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Nagano Rings Down the Curtain

May 15, 2007

Maestro Kent Nagano led the Berkeley Symphony in a rousing season finale on Friday night at First Congregational Church in Berkeley. However exciting it turned out to be, the concert was nevertheless bittersweet, as that evening marked the beginning of the end of Nagano's full-time (and long-time) music directorship of the Symphony. Nagano will conduct only one concert during each of the next two seasons, and he will step down from his post as music director at the end of the 2008-2009 season.
Nagano is clearly leaving the orchestra on top. Having attended Berkeley Symphony concerts for the last six years, I can say that I have never heard the orchestra sound better than it has sounded this season. As recently as two seasons ago, the level of music making was amateurish at best — I remember hearing performances in which missed entrances, intonation problems, and sloppy cutoffs were the rule, not the exception.

This is no longer the case. Nagano and Personnel Manager René Mandel have built an impressive ensemble whose level of performance is clean, well-executed, and highly professional. Congratulations, too, to Executive Director James Kleinmann and Marketing and Development Director Kevin Shuck for their effective presentation and marketing of the Symphony. From the beautiful program booklets to the thoughtful patron relations evident throughout the evening, extremely good things are happening with this orchestra.

Still, nagging questions remain, most significantly the question of performance space. I'm relieved to see that all of next season's subscription concerts are scheduled for Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, because the nearby First Congregational Church — where two of this season's concerts were held, including this season finale — is not a viable option. The church lacks sufficient audience capacity, and on Friday night several hopeful concertgoers had to be turned away. Far more problematic, the church was simply not designed for a large, loud ensemble, and its syrupy-wet acoustic rendered several parts of the program unintelligible or unbearable, particularly throughout the second half.

The concert was supposed to have begun with the premiere of David Sanford's Scherzo Grosso (2005), for cello and orchestra; to have been followed by Tod Machover's wittily named VinylCello (2007), for cello, disc jockey, and live electronics; and to have concluded with Brahms' Symphony No. 4 (1885). Instead, the Brahms opened the program and was followed, after an inordinately long intermission, by the Machover and then the Sanford.

This change in the program was unfortunate, and did a real disservice to the concert. The Brahms was far and away the gem of the evening, and I wished that the season finale could have ended with Nagano's stellar reading. Instead, the concert concluded with an acceptable but unremarkable second half.
Problematic Acoustics
Much of the second half's weaknesses had to do with the church's acoustic. Those same attributes that helped make the Brahms sound so impressive — primarily, First Congregational's mushy boominess, which heavily favors extreme lows and highs — made the amplified second half difficult and sometimes painful to listen to. (Sanford's piece especially, with its huge orchestra and heavily microphoned soloist, demands a space three times bigger and 10 times acoustically drier than First Congregational.) Whereas the Brahms was a warm bath, the second half was an often-cacophonous flurry of reverb.

Machover's VinylCello was written for Matt Haimovitz, who performed the work on Friday with California turntablist and DJ Olive. According to the composer's program notes, the material manipulated by the DJ consists largely of samples prerecorded by Haimovitz. Thus, the piece emerges as a playful call-and-response between the live, performing cellist and his recorded trace. Much of the piece was captivating, though many of the electronic sounds became irritating — not because they were aesthetically unpleasing, but rather because they were physically annoying, sounding too loudly on poor-quality speakers throughout a boomy church sanctuary.

The most interesting part of the work was its extended middle soliloquy, which makes use of the HyperBow, a technology designed by Machover in which parameters of the cellist's bowing technique (pressure, angle, velocity, and the like) trigger a number of computer preprogrammed patches to manipulate the sound in various ways.

I think I might have liked Sanford's piece, too, but it was all so loud that I often couldn't make out what was going on. Originally written as a concerto for cello and big band, Scherzo Grosso was performed in its orchestral version, which calls for huge sections of wind, brass, and percussion, as well as full orchestral strings. Haimovitz' cello was once again plugged in, to amplify it over this enormous conglomerate. Granted, I was sitting near the stage, but at times I had to plug my ears. This music simply cannot be played in that small venue with any kind of positive results. When the volume subsided, as it did in the bluesy second movement, some truly beautiful music was revealed.

While the Berkeley Symphony has, over the years, proven itself adept at playing new music, I believe that its growing dexterity with the classics best serves as the true measure of the huge artistic strides it has made lately. Friday night's reading of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, for example, was both powerful and compelling. Nagano perfectly balanced the ensemble, consistently bringing out the contrapuntal motivic play that unfolds throughout the inner voices. This was especially clear throughout the Allegro first movement.

The only weak spots came at the beginning and end of the Andante second movement, which began with some intonation problems in the upper woodwinds and closed with an unfortunate crack by the oboe. These are minor flaws; the overall impression was stunning.

Although Nagano will soon step down from his full-time post, he'll return regularly to conduct the Berkeley Akademie Ensemble, the newly established chamber orchestra arm of the Berkeley Symphony. He will also conduct next season's opening concert, which tips off the Symphony's two-year search for its next music director. Given what we heard on Friday night, its future looks bright indeed.

William Quillen is a Ph.D. candidate in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.