Berkeley Symphony Star Burns Bright

May 1, 2014

BERKELEY SYMPHONY

Joana CarneiroDespite the Berkeley Symphony’s smaller budget and acoustically challenged venue, a single one of its concerts can be more interesting than an entire season of more richly endowed orchestras. Thursday’s concert was no exception: Music Director Joana Carneiro devoted more than half of it to fascinating and contrasting works less than a decade old before completing the evening with a spirited rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth.

All three selections had personal associations with Carneiro. In Los Angeles, she was assistant conductor to Essa-Pekka Salonen, the composer of the first work on the program. In that capacity, she helped Salonen prepare the premiere of Adriana Mater, Kaija Saariaho’s opera from which the second work’s suite of songs was derived. Finally, Beethoven’s Fifth was one of her “audition” pieces performed here in December 2008 when she was one of the luminaries considered as a successor to Kent Nagano. (As Carneiro was reminiscing about this to the audience, Concertmaster Franklyn D’Antonio exclaimed loudly “She was hired after the first downbeat!”)

The concert began with Salonen’s Nyx (2011), a 20-minute masterpiece of orchestration and sectional display. The piece is named after the primordial Greek goddess of night, mother of some of the 20th century’s favorite gods, such as Moros (Doom), Thanatos (Death), Hypnos (Sleep), Oizys (Woe), and Eris (Strife). Nyx’s nebulousness rather than her progeny (certainly not Hypnos!) is what prompted Salonen’s choice of title, which he said reflects “the almost constant flickering and rapid changing of textures and moods” of the music.

Nyx began with a striking and extended evocation from the horn section, impressively carried off by Principal Alex Camphouse and his associates. Rich string textures followed, succeeded by a host of orchestral wizardries—many of them new to my jaded ears. Chaos (Nyx’s father, by the way) was staved off by clever transitional passages and repeating motives (e.g., a climbing sequence and a Eulenspiegelish clarinet tune). Handoffs of material occurred from section to section: The strings would race, for example, like in the finale of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, then pass on their work to the woodwinds. Climaxes would come and go, and alternate with quiet passages. That the Symphony handled all of Salonen’s virtuoso challenges with aplomb speaks authoritatively for their current skill and Carneiro’s efficiency of rehearsal focus.

That the Symphony handled all of Salonen’s virtuoso challenges with aplomb speaks authoritatively for their current skill and Carneiro’s efficiency of rehearsal focus.

Nyx is a pretty dark god, but Saariaho was consulting with a far darker and more contemporary god in her opera from which the three Adriana Songs were extracted. A woman tries to keep her soul intact in a city devastated by war in the first. In the second, she wonders—as her child conceived from rape grows in her womb—if the anger and shame from the experience will be in his blood enough to kill his father if they meet after he’s grown. An orchestral interlude, “Rages,” follows. In the third song, she regains her soul upon learning that her son has inherited her humanity, not violent pathology, by sparing his father when they meet.

The story is compelling, and the music suitably miasmic in the first two songs and thickly raging in the orchestra-only section. However, the joy expressed at the end of the final song in Amin Maalouf’s libretto barely surfaces in the music, which could conceivably follow the trajectory of a more transformative ending such as in Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Instead, the grimness remains in the ears. I’ve long been an admirer of Saariaho’s work, but I was not impressed by this addition to her catalog. To me it sounded less articulately orchestrated than some of her previous works, but this result may have been compounded by performance challenges.

On the whole, however, Beethoven’s icon was well served, and a suitable finale to an outstanding season.

Mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm did a fine job on very short notice to replace an ailing Kelley O’Connor as Adriana. I am grateful that Carneiro stuck to her program’s guns rather than substitute some easy-to-assemble warhorse concerto. I had some trouble distinguishing Krumm’s French from where I was sitting in the orchestra, but she conveyed the contradictory emotions in the work well. Not so lucky were some patrons in the mezzanine, where it was too dark to follow along with the libretto.

Carneiro’s Beethoven was distinguished by her high-energy direction and almost too-fast pacing. The first and fourth movements have tremendous dynamic contrasts. The dissipation of high-volume effects into Zellerbach’s notorious rafters needs to be compensated by even quieter pianissimos to keep that contrast alive. Without that, on occasion, Carneiro’s enthusiastic direction seemed not to be matched by sonic results. On the whole, however, Beethoven’s icon was well served, and a suitable finale to an outstanding season.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.