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Beautifully Unsatisfying

March 27, 2007

The casinolike Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland is an architectural marvel. Its Art Deco interior, if not beautiful or elegant, is bold and stunning. The opposite was true of the music at the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s concert on Friday night — it was mostly beautiful and elegant, but not bold and stunning. Its Shostakovich sounded too mellow, Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind was given in its diffused string-orchestra version, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade was not as mesmerizing as its namesake.
Plenty happened before the concert even began. John Kendall Bailey gave a short, sweet, and informative preconcert talk and sang for the audience the “Avinu Malkeinu,” a Jewish chant developed in the Golijov. Following his lecture, Christine Tchii, a local young pianist, took a formidable shot at a movement from Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1. Half an hour before the concert, MUSE (Musicians of Excellence), an orchestra of elementary school instrumentalists, performed selections varying from Baroque rondeaus, to Gypsy dances, to Offenbach’s Can Can. It is wonderful to see the Symphony supporting such a variety of musical activities in the hour leading up to its concert.
Lonely Amid the Simple Phrases
Shostakovich’s Ballet Suite No. 1 is a salad bowl of selected numbers from his various forgotten ballets and other compositions. It is rarely heard, because it doesn’t measure up to his symphonies in emotional depth and breadth. The music itself is not first rate, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be performed. With the right attitude, novelties can be found, fun can be had, and great character can be injected into the simple phrases.

Assistant Conductor Bryan Nies came with this attitude, conducting with sprightly precision and energetic pizzazz, as befitting an aspiring young maestro. Concertmaster Dawn Harms joined him, gesticulating and leading the orchestra in accordance with the music’s rather obvious character changes.

But Harms and Nies, with the addition of some percussionists and the wind soloists, seemed rather lonely up there — as the only ones into the music. The rest of the orchestra (the strings, especially) seemed disgruntled at having to play less than top-quality music. To them, it was just the warmup piece before the real meat on the program. With this type of music, the musicians have to give it an extra effort in order to sell it. But that effort was not given, and instead of Shostakovich most of it sounded like B-level Tchaikovsky with added piccolo, xylophone, and some half-baked wrong notes. It sounded like a silly little piece, when it could have been much more.
Colors in Isaac the Blind
Osvaldo Golijov should need no introduction by now. He is one of the coolest, most successful composers alive. The guy even has his own sold-out concert series at Lincoln Center. Golijov is the face of 21st-century American music — unpretentious, accessible, emotional, complicated, and original. His is an eclectic mix of global traditions and clashing cultural forces, all concentrated into powerful music. Originally written for string quartet and clarinet, his Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind was here presented in a string orchestra rendition that provides advantages and disadvantages over its original conception.

The chief benefit of a large string orchestra is mainly color. The general scheme for this piece is for the strings to set a background texture, over which the clarinet comes in. These textures were unique and beautiful. Sometimes I couldn’t make out what exactly the strings were doing; all I heard was a strange and beautiful sound, and I wished I had a copy of the score to understand how the composer could generate such soundscapes.

Todd Palmer, wielding an array of five different clarinets, played like a man possessed, filling the cavernous Paramount with cries, laughter, and song. He created a sublime experience that can only be produced live and in person. Maestro Michael Morgan seemed inspired by Palmer’s mastery and responded with extraenthusiastic gesticulation in the penultimate tutti section. He pleaded, beckoned, and eventually forced the strings to give him yet more sound.

But despite the advantages of color in the string orchestra rendition, the original chamber music version wins out. I heard the St. Lawrence String Quartet play this piece with Palmer six years ago, and remember being even more impressed by the music’s immediacy and power. After all, the sound of 25 string players playing mezzo forte does not equal that of four string players playing fortissimo. The mellowed-out, nicely blended, softened string-section sound can never match an individual solo violinist’s voice. Ironically, the orchestral version loses power over the chamber version, yet what it lacks in strength it gains in color.
Lives Not on the Line
Sheherazade is the story of a woman who saved herself from the wrath of a murderously misogynistic Sultan. She mesmerized him into forgetting his killing spree, with 1,001 nights of continuous storytelling. But had that Sultan been in this performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, many of the musicians might have lost their lives. It was good, just not mesmerizing.

Thrilling ocean swells were heard, and the princess’ melody was, of course, gorgeous. But sometimes Sinbad’s ship was leaky, with the first violins’ sweeping triplets washed off into a soggy blur. In the climax, the Sultan’s ominous theme, blared by the trombones, overpowered the strings, whose bows were moving furiously in all directions, like an explosion at a toothpick factory. But concertmaster Harms redeemed the strings with her final solo, which culminated in an ultrahigh suspended E that pierced through the entire orchestra like a diamond-headed needle.

Be'eri Moalem (www.beeri.org) is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.