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Musicians Loose in the Asylum

April 24, 2007

At nearly every turn there was something crazy about the Berkeley Symphony concert on Thursday, making it one of the most stimulating but maddening musical events of the year. To begin with, however, give kudos to the orchestra for scheduling itself two dates in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, instead of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, barely a stone’s throw away. The sanctuary gave the orchestra’s sound a welcome bloom but equal clarity to all the instrumental sections. The ensemble seemed commensurately assured, coordinated, and energetic. For a concert featuring complex, contemporary chamber works and two robust favorites of the late Classical era, the church’s acoustic was a blessing. The only downside of this venue was that tickets were hard to get. If playing hard to get is good for marketing, it is tough on community audiences looking for an accessible local concert scene.
Playing hard to get is a particularly dangerous game — insane really — for composers to attempt, but that’s what Unsuk Chin did with her recent score Cantatrix Sopranica, which opened the concert. The piece takes its title from a nonsense satire by the Polish-Jewish writer George Perec, in which he poses as a medical researcher measuring the screaming reaction of sopranos pelted with tomatoes. Perec writes (in French), “The fact that the animals [the singers] were not suffering from pain was shown by their constant smiling throughout the experiments.”

Indeed, treated by the composer like laboratory animals, sopranos Marnie Breckenridge and Nikki Einfeld and countertenor Paul Flight nonetheless smiled throughout the piece, while surviving the oddest and most awkward sounds. Like Perec’s “treatise,” there is little that is comprehensible in this 25-minute cantata for singers and a chamber ensemble of winds, brass, strings, guitar, and percussion, including keyboards. Instead, it is a set of games — nonsense sounds and lyrics, singers pretending to have a good time with no understanding to convey, and instruments reaching beyond their means into foreign and basically inaudible registers and effects.
Parody and Craft in (Almost) Equal Measure
As gamesmanship, this has interesting layers of insanity. In eight relatively unrelated parts, Cantatrix Sopranica parodies the bizarre warm-up exercises of the singers and the capabilities of the instruments, as well as surveys vocal styles from Western Baroque to Chinese opera. As a joke, the cantata is cute but overextended. As music, it is dramatically flat.However, Chin was only playing hard to get: There was actually quite a bit for the listener to enjoy and plenty of careful craft to admire. The music still has some of Chin’s expected magic — a scintillating sound rippled by waves of nearly imperceptible rhythm and inexplicable propulsion, explained less by accents, melody, or contour than by the subtle modulation of color and breath. As usual, Chin keeps a huge, exotic percussion battery busy, with only modest impact.

Even if the music was often impenetrable, it was quite clear that Music Director Kent Nagano had the measure of this relatively unmeasured but sculpted flow. The performance throbbed airily and easily, filling the hall with gentle sonority. As committed, and, at times, virtuosic, as the trio of soloists were, the total effect of the ensemble was what lingered. Chin’s mission seemed to be a search for music and lyrics that could put singers and instruments on an equal footing in a symbiotic craziness.

After dispatching a dour, four-minute tone-painting for 15 players, Olicantus, by George Benjamin (written recently, in honor of fellow Brit Oliver Knussen), the BSO moved on to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93, a telling contrast with Chin’s music. The symphony is a compact and rough release of pure energy, brilliantly jarring the senses with its massive tutti accents and jostling lines in constantly shifting punctuation. Here, Nagano and his orchestra found sustenance in the melodic lines laced through the tumult, gauging the highlights perfectly to sustain a massive and forceful momentum.
Faster Than a Speeding Bullet
As impressive as the performance was, it was not brutal. Unfortunately, it was not particularly sinewy or patient, either. In fact, Nagano seemed to have lost his senses in the final movement, launching it at an insanely fast tempo, as is the fashion these days given the tendency to adhere to the composer’s metronome markings. Yet after a confused, blurry start, the orchestra pulled together and found its stride at Nagano’s pace, drawing the concert to an exciting close.Musically, though, the most inspiring performance was in Mozart’s divine Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, one of his last and most inspired works. Unlike in either the Beethoven or the Chin, the listener encountered an idiom in a pure state. It's music conceived comfortably for each instrument, with the loveliest melodies and sprightliest rhythms. Yet here, too, the performance descended into madness.

Nagano’s accompaniment swelled with enthusiasm, his strings uncannily unanimous in shaping sensitive, lively phrases. But soloist Karl Leister was completely indifferent. His phrases were elided into long and stubbornly unperturbed lines, barely inflected or phrased, but instead wafted on an exquisitely rich, but polished and penetrating tone. Leister, now nearly two decades past his long tenure as a principal in Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic, still plays as gracefully as he did back then, when he was a star in an orchestra that generated awe for its sensuous sound and elegant phrasing, even if it was sometimes refined into imperceptibility.

Not surprisingly, then, Leister retains some of those salient characteristics. His articulation remains almost irritatingly gentle, robbing the music of charm but imbuing it with angelic purity. Back and forth he and Nagano tugged about Mozartean style, with Leister undoubtedly serving up a theological lesson to us all. But the soloist’s didactic obstinacy came with a huge price: He gave us practically no dynamics, and almost nothing above a mezzo-piano. Either he was playing a little game with the accompaniment, or perhaps he had forgotten how dramatic the music can be. Either way, the performance was both beautiful and lunatic.

Jeff Rosenfeld is an oboist with the Kensington Symphony and other Bay Area ensembles.