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Listening at the Berkeley Symphony — Ideally

March 28, 2013

Berkeley Symphony

Berkeley SymphonyShould we care about composers’ lives, or just their works? Thursday evening, tenor Noah Stewart sang a poem supporting the latter view. In it, the late Nobel-prizewinner Czesław Miłosz suggests that the Earth is like a poem, and the sun represents the artist. He advises never to look straight up at the sun (or the composer):

[You] will lose the memory of things [you have] seen. Only burning tears will stay in [your] eyes. [Instead,] … look at light reflected by the ground. There [you] will find everything we have lost.

So what did the “ground,” the composers’ works alone, have to say? It didn’t matter that we were hearing composer-in-residence Steven Stucky’s love offering to his fiancée Kristen. Or that Anton Bruckner told people his Symphony No. 4 was about medieval knights, folkfests, the hunt, and the call of the great tit. Thanks to Miłosz’s words and my knowledge that Bruckner was Austrian, it was Nature that I heard, in addition to some very fine conducting and singing.

The concert was themed “The Idealists” for no articulated reason — think about it: All classical composers must be idealists, or crazy — but nature too can be a kind of ideal, especially if viewed as a reflection of God’s work. Many have written about Bruckner’s piety, his constructing “cathedrals in sound” with massive sectional building blocks. These blocks are musical realities, whatever their symbolism: Bruckner’s music goes on for some time, then abruptly halts. Either a group of new ideas begins, or there is a blatantly obvious transition zone of music (mortar?) prior to the new block. You can manufacture blocks of any size and color you want, but you can’t make them into a cathedral without a plan and sound engineering.

How show the audience a cathedral rather than a mason’s warehouse of inventory? Music Director Joana Carneiro took on this challenge, and succeeded remarkably in three of the four movements.

This is the great problem for Bruckner conductors: How show the audience a cathedral rather than a mason’s warehouse of inventory? Music Director Joana Carneiro took on this challenge, and succeeded remarkably in three of the four movements. The tempos were right; the music grew, within sections, organically; the climaxes were not cookie-cutter, but varied according to their importance in the structure. Only in the last movement did things falter slightly: the dotted tune leading the second theme group did not always come through clearly, and both the third theme and the main theme starting the development section were too fast, threatening to make the movement sound like “one damn thing after another.”

But Carneiro reeled things in satisfactorily at the conclusion, and for the most part her orchestra performed well. Bruckner puts tremendous demands on his horn section, but the Berkeley crew was up to them, and got through 66 minutes of challenges with only a couple of minor slip-ups. It was hard to judge synchronicity in the several tricky passages Bruckner lays before his victims — the notorious echoes and swallowings of Zellerbach Hall seemed to make mush of them: I can’t blame the musicians.

Noah StewartFacing the music rather than Bruckner’s programmatic advisories, I imagined the walls of climatic sound as parallel Alpine ranges, between which prospered lush meadows, bubbly streams, hunting parties, and dancing villagers. Visualizing the massive verticality of those ridges wrinkled by Italy’s tectonic crush into central Europe stops me in my tracks, just the way Bruckner abruptly halts his arguments. Was he seeing the peaks too?

The nature in Stucky’s song cycle, The Stars and the Roses, was the opposite of Bruckner’s: evanescent, in constant transition, redolent with flitting images mentioned in the texts — streams trickling, a “flute, under the arch of ancient ruins,” the warmth of the sun, the wings of grouse and pigeon, etc. The orchestration is the immediate strong point of the piece, but unlike the in-your-face symphony, Stucky’s motivic content and progression may require repeated listenings for its subtleties to become manifest.

Audience members I interviewed had a mixed response during intermission (the 13-minute piece, a Symphony-commissioned premiere, comprised the first half of the program). One patron was ready to cancel his subscription (“Too many commissions!”). Another thought the “tonality was just beautiful,” and the “orchestration romantic.” A third complained “This wasn’t what Wagner gave to his wife!” (the Siegfried Idyll).

Whatever the eventual regard of Stars by its public, Stewart brought forth the best case possible for its appreciation. His tenor was remarkably rich, with baritone qualities to it. His enunciation was clear, his phrasing eloquent, his gestures natural and not overdone. In case his virtuosity was not made apparent by the newness and subtlety of the song cycle, Stewart returned to the stage surprisingly, just as the applause had died down, to perform an encore, “Una furtive lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. His exquisite rendition of this favorite brought by far the greatest number of patrons to their feet that evening. Whatever nature contributed before and after, it was in throat and tune where the crowd in truth “found what it had lost.”

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.