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Berkeley Symphony - a premiere and a birthday party
2017-10-05
 

Berkeley Symphony “puts on the Ritz.”

At the age of 31, Beethoven announced himself to the world with equal parts audacity and cunning. Mozart had been dead for ten years and Haydn was largely retired. The year was 1801, and Beethoven had just published his Symphony No. 1, a work of clever progressions and mock grandeur that was so grand that it became one of his trademarks.

Joana Carneiro-photo by Dave WeilandThis was the very first work that Joana Carneiro conducted at the age of 18, and she programmed it for the Berkeley Symphony’s October 5 concert at Zellerbach Hall as a touchstone in returning to the helm after a year’s hiatus from travel and conducting.

Her year-long absence was no vacation! She spent it bearing and birthing triplets, and the three healthy babes, now seven months old, accompanied Joana and her husband from their home in Lisbon to Berkeley for this occasion.

One may wonder if the experience of new motherhood would reflect in Joana’s approach to conducting. What I saw was what she already has shown us: her total concentration on her musicians, and a quick-witted and deeply felt approach to every work from the exuberance of a young Beethoven to sumptuous Russian jazz and the exacting rhythms of minimalism. In other words, we already knew she would make a great parent! But perhaps there was something more: an even deeper sense of connection to the musicians, the music, and every single one of us. In a program that celebrated the new, we were gifted with hope and the integrity of doing something that truly mattered.

That first symphony was Beethoven’s entrance into the musical community, full of playful references and sudden dynamics and all built out of solid C-major scales. The Berkeley Symphony strings were rounded and buttery, and the woodwinds handed off their phrases with a seamlessness that showed their immersion in the larger architecture.

At one point Joana stopped conducting entirely and just beamed at the violas, and it felt like one big love-fest until she gathered them up and started to ratchet up the tension.

And then from noble spirits to tough love! William Gardiner’s Cello Concerto, a world premiere commissioned by composer John Adams, was a work that eschewed melody and easy intervals for raw tensions and textures of stringency.

Written for the young and accomplished cellist Tessa Seymour, this was a work of studied contrasts. It was rooted in dislocation and unease, but at the same time the cello was powerfully virtuosic. Similarly, Gardiner’s textures were vivid, but his motives were atonal and glacial. And against the stolid plucks of strings was the disconcerting cross-rhythms of wooden block.

In other words, it was more academic than popular in its approach, but the textures were still exquisite. High harp notes, almost electronic in their repetition, ground across wooden blocks and fat bass plucks; and the solo cello and trombones created an earthy realm all the richer against a spangle of metal triangle; and in some passages woodwinds paired against each other in long and meaty dissonances.

The 24-year-old Seymour held a surprising poise in the mix, arresting in her high range (and there was a lot of high scumbling), and satisfying in the depths. This was an infusion not unlike birdsong, and one might be reminded of Messiaen.

Tessa Seymour- photo courtesy of the artistSeymour returned for an encore solo that was fresh and endearing, cycling through passages that by turns sounded Celtic (and she sang a drone line across those cello chords) and rock-inspired. The audience stood for a long ovation.

Paired with Beethoven’s early work was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 1, written for a small jazz ensemble when he was 28 years old and leaning more towards lilt and humor than towards cynicism, which marked his later work. These three dances were lively and direct, and it was a joy to both hear and to watch the conductor and musicians practically dance their way through them.

The saxes, banjo and slide guitar added an exotic touch to the fullness of brass and percussion, while violin solos by Franklyn D’Antonio brought them to sudden intimacy. This accessible music derived from waltz, polka and foxtrot, but it was still a Russian sort of jazz, heavier-footed and flavored with the kind of edge one finds in Kurt Weill.

The night ended with one more dance.

John Adams, whose 70th birthday is this year, had been asked by Carneiro what he would like for a “birthday present.” He replied that he wanted her to conduct Fearful Symmetries, which he wrote in 1988 based on material from his opera, Nixon in China. This was a work of huge energy, almost mocking itself in its head-long rush. It was part dance and part “rock-frolic,” with the orchestra enlarged with saxes and keyboard and keyboard sampler.

Motifs grew naturally out of the busy surface, as efficient and natural as the breath, and there was indeed a visceral feeling to it, with the whole constantly shifting shape in one long joyous arc. Adams came up from the audience to take a bow, and I realized that my cheeks actually hurt from smiling throughout the whole twenty-minute long piece. Now that’s a birthday present!

—Adam Broner

 

Photo, top, of Joana Carneiro, by Dave Weiland. Below, cellist Tessa Seymour, photo courtesy of the artist.

 
     
   
 
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