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Stealing Schumann's Thunder

November 1, 2005

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By Jeff Rosenfeld

By all rights the most vivid piece on the Berkeley Symphony concert on Tuesday should have been Robert Schumann's scenic “Rhenish” Symphony. Instead, a 16-minute electronic work by John Chowning, resurrected from the early days of computer composition, proved most picturesque. The concert was thus a mixed harbinger of the cycle of Schumann symphonies planned for 2005-06, as a tape machine took the spotlight from a normally ravishing and forceful symphony.

The Schumann symphony is actually the last of the set of four, though by its publication in 1851 it is numbered the third. Despite being the symphony nearest to its creator's demise by schizophrenia, the “Rhenish” can seem as harmless as a postcard, possibly inspired by the sights of the Rhine region where Schumann briefly held a job as conductor in Düsseldorf.

The opening surges energetically with waves of enthusiasm frothed by layer upon layer of sound. Whole sections of the orchestra get buried in the onslaught, although music director Kent Nagano took great care not to overwhelm the ear. But all this color and energy seemed muted in the process. Nagano drew the best playing of the evening in the symphony, but the attacks were not vigorous or clean enough to propel the first movement rhythms with requisite force. The orchestra in the fourth movement was beautifully smooth and sustained, but its horns and the evocation of the huge Cologne cathedral were a shade too demure, while the bucolic prancing in the second movement was smudged by approximate ensemble. Perhaps most tellingly, the tender fourth movement, marked “Not fast,” felt light and urgent, emphasizing a gentle lyrical line too slight to balance all the bursting enthusiasms in the rest of the symphony.

Caitlin Tully

Nagano sustained the music sonorously, and with the exception of some vigorous playing in the orchestra's fine bass section and some rough spots in the woodwind, the "Rhenish" came across too smoothly: more civilized than evocative.

This was a problem in the Manfred overture, too, which was too tepid for what this tortured character study can stand. The highlight, as in the third movement of the symphony, was Nagano's ability to draw a clean, sweet repose in the quieter passages. Here one sensed the orchestra could hear itself through Schumann's sonorities, and responded with its best intonation and most secure rhythms.

This sonic contrast between softer, leaner passages and the vigorous, massed sections underscored Schumann's explication of mood through varying harmonic density. The performance thus — perhaps inadvertently — rationalized the bizarre inclusion of Chowning's 1977 piece for audio tape, Stria, on this program, as if anything could really justify spending valuable audience time and attention on a tape work on an orchestral program. Stria is a pure exploration of the meaning of clarity and density of harmony — a fitting etude for the ear amid these Schumann pieces.

There are obscure mathematics behind Stria: fractal-like geometry that embeds likenesses of pitch ratios and time intervals, the Golden Mean . . . no matter. What counts is the sound, a pealing of electronic tones, with dissonances softly chiming like a carillon. Slowly the varying balances of pitches reveal a chord to be a template with an incomprehensibly dense cluster of pitches. Tonality matters little, and certainly rhythm and tempo and counterpoint are basically absent on familiar scales. All one gets, really, is the variation from open intervals to density and back again within a rigid template. Ironically, it was Nagano's Schumann in microcosm.

As for the picturesque element, throw in the abstract but strangely breathtaking landscapes of the moving pitch-time-volume plot, which the BSO projected from computer to a big screen over the Zellerbach stage. I found it exceedingly strange to see a graph showing where the music was going, not just where it was at the moment. It was like forcing the audience to listen with score in hand. Not necessarily a good idea, but it was fun to try it once. Stria is not a work that repays repeated listening on the basis of its macrostructure, anyway.

Assured young violinist

If one wanted to ponder uncertain futures, there was always the 17-year-old soloist Caitlin Tully, who made her BSO debut in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major. Tully, who lives in Texas, is a student of Itzhak Perlman but seems to bear little resemblance to him, musically, at the moment. Rather than relishing a big fruity sound, her performance was assured and elegant, a little prim at times, perhaps, but also enthusiastic in the finer points of secure, sprightly rhythm and close ensemble with the orchestra. This particularly paid dividends in the sensitive interplay with the other strings in the cantabile second movement. Her tone is bright and focused, but it didn't really enrich as one might expect when she drew the bow close to the frog. In short, she seemed like a seasoned ensemble player and a poised soloist, but her Mozart was best appreciated for its subtle virtues.

Perhaps the same could be said for the entire concert — musicmaking with some subtle virtues and a tape with even more obscure relevance. It is difficult to project the quality of Nagano's Schumann cycle over the rest of the season, given this rather plain start.

(Jeff Rosenfeld is an oboist with the Kensington Symphony, West County Winds, and Pacific Wind Ensemble. He is a freelance science journalist and author of the recent book, Eye of the Storm: Inside the World's Deadliest Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and Blizzards.)

©2005 Jeff Rosenfeld, all rights reserved