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First Impressions of Figueroa

March 18, 2008

Transfer of power is never easy, but the Berkeley Symphony has made the process one of the most interesting and edifying developments of this year’s music season. Soon after Kent Nagano declared his intention to step down as music director at the end of his 30th season in 2009, the organization announced that it would hold two years of on-podium auditions to determine his successor. The race is on.
Thursday evening at Zellerbach Hall, Guillermo Figueroa was the second of three applicants scheduled for this season. (Last month, Hugh Wolff conducted the orchestra, see review; Laura Jackson leads a program on April 2, and William Eddins, Paul Haas, and Joana Carneiro will get their turns beginning in the fall.)

Figueroa, a violinist who is music director of the New Mexico Symphony, principal guest conductor of the Puerto Rico Symphony, and a founding member of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, conducted a program bracketed by Roberto Sierra’s Borikén and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70. In between, he led Berlioz’ song cycle Les nuits d’été, with Gabriela Garcia as vocal soloist. The results were promising, if uneven.
Portrait of Puerto Rico
The conductor made his strongest impression with Borikén. Sierra’s single-movement work, which was commissioned for the Casals Music Festival in 2006 and made its U.S. premiere in this performance, is a tribute to the composer’s native Puerto Rico (Borikén is the original name for the island). A four-note descending theme, employed as a passacaglia subject, began in the brass section. The opening section sounded dense and weighty, but darkness was dispelled by the sudden interjection of boisterous Latin dance music.

The two threads struggled for dominance throughout the work’s 12-minute running time, with modernism and tradition finally colliding head-on. Sierra’s writing is tuneful and vivacious, and Figueroa conducted it with energy and precision. The result was something considerably more than the usual curtain-raiser, and certainly invited a second listen.

Figueroa also achieved splendid results in Dvořák’s Seventh, leading a lush, luxuriant, and well-considered reading. It’s a pleasure to encounter a conductor who doesn’t feel the need to rush through this music to generate excitement.

The orchestra cohered in the first pages of the opening Allegro, playing with affecting grace and warmth in the movement’s enveloping waltz music. The Adagio, with its sighing chords for woodwinds and pizzicato strings, demonstrated Figueroa’s flexible phrasing and sensitivity to dynamics.

The Scherzo sounded particularly brilliant, with Figueroa doing a fine job of pitting the upper strings against the lower instruments for maximum contrast. The conductor took a leisurely approach to the finale — a bit more urgency would have been welcome here — but there was much to enjoy in the orchestra’s performance; the contributions by the cellos and woodwinds were especially deft.
Substandard Specialty
Alas, the results were not as felicitous in the performance of Les nuits d’été. This was the evening’s low point. Figueroa’s bio describes him as a Berlioz specialist, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from this listless account of the composer’s beloved song cycle. The conductor reduced the score to a series of disconnected episodes. He and the orchestra intermittently summoned glimpses of Berlioz’ rapture and richly colored atmosphere — the luscious dark strings of “Villanelle,” the murmuring woodwinds of “Au cimitiére: Clair de lune” (In the cemetery: moonlight), the gleaming, clean-sounding brass of “L’ile inconnue” (The unknown isle) — but the arc of the work never emerged in its wonted glory.

Garcia, who possesses a warm, chocolatey mezzo, has the high notes for “Sur les lagunes: Lamento” (On the lagoons: lament) — her delivery of the grief-stricken line, “Ah, sans amour s’en aller sur la mer!” (Ah, without love to depart on the sea), rang convincingly. But her tone tended to waver at the bottom of her range, and her command of French appeared to be a work in progress. There was little to touch the heart in this performance. Les nuits d’été should above all else sound luminous, but its remarkable qualities of lightness and radiance were notable here only in their absence.

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.