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October 28, 2008

On Sunday in Berkeley, the Jerusalem Symphony offered an evening of music by 20th-century Jewish composers, performing old favorites alongside works that have disappeared from the canon. The first half of the concert, which was presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, highlighted works by émigré composers who made their home in the United States, while the second half presented an orchestral warhorse by a composer whose music has become synonymous with Americana.
The concert began with what should have been a humorous opener: Ernst Toch's Big Ben: Variation Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes (1934). The piece was written while the composer, fleeing Nazi Germany, was in transit to his eventual new home in California. Either in acknowledgment of these grave circumstances or out of general ennui, the orchestra seemed more perplexed than amused by this clever set of variations on the famous four-note chime. The musicians plodded through the piece as if against their will.

Leon Botstein

Despite Music Director Leon Botstein's efforts, the somewhat top-heavy string section, in particular, did little to give shape to the music. Botstein's calls for crescendos and decrescendos went unnoticed; at several points he signaled for sudden, forte accents that never came.

The orchestra's ambivalence wouldn't have been so lamentable were it not for the lethargy that spread into the audience as a result. In some variations the four-note theme is hard to miss — the piece begins and ends with the tune played on actual chimes — but no one cracked a smile or gave a knowing nod. The audience remained as impassive as the musicians, and the tepid applause that came at the end seemed more perfunctory than appreciative.

The weariness of the evening opener made the turnaround in the second piece all the more miraculous. As if to answer the call, soloist Robert McDuffie relied on all manner of theatrics in a performance of Miklós Rózsa's Violin Concerto (1954). At few points did he have both feet firmly planted on the ground. Rather, he swayed, danced, and on occasion jumped from one foot to the other. During the music's introspective and quiet episodes, McDuffie seemed to cringe, as if protecting himself from something, and pivoted with such vehemence that his back was almost to the audience. At other times he literally leaped into action, standing chest-forward on his toes at the very edge of the stage.

The effect on the audience and the orchestra was immediate. The soloist leads the way through most of the piece; in the first movement, the orchestra rarely plays anything that the violin doesn't play first. Appropriately, the musicians seemed to exert great mental energy to keep up with McDuffie, their faces grim as ever but in concentration rather than malaise. In the tender second movement they played as if they cared.

Thankfully, McDuffie's dance moves did not obscure his technical prowess. The score is heavy with double stops, harmonics, and tricky rhythms, and the audience was as awed by McDuffie's fingerwork as by his footwork. The frenetic finale, a whirlwind of a gypsy dance, provided the perfect blend of physical and technical fireworks, and McDuffie earned the most heartfelt of the evening's applauses.
Rousing Change of Pace
It remained to be seen whether McDuffie's energy would rub off on the final scheduled piece of the program, Aaron Copland's regal Symphony No. 3 (1944-46). As befits a work begun in the midst of World War II and completed after its conclusion, Copland supplied the kind of rousing affirmation that America sorely needed to focus on the triumphant return home of the victors rather than the horrors that their victory had cost.

At the start, this is how Botstein's orchestra played it. It was in the fanfares of the opening movement that I first got the sense that the musicians were enjoying themselves. But as the piece wore on, the lethargy from earlier in the evening resurfaced. The dance rhythms of the second movement never had the bounce that the score seems to call for. In the third movement listeners can hear echoes of Appalachian Spring (1944), though ballet was the furthest thing from my mind as the orchestra trod through the music with heavy feet.

The majestic fourth movement, in which Copland incorporated his previously composed Fanfare for the Common Man (1943), helped to animate the ensemble somewhat. Here, the orchestra seemed on the verge of taking flight. But the musicians simply did not keep momentum, and by the time the blazing finale rolled around it sounded as if everyone was simply going through the motions. Although many critics have argued that that is what Copland was doing, too, works like the Third Symphony still have the power to stir our emotions when played with genuine interest. On Sunday evening the Jerusalem Symphony didn't seem to be in the mood.

The concert ended with two encore performances: Leroy Anderson's Blue Tango and Naomi Shemer's Jerusalem in Gold. In the former piece, especially, many of the musicians were smiling jovially as they sent the audience home on an upbeat note. It made me wonder about what could have been if they'd been that enthusiastic earlier.

Noel Verzosa is a visiting assistant professor at California State University in Sacramento.