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Exploring Styles of Performing

May 6, 2008

Last December, Kent Nagano and Stuart Canin unveiled the Berkeley Akademie Ensemble, a project designed to cultivate "explorations of style" and "develop ensemble technical skills" (as the organization describes its goals). Thursday marked the Akademie's second concert, held in Berkeley's First Congregational Church.
One way in which the Akademie challenges its musicians is through its revival of the practice (pre-19th century) of the conductorless orchestra. In performances of C.P.E. Bach's Symphony in C Major, W. 182, No. 3 (1773), and Stravinsky's Apollon musagète (1927), the Akademie players relied only on each other, with occasional help from Canin as concertmaster, to stay together in these two demanding scores.

Playing without a conductor is especially daunting in C.P.E. Bach's schizophrenic music. Even the most tranquil passages can give way to outbursts of 16th and 32nd notes without a moment's warning. Perhaps out of necessity, the Akademie minimized contrasts in dynamics and expressive character in order to pull off the feat. The ensemble managed to keep together while navigating the score, but the composer's erratic and improvisatory style was sometimes lost. In an effort to give the music shape, crescendos and decrescendos were applied almost perfunctorily.

This did not greatly diminish the orchestra's achievement, however. The downsized ensemble (consisting only of string instruments and harpsichord), coupled with the church's vibrant acoustics, provided the best of both worlds: the textural clarity of an "early music" ensemble with the majestic resonance of a full orchestra.

If the liveliness of the "Classical style" was somewhat tamed, it is a sound that modern audiences have nonetheless grown accustomed to, largely through the legacy of the second composer of the evening. Apollon musagète belongs to Stravinsky's "Neoclassical" period, a particularly cold, [a]stringent phase of the composer’s career. Disdaining as he did the emotional excesses of Romanticism, Stravinsky might well have welcomed the orchestra sans conductor as a way to minimize the "deformation" (his word for performers' personal interpretation) imposed on his works.
Challenged by Lack of a Conductor
The absence of a maestro again proved a considerable obstacle. Apollon musagète is permeated with the propulsive dotted rhythms of French Baroque music. Without a conductor helping to articulate the tempo, however, the orchestra plodded through these rhythms with heavy feet, as if forgetting that the music was written for the ballet.

The orchestra locked into form in time for the Coda, the most kinetically engaging movement of the piece. Here, with the help of pervasive syncopation and numerous metrical shifts, Stravinsky's Baroque rhythms seemed to transform into the "swing" rhythms of Dixieland jazz. Stealing glances at my fellow concertgoers, I distinctly saw heads tentatively bopping, feet innocuously tapping.

After the string-dominated first half, the appearance of woodwinds and brass in Mozart's "Posthorn" Serenade in D, K. 320 (1779), gave the orchestra a delightfully startling depth of sound, like a black and white photo suddenly recast into blazing hi-def color. The woodwinds, in particular, played with a purity (not a Stravinskian, abstract purity but a Mozartian, human purity) that was at times breathtaking.

The Mozart Serenade also saw Nagano taking the conducting reins, and the result was a blast of fresh air. The muddiness of the first half was transformed into a crystalline sheen. The orchestra handled dynamics and rhythm with much greater nuance. While the "dance" movements of the Serenade were not actually intended for dance (the piece was written to accompany a graduation ceremony), Nagano's crisp, rhythmic precision made the piece more evocative of physical movement than Stravinsky's ballet.

The "Classical style" is still a contested idea today. Only recently have musicians begun to untangle it from the 20th-century "Neoclassicism" with which it used to be conflated. Although the latter tends to sacrifice personality and expression for clarity and precision, Nagano and the Berkeley Akademie Ensemble gave the audience a welcome reminder that it is possible to have both.

Noel Verzosa is a visiting assistant professor at California State University in Sacramento.