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Berkeley Symphony Orchestra

Jane Eaglen

Kent Nagano

June 21, 2006

Soprano Jane Eaglen

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An Ungrand Finale

By Lisa Hirsch

The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra ended its season on June 21 with as dispiriting a concert as can be imagined. The program was typical for the orchestra: the local premiere of a new work, a well-regarded soloist in both old and modern music, and a large piece from the standard repertory.

Too bad a conductor other than Kent Nagano wasn't in charge. He successfully conducts some of the most difficult music composed in the 20th century, and he doesn't have visible technical weaknesses, but from a musical standpoint, this concert was a near-total failure.

His best work on the program came in Edmund Campion's Practice, the premiere. Nagano conducted this complicated piece effectively and made an excellent case for it. Campion, who has studied with the French composer Gérard Grisey, wrote Practice following some of the principles of the spectral music style. The composer's notes suggest that the work is intended to evoke an orchestral warm-up or practice session. With its emphasis on sonority and color, rather than melodic or harmonic development, Practice succeeds in this. Its sonorities are often extremely beautiful, from sinister and subtle ostinatos in the lower instruments to swirling harp and flute arpeggios to shimmering strings and beautiful clusters of sound in the winds and brass.

In addition to the usual orchestral instruments, Practice includes a MIDI keyboard controlling software that runs on a Macintosh. Campion's notes state, "Conceptually, the musicians are unaware that the pervasive triangle noise is influencing them as they practice their parts. Nevertheless, they can't help but conform — they join with the spectral content of the electronics without completely being aware of it. As the piece progresses, the musicians become better adapted to the environment. They move within the din and they join with the spectral content of the triangles. This becomes their 'practice.' The two percussionists who methodically walk on either side of the stage are playing the actual triangles that were used to create the electronic parts."

If only what Campion describes were audible. On one hearing, it was impossible to tell how the triangles and electronic parts related to what was happening in the rest of the orchestra. The work is well-made and often beautiful, and it succeeds on those terms, but on the whole, the triangles and electronics seemed superfluous. Sometimes, it might be better for a composer not to tell the audience what a work is supposed to be about or how it is constructed.

Performances fall flat

The noted dramatic soprano Jane Eaglen made her first appearance with the Berkeley Symphony on this program, performing Berg's Seven Early Songs and Donna Anna's arias Or sai chi l'onore and Non mi dir from Mozart's Don Giovanni. An announcement before Eaglen's first appearance explained that she was suffering from allergies and asked the audience's understanding. In performance she had intermittent pitch problems, which are not unusual for her, and she sounded a bit muffled and somewhat diminished in volume compared to how she sounds when she's completely healthy. Still, allergies can't be blamed for the hash she made of the runs in Non mi dir, or for her terrible, consonant-free diction throughout, or for her prosaic approach to the Berg. Or sai chi l'onore, the best-sung of her selections, was vehement but rhythmically mushy, which likely resulted from her poor diction.

Berg wrote his Seven Early Songs, originally for piano and voice, between 1905 and 1907, then revised and orchestrated them in the late 1920s. Both the poems and their settings are richly Romantic, colorful, and passionate. What a shame, then, to have them fall utterly flat in performance. Nagano could sometimes be seen damping down the orchestra's volume, presumably in response to Eaglen's indisposition, which must have affected the music's impact. Still, how much better to have simply scaled everything down to preserve a reasonably wide emotional and dynamic range, rather than flattening both ends, which meant much of the beautiful orchestral detail was lost.

Even so, the greatest problem with the Berg was Eaglen's inability to color and shade the words, to lighten and darken her tone in response to those words, or to display audibly any kind of emotional response to the shifting moods of the music.

Schumann's symphonies, with their overly thick orchestration and sprawly forms, can be difficult even for a talented conductor to balance and bring off effectively. Above all, the symphonies require commitment, focus, energy, and a willingness to go to emotional extremes; the conductor must choose tempos judiciously and execute with enthusiasm. Nagano conducted the Second Symphony cautiously, perhaps the biggest mistake he could have made. None of the movements, even the charming scherzo, ever achieved much momentum. Orchestral balances were poor, transitions within movements were bumpy, and the openings of all four movements were badly coordinated and tentative. At times the orchestra played so stiffly and carefully that the players might as well have been sight-reading. All in all, what resulted was a boring performance, completely lacking in sparkle or charm or romance.

(Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)

©2006 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved