprano soloist for the Nietzsche text in the fourth movement, sounded two rooms away, and the children's and women's choruses made little impression.
Yet despite the performance's glassy surface and overall efficiency, nature could not be denied its messy force. When climaxes broke through, they were particularly disturbing being so unexpected.
Mahler and Mother Nature have their ways of wearing down defenses. And by the end, Ling let genuine emotion, and even grit, swell through strings, winds and brass, reminding us that catharsis is not just for the wild.