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Berkeley Symphony Pulls Off Dramatic Program of Saints and Sinners

February 5, 2018

The Berkeley Symphony billed last week’s program as “music of the heavens and hell.” At the San Francisco Conservatory on Friday, the theme might have been, “heavenly music for filling a hall.” Throughout an evening of Gabriel Fauré, Gordon Getty, and Hector Berlioz, vigorous guest conductor Keitaro Harada and his beautifully balanced ensemble showcased the acoustic virtues of the Conservatory’s Hume Hall with a dazzling array of the dynamics in all three of the composers.

Fauré’s Cantique, lovely and reverent and based on a paraphrase of a Latin prayer by Jean Racine, was submitted in competition when the composer was a teenager, in the 1860s. It served to help conductor, orchestra, and the mixed Berkeley Symphony Chorus find their footing at the beginning of the concert.

As is his wont, Getty put listeners right into the action with an irresistible pulse at the outset of his cantata Joan and the Bells, written in 1997. The libretto, in English by the composer, is telegraphically compelling and poetic. It’s inspired in part by letters dictated by the titular Joan of Arc and the trial proceedings, which, in 1431, led to her being burned at the stake for heresy, at the age of 19, after having led French troops successfully against the invading British. In a promotional video for the concert, Getty (who co-founded SFCV and remains a major donor) had declared, not for the first time, that “I’m basically a 19th-century composer,” and indeed the influences of Wagner and Strauss were evident in the first scene (“Judgment”) and elsewhere, in chromatic movement and sweeping washes of color. The orchestra setting successfully supported soprano Lisa Delan (as Joan) and baritone Lester Lynch (as the prosecuting, British-backed bishop, Cauchon), both of whom have recorded Getty’s work on the Pentatone Classics label. The chorus was effectively deployed in the roles of the townspeople of Rouen, and angelic host.

Delan’s tender theatricality was particularly compelling in the “Joan in Her Chamber” scene, as was her sweet, buoyant, almost girlish soprano, as she addressed the saints she was accused of defaming. The singer’s clear diction was vital here, as was Harada’s and his ensemble’s confident command of volume, with woodwinds and harp sounding plaintive responses. She credibly conveyed the tomboyish, forthright conviction of Joan’s pride in her soldiering and her fulfillment of her divine mission.

In “The Square of Rouen,” Getty provides the chorus with a roiling commentary on Joan’s dilemma, rather evocative of Benjamin Britten’s deployment of a massed community of voices in Peter Grimes. In a turn of good storytelling, Cauchon, for a moment, is compelled to look back on his own youth. Lester Lynch shone as an able singing actor in the dynamic range of both his voice and his demeanor, in this dramatic scene. Getty built forcefully toward the conclusion, with ascending horns and insistent percussion culminating in the transcendent tolling of the titular bells.

What century does Berlioz belong to? Although his Symphonie fantastique was written just a few years after the death of Beethoven, Berlioz’s imagination resonates as timeless, arguably almost psychedelic, particularly in this piece. Harada and his orchestra appeared visibly delighted to be bringing this into play.

But this is not child’s play. The symphony is rife with interjected changes of tempo, massed orchestral sonorities, and pictorial effects. Both conductor and ensemble gave a virtuosic and evocative response to these challenges.

In its second movement, “A Ball,” evocative of Ravel’s febrile reimagination of the waltz form some 90 years later, the Berkeley ensemble projected Berlioz’s almost cinematic colorings brightly and clearly, illuminating the triste longing beyond the dance music. The sadness stays in the sound of the stand-alone oboe at the start of the “Scene in the Countryside,” and Harada confidently refrained from rushing any part of this pastoral movement, an homage to Beethoven’s Sixth.

Berlioz gets his freak on again in the “March to the Scaffold,” which served as another testimony to the Berkeley Symphony’s force and finesse, the brass shining, the celli humming menacingly, the percussion kicking the audience in its guts. The concluding “Witches’ Sabbath” was rendered marvelously macabre, all of the composer’s shades and effects magically and memorably delivered by Harada and his orchestral conspirators. Both Berlioz and the Berkeley Symphony have proven themselves hard acts to follow. 

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.