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Innovation Isn't Enough

December 18, 2007

During a discussion session that followed the Berkeley Akademie’s inaugural concert on Wednesday, musicologist Joseph Kerman reflected that many of today’s performing ensembles are seeking innovative ways of presenting classical music. Kerman’s remarks encapsulated the impetus behind the Akademie, a spin-off of the Berkeley Symphony, under the artistic direction of Kent Nagano and Stuart Canin. But while the Akademie’s innovations were both myriad and admirable, I found that the ensemble fell short of achieving its stated goals.
The Akademie — which presents one more concert this season in May 2008 — is distinguished from its parent organization, the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, in a variety of ways. The smaller, more flexible ensemble allows for programming variety, and for Concertmaster Canin to lead some works from the first chair. The ensemble also emphasizes international artistic collaboration. Performing alongside the Berkeley Symphony members were six members of Germany’s Junge Deutsche Philharmonie (German Youth Philharmonic). Finally, the group collaborates with UC Berkeley’s music department to foster discussion and understanding of the concert’s music. Wednesday night’s program included several interpolated lectures by UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Joseph Kerman, and by Robert Commanday, a former lecturer at the school (and the founding editor of SFCV).

The German spelling of the ensemble’s name draws a connection to a European model of music-making, and calls attention to Nagano’s current conducting position in Germany. According to an e-mail I received from the Berkeley Symphony, “Akademies were founded to share music, which had been primarily reserved for the court, with the community at large. As general music director of the Bavarian State Opera, Maestro Kent Nagano stewards one of Europe's oldest Akademie (or 'Academy') concert traditions, which you can now experience firsthand in the Bay Area!”

If the goal of the Akademie is to bring music to a larger community, the $60 ticket price seemed a little off the mark. (Those who are on the Berkeley Symphony’s e-mail list could purchase tickets at 50 percent off starting about one week before the concert.) Furthermore, the concert was held in one of Berkeley’s smaller venues, the First Congregational Church, with a capacity of 653 people.
Lackluster Performances and a Lot of Talk
The concert was bookmarked by performances of two of Bach’s "Brandenburg" Concertos, opening with the Third and closing with the Second. Despite the organization’s emphasis on scholarship, this was a curiously romanticized Bach, played with heavy bowing and ample vibrato. Worse, the ensemble’s bowing styles were not always uniform, resulting in an uneven interpretation.

Both Brandenburg Concerto performances were marred by poor balance, a problem that was evident throughout the concert. This was partly due to the location of the performance. As the performers noted during the postconcert discussion session, First Congo (as it is affectionately known) is an incredibly live space. The ensemble had difficulties compensating for the acoustic during the performance. The Second Brandenburg Concerto suffered most acutely. While all four soloists (violinist Stuart Canin, flutist Emma Moon, trumpeter David Washburn, and oboist Laura Griffiths) performed wonderfully, from where I was sitting I heard a great deal of Washburn’s virtuosic trumpet playing and precious little from the others.

The middle two pieces on the program were Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue (arranged for string orchestra and led by Stuart Canin) and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen. The Grosse Fugue was well-played, but here the balance problem proved particularly vexing, making the distinction between fugal subjects and accompaniments difficult to hear. Metamorphosen, a masterpiece of Strauss’ late style, was led from the podium by Nagano. His conducting was assured and powerful, but his interpretation was not entirely convincing. The performance supplied a long series of high points, with less of a sense of the underlying line. And while there were many moments of lovely solo playing from the entire ensemble (of 23 solo strings), passages of bad intonation and quite a few wrong notes suggested that the piece had been under-rehearsed.

The musicology portion of the evening was informative but long-winded. Both Kerman and Commanday made many excellent points, but occasionally drifted from the topic at hand. Due partly to the lectures, the rather short program was stretched into a long evening, with the final postconcert talk ending around 11:10 p.m, over three hours after the concert's start.

The ideas behind the Akademie are indeed laudable. I hope that the organization will undertake all that’s necessary to meet them.

Alexander Kahn is a Ph.D. candidate in music history and literature at UC Berkeley, where his research is focused on the Hollywood émigrés. He is also the assistant conductor of the Oakland Civic and the UC Berkeley symphony orchestras.