Berkeley Symphony Lifts Spirits With Exuberant Performances of Beethoven and Bates

Lou Fancher on January 30, 2017
Christian Reif

An effervescent hangover is the unusual day-after effect following Berkeley Symphony’s Program III concert, “Relevance,” Thursday night at Zellerbach Hall.

The performance featured composer Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto with cellist Joshua Roman; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major; and guest conductor Christian Reif on loan from the San Francisco Symphony and SFS Youth Symphony. A preshow announcement explained the absence of Music Director Joana Carneiro during the symphony’s 2016–17 season. She is pregnant and has been advised by doctors not to conduct or travel.

The subject of new life gave rise, organically, to a night in which youthful vigor and outright exuberance were the norm.

Surely, as long as Beethoven’s 211-year-old symphony still bursts from its morose, Adagio beginnings into rigorous Allegro vivace, a tidy and tender Adagio movement, a rhythmically sneaky, Scherzo and run-away-but-never-lost cleverness in a riotous finale, the joy of classical music will continue to thrive.

Reif too, added considerably to the spirited atmosphere. A graceful conductor who’s not afraid to show his obvious enjoyment of the music, he drew out rich textures as he led the orchestra through Beethoven’s subtle, at times almost scholarly explorations. Especially in the first and last movements, Reif revealed the work’s underlying innovation and downplayed vitality in its dynamic tempos, form-stretching thematic structures, instrumentation, and nuanced variation.

Mason Bates | Credit: Ryan Close.jpg

And there were Bates and Roman to cement the boisterous but not lightheaded mood. It’s too soon to know whether or not the music of Bates — “the second most frequently performed living composer, after John Adams,” according to a 2014 study of 22 American orchestras — will prove as enduring as Beethoven’s. If Bates’ cello concerto remains viable, Roman’s master-of-all performance, will be remembered as having given it the right start in life.

The cello concerto does not include the electronica associated with Bates’ other works. Written for Roman and premiered with the Seattle Symphony, in 2014, the three-movement composition is scored for a large orchestra. Three percussionists play a wide-ranging battery: finger cymbals, crotales, vibraphone, kalimba, almglocken, tam-tam, four suspended cymbals, piccolo snare, low Asian and bass drums, marimba, woodblock, hi-hat, sandpaper blocks, two flexible switches, and crash cymbals.

Joshua Roman | Credit: Hayley Young

Roman was majestic and casual, if such a combination can coexist. Dressed in an emerald green velvet jacket, he tossed a guitar pick he would later use on the floor by his feet and almost without warning, launched into an astounding, 25-minute display of bravura and subtlety. As a performer, he is charming. As a cellist, he’s formidable.

Bates doesn’t hesitate to exploit and experiment with Roman’s talent. Tasking the 33-year-old cellist with liberally bounced or more conservative bowing, darting rhythmic alterations, sweet and serenading lyricism, and more, Bates balances the soloist with the active orchestra — the symphony astutely picking up, contrasting, or leading into Roman’s solo passages, or participating in jazz-like call-and-response exchanges in the concerto’s final movement. Bates knows the many paths to excitement: the sound pitter-pattering like children up past their bedtimes, or schussing at top speed like an Olympic downhill skier, or mournful and aching — the sound of a person grieving.

Roman’s encore, Julie-O, composed by former Turtle Island String Quartet cellist Mark Summer, only enhanced the impression of his versatility and command.

It’s a relief to find that after the music stops, the concert hall darkens, and Bates and Roman jet off to their next engagements, there’s not emptiness left behind, but confirmation of the enduring power of music to lift spirits.

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