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A Very Good Show

February 25, 2005

Brian Leerhuber

Layna Chianakas

Michael Morgan

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By Lisa Hirsch

Who would have dreamed, while the mighty San Francisco Symphony is in the midst of recording a Mahler cycle, that across the bay there's a conductor whose Mahler is as passionate, sympathetic, and idiomatic as Michael Tilson Thomas'? Not I, but there was Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, concluding an exceptionally interesting program with a thoroughly gripping reading of a dozen well-chosen selections from Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

There's plenty of drama built into these songs, which begin and end with the horrors of war; romance, sardonic humor, and anthropomorphic animals all make appearances in between. The music wails and marches and swoons and, surprisingly often, it sounds like something produced by a Klezmer band. Mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas and baritone Brian Leerhuber made the most of the dramatic opportunities provided by the texts, without ever veering into mawkishness or exaggeration. They flirted adorably in “Verlorne Müh” (Wasted Effort) and “Trost im Unglück” (Comfort in Sorrow). Leerhuber brought dignity and a firm tone to the war songs, especially at the close of “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm” (Song of the Prisoner in the Tower) and the concluding song, “Der Tambourgsell” (“The Drummer Boy”). Chianakas was deeply moving in the “Erlkönig”-like “Das Irdische Leben” (Life on Earth) and “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (Where the Shining Trumpets Blow). She had some pitch problems at lower volumes and wasn't entirely comfortable with the runs in “Wie hat dies Liedlein erdacht?” (Who made up this song?), but these are minor quibbles about a generally excellent performance.

None of this would have been possible without Morgan. He has a great feel for the ebb and flow and dance of the songs; every tempo was natural and uneccentric, and every one of the dozens of small tempo changes had lift and life. He understands rubato and how to breathe with the music and the singers. I hope to hear him in more opera in seasons to come, because he has the makings of a great opera conductor.

Bright new work

And the Mahler was just the last piece on a terrific concert. Morgan opened with Kenji Bunch's Symphony No. 1, “Lichtenstein Triptych,” a Magnum Opus commission that was premiered by the Santa Rosa Symphony and will be performed by the Marin Symphony. Bunch directly based the symphony on three 1960s paintings by Roy Lichtenstein; that it's somewhat programmatic would be clear even if you hadn't read the program notes. It's a lively and eclectic piece that dips into just about every style you can think of, from jazz to Hollywood drama to Cuban or Afro-Cuban. The first movement starts off like a choo-choo train and turns into a whirligig of sounds, something like what that genius of cartoon scoring, Carl Stallings, might have produced if he'd had more than about five minutes in which to work his particular magic. There's a glorious English horn solo in a slower middle section, played beautifully by Denis Harper. The slow movement is melancholic and gently dissonant, with a fine clarinet solo and a lovely duet for solo violin and horn — kudos to Diane Maltester, Dawn Harms, and Stuart Gronningen for their respective playing at those moments. The last movement returns to the pneumatic energy of the first.

The first half of the program closed with a fine performance of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, played by the OEBS for the first time in Morgan's tenure. It had sweep and vitality and plenty of rhythmic impulse, bringing to the fore all the puckish humor that a too-serious conductor might try to suppress.

What theme tied these pieces together? Sardonic and sometimes quite broad humor, and more than a few rude noises in the orchestra. The Bunch would win if you were counting the number of orchestral squawks and honks, but the hee-hawking donkey in “Lob des hohen Verstands” (In praise of high intellect) and the overall tone of several other songs must give the lie to any notions that Mahler was an entirely serious composer. The Beethoven is full of humor, from the bassoon's interjection right before the second theme of the first movement, to the insistent ticking of the accompaniment in the second movement, to more than one place where the orchestra seems positively stuck in place and can't make any harmonic headway.

It's therefore somewhat dismaying to report how little the audience seemed to respond to this prominent aspect of the concert. There were giggles at the donkey in "Lob des hohen Verstands" and outright laughter at the conclusion of "Verlorne Müh;" otherwise, there were so few smiles in the house that it wasn't even clear that anyone was having a good time. Each work received an appropriate amount of applause, but hardly any joy or amusement was visible during the work. If audiences are so cowed by the idea that classical music is SERIOUS, we need to find new ways to talk about music and we need to find ways for audiences to show their pleasure in what they're hearing.

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

©2005 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved