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Taking the Grand Approach

December 16, 2008

Last Thursday, the Berkeley Symphony welcomed Joana Carneiro, the last of six candidates to appear at Zellerbach Hall and make a case for their being appointed as music director. Carneiro's selection of pieces was probably the least eclectic of all the candidates' programs, though she chose hers strategically. A Bay Area premiere of a new composition, a work by a hometown hero, and a warhorse of the repertoire not only provided a diverse offering of music but also allowed Carneiro, the assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to play to her strengths.
Carneiro's "audition" began with Magnus Lindberg's Chorale (2006). One of the most successful of today's active composers, Lindberg composes in many different genres, including electronic music, but has made a name for himself among Bay Area listeners primarily through his orchestral works. (Last June the San Francisco Symphony gave the West Coast premiere of Seht die Sonne, a piece it jointly commissioned with the Berlin Philharmonic.)

Chorale is an enigmatic and fascinating reinterpretation of J.S. Bach's Es ist genug, the same chorale that Alban Berg quoted in his Violin Concerto (1935). And indeed, Chorale sets Bach against a thick fog of Bergian harmony. At times the chorale tune emerges clearly, while at other times it fades from hearing. The piece served as a good primer on Carneiro's conducting. The constant backdrop of orchestral sonority, sometimes approaching molasses-like density, allowed her to concentrate on shape and color, molding the music into an ever-shifting sonic tapestry.

As a result, the audience was treated to the full gamut of Carneiro's choreography and warmed to it almost immediately. All her arm movements began at the shoulder and ended in fully extended limbs that stretched, waved, and slashed through the air. (At one point she accidentally struck her music stand with the baton.) In quiet legato passages her conducting resembled tai chi; in loud staccato passages she might have been fencing.

It was the latter, especially, that seemed to engage her (and the audience) the most. Like Kent Nagano, retiring after 30 years with the Berkeley Symphony, Carneiro favors a homophonic sound in which the orchestra moves and sings as one. (Contrast this to a Michael Tilson Thomas or a Riccardo Muti, both of whom favor a polyphonic sound that emphasizes individual details within the bigger picture.) Consequently, the most captivating moments of the evening were the passages that called for a thunderous, forbidding, or majestic sound — in other words, the loud passages. This approach comes at certain costs that became evident later in the evening, yet it served Carneiro well in Chorale and earned the support of the crowd.
Absorbing Baton Work
Shaker Loops (1978), by minimalist emeritus and local hero John Adams, calls for quite a different kind of approach, making it a wise programming choice. The kinetic conducting of the first piece gave way to sharp, angular jabs as Carneiro concentrated on the metronomic precision of tempo and rhythm that Shaker Loops requires. For much of the piece the strings maintain a frenetic perpetuum mobile of tremolos, trills, and runs that leave little room for error. It made for fewer visual gymnastics, but it was no less absorbing to watch Carneiro keep the ensemble together. Everyone seemed to let out a relieved breath at the end — including Adams himself, who came out to take a bow and give Carneiro a jovial embrace for the effort.

Carneiro's audition would not have been complete without a repertory standard, of course, and for her finale she took on the standard of standards: the Fifth. As the buzz of nearby concertgoers confirmed, the crowd was eager to hear what Carneiro would bring to Beethoven.

As it turned out, Carneiro took few risks with the piece. Rather than use the performance as an opportunity to bring new ideas to the work, she used the work as an opportunity to make a final pitch for her conducting style. From the opening moments, she was more intent on magnifying the symphony's general grandeur than on exploring the subtleties of its unfolding drama.

Sometimes this backfired. Carneiro preceded every szforzando with a stamp of her foot (unfortunately amplified by her wooden podium), giving away the surprises and slightly robbing the music of its thunder. The most notable loss came in the famous transitional passage connecting the third and fourth movements. By saving her energy for the blazing fanfare that begins the finale, Carneiro took little interest in the quiet but no-less-shocking end of the third movement, which closes by landing on the "wrong" chord.

Still, Carneiro's reading did have one delightfully surprising effect: The 130-bar coda that ends the piece, often the butt of musical jokes for its interminable iterations of C Major, didn't sound redundant. By that point in the piece — and, indeed, the evening — the audience had thoroughly internalized Carneiro's regal sound. (I almost felt sorry for the violins, frantically sawing away at their strings, and the cellos, whose bows kept striking the wood of their instruments as they endeavored to provide the hammer blows that Carneiro's extravagant gestures demanded.) It was as if she had been preparing us for that finale the entire evening, so that by concert's end she had literally given us exactly what we wanted.

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