Friday, February 22, 2008

Berkeley Symphony, Hugh Wolff

Berkeley Symphony, it turns out, has a highly efficient web site or web master: last week's concert, with guest conductor Hugh Wolff, disappeared from the listings by the next day, leaving only upcoming concerts. I hope the information has been archived. I wish every orchestra and opera company had an online archive, but that's a subject for another posting. [Update: Berkeley Symphony has an archive of recent concerts here. The archive goes back a few years only, to 2004.)

Wolff is the first of six guest conductors who are auditioning for the post of music director. He conducted a concert that seems typical of the orchestra: two newish pieces, one 20th century classic, and a 19th century classic.

Neither of the two newish pieces made much of an impression on me. Both are energetic, amiable, and forgettable. Wolff is a longtime advocate of Aaron Jay Kernis's music, and opened the concert with Kernis's Overture in Feet and Meters. The conductor's introductory remarks ended with "Hold on to your hats," but mine stayed firmly on my head. The overture is an orchestration of the first movement of Kernis's Second String Quartet, and I'm willing to bet that it works better in the quartet format. Mahler created wonderful string orchestra versions of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet and Beethoven's Op. 95, both works with a good bit of grandeur to them. Kernis's piece has charm and cleverness, but not enough weight to survive being inflated for performance by a full orchestra.

I haven't got much to say about Osvaldo Golijov's Night of the Flying Horses, a movement of his song cycle Three Songs, which in itself is damning - but it did bring the wonderful soprano Heidi Melton, a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, on stage.

She had a far bigger part, along with tenor Thomas Glenn and mezzo Katherine Tier, for Shostakovich's From Jewish Folk Poetry, settings of Yiddish poems. All three gave fine performances, with Melton's mighty dramatic soprano making a fine match for Tier's velvety, dark mezzo and Glenn's well-focussed tenor. Glenn's diction was superior to that of the women; each had fine moments in their solos.

The work was performed using the original Yiddish, though the published score has the words in Russian. The English translations must have been from the Russian, because they deviated significantly from the Yiddish in the program: too bad!

After the intermission, Wolff led a rousing performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony; apotheosis of the dance, indeed.

My only complaint about the concert - besides the slightness of the Kernis and Golijov works - is about the poor acoustics of Zellerbach. The orchestral sound was flat in the first half of the concert, more nuanced in the second. I don't know if the technicians tuned the amplification sound enhancement system during intermission or what, but those honking big speakers do not inspire confidence at all. I wish there were a better venue for this excellent orchestra.

[Joshua Kosman's review nailed this concert, as far as I'm concerned.]


Anonymous said...

What Kosman calls "Wolff's claim that Shostakovich's melodies must have been written as vehicles for the Yiddish" was pretty well substantiated by the emigré Russian musicologist Joachim Bauer, in a monograph published in Israel about 1978. The Yiddish texts (or at least most of them) had been published separately and attracted Shostakovich's attention; as I recall, he specifically asked for a Russian translation that would be metrically identical to the original, so the songs could be performed in either language without awkward melismas or other distortions of declamation.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks! I guess Wolff hasn't seen that paper.

Henry Holland said...

From Mr. Kosman's review:

"Night of the Flying Horses," a klezmer exercise by Osvaldo Golijov, was about what you might hear from a Jewish wedding band warming up.


Anonymous said...

I have not been greatly impressed by the works of Mr Kernis.

It is annoying when past concert info you want to check on disappears from the web. Like if I want to write about the concert but I've lost my program book, or something.

I did persuade SSV to put up an archive of its past concerts. Very useful, especially with an all-guest conductor orchestra, to be able to check and remind oneself what the conductor did last time.

Lisa Hirsch said...

San Francisco Opera used to archive its web site annually, so you could see the full schedule, photos, etc. That stopped a few years back, which I found annoying, but at least they have a performance archive.

This was my first exposure to Kernis, so no conclusions about his composing yet. OTOH, I've heard other Golijov and liked it, so this was disappointing.