Balletic Fluidity and Expression

Jeff Dunn on April 8, 2008
Last Wednesday, it was Laura Jackson’s turn to impress the Berkeley Symphony audience and perhaps follow Kent Nagano as music director. Hugh Wolff and Guillermo Figueroa showed their stuff earlier this season, and three more candidates are going to do the same this fall. How did she measure up? Let’s examine the criteria of programming choices, technique, interpretation, and orchestral management. Jackson scored high marks for interesting selections. Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde (The creation of the world) is infrequently played, despite its historical fame as one of the first classical pieces with prominent jazz elements after World War I. Many of the phrases Milhaud picked up in New York for his piece quickly became clichés, so the piece is a little worse for wear. But its variety and high spirits still make it entertaining for the listener. Two pieces by Susan Botti (b. 1962) came next on the program. These were both inspired by the poem “The Exchange,” by May Swensen. The first was a setting of the words for tenor and harp. The second, Translucence, for orchestra, is based on interpretations of mental images generated from Swensen’s phrases (“Populous and mixed is mind,” “Earth, take thought,” and “I will be time”), plus musical material from the tenor-harp setting. Jackson’s choices were laudable, showing a commitment to contemporary music, recognition for quality female composers, and a willingness to vary the conventional concerto with a piece for chamber soloists instead. While the inclusion of Botti’s song brought a measure of variety, its overly predictable melodic line did not make me anxious to hear it again. However, tenor Thomas Glenn, well-assisted by Wendy Tamis on harp, provided a superb voice for the piece. Translucence, by contrast, seemed far more inventive. Little of the ordinary music from the song intruded, and Botti showed that she was a skilled and inventive orchestrator, worthy of greater exposure. Finally, to spotlight her skills with the standard repertoire, Jackson concluded the evening with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a surefire audience-pleaser. Like many of Tchaikovsky’s works, Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece suffers from excessive, near-literal repetition, but the tunes and drama are engaging. Furthermore, the work’s many solo passages, giving different first chairs a chance to shine, turn Scheherazade into a box of candies for creating good will among key orchestra members.

Poised, Confident Technique

Jackson’s conducting was splendid and confident, notable for its full-bodied fluidity. Her approach was balletic and highly expressive, and she displayed a variety of cuing techniques. She was not afraid to address the audience, giving an introduction to the Botti works in a clear and incisive voice. The orchestra responded to her with warmth — if not always accuracy — and applauded her at the conclusion. With respect to interpretation, Jackson’s fluidity was the source of plusses and minuses. She was best in the dance element of La création and also in Botti’s orchestral work. In the Rimsky-Korsakov, not unlike the sultan of the story, I was torn between wanting to behead Jackson for excesses of rubato on the one hand, and wanting to hear her continue when she did such a good job of building climaxes on the other. In La création, I wish Jackson had directed the solo saxophonist to sing out more; he was far too subdued in his playing. By contrast, Concertmaster Franklyn D’Antonio did a terrific job with Scheherazade’s violin role, dominating the stage in his rendition of the wily courtesan. For this, he received well-deserved cheers when Jackson recognized his and the other soloists’ contributions at the end of the performance. The arrangement of the chamber orchestra for La création was unfortunately not ideal. As a visiting conductor, Jackson cannot be expected to be an expert in the problematic acoustics of Zellerbach Hall, but the placement of the brass in their rear seats, at the same distance from the front of the stage as they would hold in the Rimsky-Korsakov, separated them too much from the rest of the ensemble. Their sound so projected up into the rafters and backstage, it sounded like they were playing in a separate room. Overall, Jackson made a good impression. She showed a great sense of programming, good commitment to the contemporary music much appreciated by Berkeley Symphony patrons, and fairly effective interpretive skills, sure to improve as Jackson begins to realize her potential as her career progresses. After all, fluidity can only increase as the temperature goes up.

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