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Berkeley Symphony: Cheers to Kaleidoscopic Fare

December 6, 2012

Berkeley Symphony

Mattingly and CarneiroIt was already late in the afternoon last Thursday when the SFCV editor e-mailed me, asking whether I would be available to review the Berkeley Symphony performance that evening. When I learned that the program included the Ligeti Piano Concerto, plus a world premiere of an orchestral work by a Berkeley composer, Dylan Mattingly, I literally jumped into my car and headed across the bay.

The Berkeley Symphony, under the direction of Kent Nagano from 1978 until 2009, championed young composers while presenting more-traditional and contemporary repertoire. Today it still attracts a sophisticated audience: a wide mixture from the silver-and-gray-hair crowd, to urban hipsters with piercings and tattoos, perhaps reflecting the all-inclusive programming that the Symphony presents in Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.

Since Nagano’s departure, Music Director Joana Carneiro has kept alive the tradition of presenting works by living composers and has helped it blossom even more vibrantly. Thursday’s program began with a commissioned work by the aforementioned Dylan Mattingly, titled Invisible Skyline. Mattingly himself introduced the work to the audience, describing it as an imaginary Kabuki theater, where the audience would “get in the zone” in a journey through time.The atmospheric changes through different keys, textures, and dissonant chords … created a vivid psychedelic journey.

The piece opened with a verdant color of a sustained G-sharp, not unlike Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 but without the wide span. Notes were gradually added to form a major chord, but as the crescendo neared its height, a dissonant D created an explosion of colors.

Textural elements were then added by the piano, meticulously played by Sara Cahill, a well-known champion of contemporary works. Lyrical lines were carried by soloists over a minimalist ostinato reminiscent of composer Steve Reich. It appeared that the rhythm primarily focused on five beats per measure, while polyrhythmical and polytonal layers were stacked on, one by one.

Joana CarneiroThe work, as the composer implied, did not necessarily have a story, or even distinct scenes. Yet the atmospheric changes through different keys, textures, and dissonant chords, all layered over the minimalist accompaniment, created a vivid psychedelic journey. It also evoked a sensation as if I were lying on a grassy hillside with my eyes closed, knowing that the glow above the skyline surrounds me, yet floating in the sky at the same time and sensing the colors shifting slowly as if I were looking through a slowly rotating kaleidoscope.

Speaking of a kaleidoscope, the work that followed, Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, which he composed between 1985 and 1988, was in effect such an instrument. Here, the colors were sharply distinct and shapes were as brittle as shattered glass. The work’s intense polyrhythms combined multiple rhythmic patterns, overlaid over and over, and the resultant complexity made for a sensory overload, requiring deliberateness to present its structure.

Perhaps because of the placement of the New York Steinway (behind string players and several panels of Plexiglas), the piano part, as performed by Shai Wosner, seemed indistinct and colorless. Embedded in the polyrhythm was polytonality, and inner voices that deliver the latter were either unclear or absent altogether. I had high hopes for making a different kind of psychedelic journey with this work, with its broken shards of colors; however, the muffled notes and muted colors left me unconvinced.Carneiro did a superlative job of leading the orchestra.

Nevertheless, Carneiro did a superlative job of leading the orchestra. Her movements and gestures were rarely ambiguous, and she kept the polyrhythms of both Mattingly and Ligeti vivid. It was an extraordinary effort, and her enthusiasm for these two vastly different but difficult works was quite apparent and certainly infectious, among not only the orchestra members but also the audience.

After the well-deserved and -earned intermission, for audience and orchestra, listeners were brought to a more “traditional” work, Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C. Perhaps some fatigue had set in after the two demanding earlier works, because the performance lacked focus overall. There was a certain level of disconnect between Carneiro and the orchestra, and her decisive and sometimes exaggerated instructions were not always translated into music. There were numerous opportunities to add subtle color variations in repeated passages, or to articulate notes differently, but they were often either absent or indistinct despite her fervent efforts. Also, the lack of an acoustic shell behind the players left the wind section sounding rather distant.

Still, the Adagio movement, with its layers of ethereal voices spread among various instruments, more than compensated for the blurriness in the Scherzo. The joyous final movement brought cheers to end my kaleidoscopic evening.

Ken Iisaka is a pianist, a software engineer, and bon vivant living in Foster City.