Friday, October 16, 2009

House Problems 2

Still not Gregory House, M.D. This time, I'm talking about Zellerbach.
The next time I complain about Davies, please remind of this week's Berkeley Symphony concert, in which the dead acoustics of Zellerbach made Davies sound like Disney. I am not kidding: from our seats (row O on the side), the dynamic range of the orchestra was reduced to mp to mf; pianos disappeared completely; forte and above sounded like mf. Only a couple of the brass explosions in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra made much impact.

The visceral impact of a performance is a big part of what pulls me into the music and makes it resonate for me, intellectually and emotionally. This is why I love the sonic-overload masterpieces, huge works like Mahler's Eighth, Stravinsky's ballets, Salonen's Wing on Wing, Messiaen's Turangalila. It's why I'm thrilled by the sound of an operatic voice filling a hall. Not that works on a smaller sonic scale don't overwhelm me too; a great string quartet performance can cut me to the quick.

But if I'm hearing a big orchestra performing, I want the rush and pull; I want to be conquered. And that was almost completely missing last night.

You can bet that I scratched my head throughout the performance over this. The last time I heard the Berkeley Symphony, William Eddins conducted, and from my reviewer's seat - closer to the front and closer to the center - the orchestra sounded absolutely fantastic. I cannot tell why they sounded so ordinary this time: the dial-twiddling behind the sound enhancement system? my location in the hall? conductor Joana Carneiro's sonic style?

The difference was so marked, and the music had so little impact that my mind wandered throughout the program. This is unusual for me, so my comments about the performances themselves will be brief. John Adams's The Chairman Dances, from the opera Nixon in China, sounded too mechanical and, as the superb pianist sitting in front of me said, would have benefited from "more of a narrative arc."

The program notes for Gabriela Lena Frank's Peregrinos annoyed the heck out of me; I don't, in fact, care very much about the particular incidents that inspired the individual movements, and in 20 years they'll be forgotten and irrelevant. The music struck me as surprisingly derivative. The first and last movements open with a violin solo that might as well have been a direct quotation from The Lark Ascending. The orchestral murmurings accompanying the solo were nothing like what's in RVW's tone poem, and involved quite a lot of string strumming, but once that RVW sounded was planted in my ear, it stayed there. The start of one of the subsequent movements made me want to stand up and sing "Ich hab'ein gluehend Messer" from Songs of a Wayfarer. Was a direct allusion intended? Who knows? I'd like to hear Peregrinos again, under conditions in which it's easier to evaluate the piece.

One thing I can say about both the Adams and the Frank works: neither is quite able to stand up for itself when on a program with the Bartok - even when the Bartok gets a less than fully successful performance. Suffice it to say that the Concerto sounded overly studied and cautiously performed, and, well, Bartok is not the native language of this orchestra. This is not so surprising considering that the Berkeley Symphony isn't a full-time orchestra. But this is one of the greatest and most popular 20th century orchestral pieces, with a long recorded history that makes comparisons to great performances all too easy. This one didn't get there for me; I hope the Berkeley Symphony gets another crack at it some day.


Anonymous said...

It was Carneiro whom I found the biggest distractor from listening to the music---all elbows. Several patrons commented that they had to close their eyes to concentrate on the music.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Interesting, thanks! I was far enough away not to be distracted by her.