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A Hundred Years of Heavenly Singing

November 5, 2005

Marika Kuzma

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By Mickey Butts

When the history of classical music in the Western United States is written, it will surely devote a chapter to the music department at UC Berkeley, one of the oldest in California, if not in the country. The department is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a full schedule of concerts (see highlights at the end of this article).

Founded in 1905 with a $6,000 grant from the California State Legislature, the department hired John Frederick Wolle as its first chair. Under Wolle, the sounds of symphony and choir concerts regularly drifted through the trees surrounding the Greek Theater, where the music was interrupted only briefly by the 1906 earthquake.

Charles Seeger, the pioneering musicologist (and father of Pete Seeger) was recruited as chair in 1912. According to a history of the department, "Seeger arrived to find music classes being taught at several venues, some in the YMCA, others in the foyer of the Hearst Mining Building. In 1913, department personnel and teaching apparati were moved to music's first building, 'an old, smelly house on Bancroft,' according to Seeger." The energetic chair worked tirelessly to establish a four-year music curriculum, as well as found the university's first music library (a tradition that the striking new Jean Gray Hargrove Library continues). In 1913, he also developed and taught the first course in musicology in the United States.

Seeger left the university in 1918 on a sabbatical, never to return, as a result of both differences with the administration over his conscientious objector status during World War I and an emotional collapse. He soon ended up teaching at the forerunner to Juilliard in New York, as well as the New School for Social Research. He would later help assemble the Archive of Folk Song for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, and become a leading figure in the revival of folk music in America.

In later years, the department would become home to such major composers as Ernest Bloch, Roger Sessions, Randall Thompson, Andrew Imbrie, and Richard Felciano, and today is well-known for its leading work in ethnomusicology, composition, and audio technology.

UC Berkeley Chorus, circa 1947

A concert on November 5 of the UC Berkeley University and Chamber choruses, under the precise direction of Marika Kuzma, continued the singing tradition that Wolle began 100 years ago. Titled "In Paradisum," the concert featured works that often had a unique connection to Cal, and to each other. (Disclaimer: This reviewer sang with both choruses while studying journalism at Cal in the early 1990s.)

The evening opened with an excerpt from Randall Thompson's Requiem, composed for the 1958 opening of Hertz Hall, the warm, wood-paneled site of the performance on the UC Berkeley campus. (An interesting footnote: Thompson founded the larger University Chorus in the 1930s when he was on the music department faculty.) The piece started off with the bright tenor opening of "Let Everything That Hath Breath Praise the Lord," then dropped to a hushed and lovely piano to establish a firm dynamic contrast. Throughout, the singers propelled the piece forward with a rich, balanced, and well-pitched sound.

The smaller and more vocally polished members of the Chamber Chorus then transitioned without a break into that staple of the choral repertoire, Thompson's Alleluia. The piece started with another hushed piano, built in swells of increasing intensity to a ringing "alleluia," and finally pooled into the stillness of the ending.

Lyric tranquility

The University Chorus continued with Gabriel Fauré's Requiem. The chorus performed the 1900 version, which still would have been new to Berkeley singers in 1905. This version featured a full violin section with winds and brass — here performed smartly by the assembled orchestra — as opposed to the much sparer setting of the 1888 premiere. Fauré's meditation on death emphasizes the rest and light associated with the end. Indeed, the word "requiem" begins and ends the piece, and "requiem aeternam" and "lux aeterna" appear repeatedly throughout the movements.

Overall, the singing was often diffused and uncertain in the tenor and soprano parts, such as in the "Kyrie" and "Sanctus." The chorus regained its confidence in the "et lux perpetua" (light perpetual) section of the "Agnus Dei," where the singers broke out triumphantly like a ray of sunshine from the clouds; they also shone in the forceful "dies illa, dies irae" (that day, day of wrath) of the "Libera Me." After what came before, the "In Paradisum" sounded like another piece entirely, with organist Robert Adams playing carillon-sounding chimes above the choir, before the singers concluded with a resonant final "requiem."

The second half continued the requiem theme with Igor Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles, performed by the Chamber Chorus. (Another Cal connection: Stravinsky visited the campus in the 1970s, not long before his death, to celebrate the opening of Zellerbach Hall.) Where Fauré's Requiem emphasizes light and rest, Stravinsky instead pushes the themes of apocalyptic hellfire and brimstone, ending not with light but rather with spiritual uncertainty as the bells toll and then stop abruptly. The piece was Stravinky's last, and was performed at his memorial service, as it was intended. It is difficult to master, and sometimes unnerving to sing, with its 12-tone dissonances and time signatures shifting repeatedly amid dark chants and spoken underlays, but the chorus handled the piece confidently. Baritone Andrew Chung also gave a strong, resonant performance in the dramatic "Tuba Mirum," which evokes the last trumpet.

Contrasting afterlifes

The concert ended with the Chamber Chorus singing John Tavener's Song for Athene, written in 1993. The chorus dug into the tightly interlocking, descending half-note harmonies, which moved over a steady bass drone and minimalist soprano held notes, before melting into a lush all-male pianissimo. Tavener admitted that his earlier works were influenced by Stravinky's Requiem Canticles, and echoes of Thompson's "Alleluia" were evident in the piece's "alleluia" section — yet more examples of Kuzma's ingenious programming.

As the translations in the program made clear, Fauré's afterlife is filled with "a choir of angels," while Stravinsky's is marked by days of "wrath, calamity, and misery." These are two irreconcilable visions of eternity. Fortunately, the concert ended with an encore of Brian Trant's familiar arrangement of Deep River, one of two spirituals added at the last minute to memorialize both Hurricane Katrina's victims and the late Rosa Parks. When the over 100 singers of the combined choruses broke into a resplendent celebration of "that gospel land where all is peace," it seemed as if Fauré's restful vision of paradise had gained the upper hand.

The Music Department's centennial celebration continues through 2006. Highlights through the rest of 2005 include: a 75th birthday celebration for Richard Felciano on November 7 at 8 p.m. at Hertz Hall, with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players performing An American Decameron; the University Symphony Orchestra on December 2-3 at 8 p.m. at Hertz Hall, featuring works by Berg, Rachmanianoff, Adams, and Sibelius; and the University Chamber Chorus' "music with a French accent and a Southern twist" program on December 7 at noon at Hertz Hall and December 10 at 8 p.m. at St. Mary's College. See the Music Department Calendar for more information.

(Mickey Butts is the executive director and publisher of San Francisco Classical Voice.)

©2005 Mickey Butts, all rights reserved