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Berkeley Symphony Opens With Promising Vitality

October 7, 2018

Berkeley Symphony

With turning leaves and cooling temperatures, autumn is a season of change. For the Berkeley Symphony, the 2018–2019 concert season is also rife with change. After last season’s departure of the gifted music director and conductor Joana Carneiro, the Symphony started a new musical year on Thursday at Zellerbach Hall. Conductor Ming Luke led the performance, which spanned works by Shostakovich, Ravel, Jennifer Higdon, and Anna Clyne.

Berkeley Symphony’s new directions are exciting. By contrast, the idea of violent and tumultuous change inspired Clyne’s Night Ferry (2011). Clyne — Berkeley Symphony’s “Music Alive” composer-in-residence — described her piece in terms of a dark, turbulent wave. In fact, she alternated between composing the music and literally painting or drawing this image. On Thursday, reprints of her visual art appeared inside the program handout.

Additional influences on Clyne’s 20-minute, single-movement symphonic work include Franz Schubert’s manic depression and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” All told, Night Ferry is “a sonic portrait of voyages within nature and of physical, mental, and emotional states.” Laboriously churning strings depicted dark, unforgiving waters. They repeatedly gave way to contrasting sections foregrounding winds and brass. But with snarling chordal interruptions and ominously muted brass, these contrasts sounded less like respite and more like awareness of another looming crisis or anguished mood.

Night Ferry opened the second half, and both Clyne and Luke introduced it. Luke explained he planned to perform the final piece, which followed Clyne’s work, without any pause between them. The last piece was Ravel’s La Valse. As Luke described, the French Ravel had admired the Austrian Johann Strauss, the legendary waltz composer. But then World War I happened, and by the time Ravel completed La Valse after the war in 1920, he might have changed his mind. Many listeners, at least, hear postwar tragedy in this piece. I left agnostic about any deeper meaning, albeit with the sense that La Valse might have been the program’s least rehearsed number.

Limited rehearsals are forgivable — especially once you take into account this program’s astonishing first half. It began with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. Ravel completed La Valse in the aftermath of WWI, and Shostakovich composed his Festive Overture merely months after another historically significant event: Stalin’s death. Stalin’s regime repeatedly — and gravely — threatened Shostakovich because of the kind of music Shostakovich wanted to write. After Stalin died, Shostakovich quickly wrote this jubilant piece, which is more lighthearted than the music that got him into trouble. Luke led the Festive Overture with confidence and energy, thereby offering a convivial — and reassuring — start to Berkeley Symphony’s post-Carneiro era.

Shostakovich’s opener set the mood for the evening’s pièce de résistance: Higdon’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Higdon, who won a Pulitzer Prize for this piece, once studied at the Curtis Institute. Today, she is an esteemed faculty member there. She wrote this concerto for a violinist who also studied at Curtis, Hilary Hahn. In fact, Higdon describes it as the story of “Hilary and her violin.”

But on Thursday, another Curtis-trained violinist, Benjamin Beilman, made this piece his own. Before the concert, I searched the interwebs to find out who Beilman was; after hearing him play, I doubt that anyone could ever forget him.

Higdon’s piece is in three movements. Especially after reading her description of it, her Violin Concerto invites this narrative: The first movement depicts a talented-yet-green musician finding footing. The second, “Chacconi,” dramatizes this musician mastering the classics (or the Baroques, in this case). And in “Fly Forward,” our protagonist finds a firm — and virtuosic — voice. Beilman’s musicality was breathtaking, athletic, and assured, while his demeanor seemed unassuming and humble. I trust his musicianship will only keep getting better, and if my impression of his character is correct, I hope it simply stays the same.

After three rounds of applause, Beilman played a solo encore: a slow movement from a Bach partita. Two additional rounds of applause followed, which is especially extraordinary considering it happened immediately before intermission, standing in the way of drink refills and bathroom breaks.

Undeniably, change is in the air for the Berkeley Symphony. As with most things in life, nobody knows which way the wind will blow. But in light of Thursday’s performance — in addition to Berkeley’s Symphony’s proud history, which includes championing new music as well female composers and conductors — I can’t wait to hear what happens.

Jessica Balik is a flutist and has a PhD in historical musicology from Stanford University.