Composer Hannah Kendall is fired by big ideas. You can hear it in her speech. When she stepped to the Zellerbach Hall stage on Thursday to give a brief intro to Berkeley Symphony’s world premiere of her Disillusioned Dreamer, she gave off the air of someone struggling to compress a lot into a small space. Her music also packed worlds into a spare, nine-minute frame, in which nothing was wasted. Fluidly conducted by Joseph Young, the orchestra gave a tense, dramatic reading in a concert that was all about reading literature through music.
Kendall’s source for Disillusioned Dreamer is one of the most quotable passages from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The narrator speeds through a microcosm of types of black men all clinging to the belief that they can succeed in a segregated America, all of them, in one way or another, buying into the racist system that oppresses them.
Kendall both uses the specific images of the text to generate ideas and structure while also conveying the underlying unease and outrage in the text. Ideas skitter across the surface coalescing into a propulsive string motive set against percussive interjections, lowering bass notes in the brass, and answering motives in the winds. You expect the orchestra to heave together into one tutti outburst, at least, but it never comes. The music remains spare and tense, its layers distinct. Actor Michael J. Asberry spoke the lines brilliantly at the outset and then again before the piece’s final section, his contribution more welcome for being so low-tech --- no multimedia needed. Kendall is a comer, as a glance at her bio will reveal.
The whole program, created by conductor Jonathon Heyward, who had to withdraw from the engagement at the last minute, seemed designed to showcase Disillusioned Dreamer. The premiere was followed by Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety,” by Leonard Bernstein. Responding to W.H. Auden’s powerful narrative poem about the alienation of living in a large industrial society during World War II, Bernstein found his perfect subject matter — and for my money he did a better job at characterizing the four people in a Manhattan bar than Auden did.
The centerpiece, of course, is the solo piano, here scintillatingly played by Andrew Tyson, who moved easily from dialogue with the orchestra through to the fiendishly difficult jazz solo. Auden’s unsentimental ending, in which poetry itself dissolves in the blare of another workday, is transmuted by Bernstein’s uplifting ending, a post-midnight reaffirmation of faith emerging in a newly integrated self. Apart from this, though, the symphony is remarkably faithful to the movement of the poem. The Berkeley players traversed it with distinction, bringing several of the solo wind players to the fore.
The opening work, Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes is more than just nature painting, though almost everybody who has seen the sea off England’s east coast has vouched for the music’s uncanny verisimilitude. But the opera’s emotional trajectory is also encapsulated in this music, nowhere more obviously than in the quotation of “What harbor shelters peace” in the last picture. If the winds and brass were a little forward in the mix in this performance, that might be the inevitable result of the hall’s acoustics, where balances have always been hard to achieve.
It’s never easy to step in at the last minute to direct a program that you didn’t conceive. But Young proved to be an extremely flexible musician and a great collaborator. His readings were spot-on in most of the music and he left a strong impression.