Beautifully Balanced

Lisa Hirsch on October 28, 2008
The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra is in the second year of its search for a music director to succeed Kent Nagano, who has led the orchestra since 1978. Last Thursday, in Zellerbach Hall, the orchestra welcomed the fourth of six candidates, William Eddins, music director of the Edmonton Symphony, who conducted a lively, offbeat program with tremendous verve and obvious affection for the music. Besides imaginative programming, his special strengths include a marvelous feel for both rubato and orchestral color. I've never before heard the Berkeley Symphony produce as glowing and transparent a sound as in this program. Eddins followed a traditional formula for the concert, opening with three French bonbons and proceeding through a concerto of sorts, then closing with a symphony. An orchestral arrangement by Colin Matthews of Debussy's piano prelude La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) was the least effective of the three short works. While the orchestra's string tone was wonderfully transparent, and time seemed suspended, either the arrangement or the conducting obscured the rhythmic life that's so obvious in the piano original. Bracketing the Debussy were two less-well-known works, both of which possessed enormous charm: Germaine Tailleferre's Valse des Dépêches (Waltz of the telegrams) and Lili Boulanger's D'un Matin du printemps (Of a spring morning). The two works have in common their obvious French origins, clear formal structures, and colorful orchestration with an economically scored orchestra. Valse des Dépêches, one of two pieces that Tailleferre contributed to a play-ballet by Jean Cocteau, opens with a veritable series of snorts in the orchestra. It then rockets into a whirlwind that's practically a parody of a waltz, with exaggerated lifts and many tiny tempo changes within and across bars. Right in the middle comes a breezy interlude in which repeated flute and piccolo figures evoke an office full of typewriters, a sound mostly vanished from the world; this is followed by a portentous passage that breaks into a mad rush for the end. This is one waltz that amateurs would have a hard time dancing to, but it's a delight to hear. D'un Matin du printemps, the last work completed by Lili Boulanger before her death at the tragically early age of 24, starts with all the bright and lovely sunshine of a spring morning before rumbling bass pizzicato and dark reeds push into the foreground about halfway through. As with the Tailleferre, Eddins balanced the orchestra beautifully and caught the shifting moods of the work exactly right.

Intersection of Styles

For the close of the first half of the program, Eddins chose the Canadian composer Allan Gilliland's rhapsodic Dreaming of the Masters II – GEB for piano and orchestra, in its U.S. premiere. The initials refer to Gershwin, Ellington, and Bernstein (Leonard), whose styles, according to the composer's notes, inspired the three sections of the piece, which is intended to blend Gilliland's skills in both jazz and classical music. "Inspired" seems an understatement, because the piece is a virtual pastiche of various aspects of the three styles, from the sweeping, '30s Broadway sound of the Gershwin section to the Jets-like fingersnapping of the Bernstein, with some Rachmaninov thrown in for good measure. Dreaming contains some fine colorful moments and provides a grand showpiece for a good pianist, but ultimately it overstays its welcome. Its 25 minutes, played in one movement, felt longer than the 35-minute Martinů symphony that followed, because it lacked intermediate stop-and-starting points. Eddins, for whom the piece was written, played the piano part stylishly and with complete technical command, while simultaneously conducting from the keyboard. Bohuslav Martinů is an underperformed composer in the United States, despite his years of residence here and the varied beauties of his music. His First Symphony, written in his early 50s and commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, is passionate and comparatively grim in tone. Unlike much of the composer's music, the symphony doesn't incorporate many recognizable Czech idioms, and seems more international in flavor. The broad, organ-toned opening has hints of Wagner, while the many changes of tempo and syncopations of the Scherzo suggest Copland, Bartók, and sometimes the father of the scherzo, Beethoven himself. The third movement is perhaps the most striking, with dark-hued lines that stretch into infinity and make a very grand arch indeed. In comments delivered from the podium, Eddins said that he thought parts of the symphony don't make much sense. Portions of the Scherzo bear this out, especially when a frantic section gives way to the pastoral calm of a passage with oboes and flute, with subsequent interjections that seem out of place. Despite this, the performance that Eddins led was remarkably coherent and well thought out. I'd love to hear him in more large-scale works, especially those of Brahms, Wagner, Bartók, and Schoenberg.

Preaching to the Choir

Auditioning for the Berkeley Symphony music director's job apparently includes demonstrating one's ability to engage verbally with the audience, and so Eddins had earlier taken microphone in hand to introduce the Gilliland. He is as fluent and entertaining with the mic as with the baton — a fine quality in a conductor whose responsibilities at Berkeley, if appointed to the post, would include overseeing a school music program and, of course, charming audiences and donors. Before the Gilliland, he made some droll comments about the different versions of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, calling the full orchestra rendition a "wallowing cow" by comparison with the trimmer Paul Whiteman jazz band version, which he prefers to perform. He also slipped in a quip about Barack Obama that got him a rousing hand. I can't say I cared for a joke he made at the expense of the Second Viennese School and the austerities of that style, which he implied was completely responsible for the suppression, after World War II, of composers who wrote melodies. It's dismaying to hear important musicians play the style wars game at this late date, when no style is unacceptable in the academy or the concert hall. Besides, a conductor as persuasive and communicative as Eddins, who has such a great natural feel for the local ebb and flow of rubato, as well as for the larger structures, is in the best possible position to make an eloquent musical case for the many masterpieces of the Second Viennese School.