Sunday, March 31, 2013

Stucky & Bruckner at Berkeley Symphony

Steven Stucky
(Hobermann Studio photo)

To Berkeley Symphony this past Thursday night, to a program that fooled me: I thought there was a third piece on the program, undoubtedly because I was thinking of the orchestra's last two programs, which featured works by Ligeti and Lutoslawski. Silly me, because most of this program, timewise, was given over to Bruckner.

Obviously there's a dilemma of some kind when you're programming a 60-minute or longer work as the centerpiece of a concert. You want a work or works that complement the big piece well. At the same time, you have to be canny about rehearsal time.

SFS has solved this problem in various satisfactory and unsatisfactory ways. A performance of Mahler's gigantic 7th symphony was preceded by MTT and Alexander Barantschik playing a Mozart piano & violin sonata. Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle got a Liszt piano concerto for company. Robin Holloway's Fourth Concerto for Orchestra had the Brahms Violin Concerto, which got a blazing and overlooked performance by Christian Tetzlaff.

Berkeley Symphony has a long and admirable history of playing difficult 20th c. music and an equally admirable history of commissions. So Bruckner's Fourth had The Stars and Roses, a new work by Steven Stucky, a 15-minute, three-movement setting of poems by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who lived in the US and taught at UC Berkeley for many years.

Before the performance, Berkeley Symphony's executive director came out to talk a bit about next season (it has just been announced) and to dedicate the evening's concert to a recently-deceased supporter. The the composer and conductor Joana Carneiro came out and talked about the piece. I am not really a fan of talking program notes, so I squirmed a lot. It was all very community-oriented and also seemed a bit like what would happen at a high school program.

The Stucky is quite a nice piece, beautifully orchestrated, tuneful with a little dissonance thrown in for spice. He knows his Britten; the string writing immediately put me in the world of Les Illuminations, not a bad model or inspiration at all. But the vocal line was curiously characterless, mostly long, soaring lines with fairly long note values, and not much variety. This made me wonder how much experience Stucky has in writing for the voice, which can do so much more than he asks for in this piece. The vocal writing put me in mind of RVW's Serenade to Music, a work I dislike because it's a poor setting of the poetry. Stucky's is better, and yet I do feel he could have done a great deal more with the poems. My partner's response was that she liked the orchestral aspects of the work better than the vocal, and I think I have to agree; I don't think the settings particularly illuminate the poetry.

Tenor Noah Stewart, a former Adler Fellow, was the featured vocalist, and my, there've been some changes since I last heard him, in Festival Opera's Il Trovatore and in the 2005 world premiere of Appomattox. His voice has darkened and become weightier, larger, and more richly hued than the voice I recall. He had a score for The Stars and Roses, but hardly looked at it that I noticed. I wish his enunciation had been clearer, but the musical lines came across well.

Then there was a surprise. After the bows and applause and bouquets for Stucky and Stewart (and Carneiro?), came an encore, "Una furtiva lagrima," from Donizetti's Elisir d'Amore.

It was gorgeously sung, with beautiful style, tenderness, and sterling dynamic control.

It also obliterated what we'd just heard. I wish they'd repeated some of the Stucky, or had given Stewart a couple of arias before the Stucky. I'm not convinced that an encore is appropriate after the premiere of a new work, unless it's from the new work. Various friends are arguing with me about this in email. I hear that Joshua Kosman agrees with me, or I agree with him, but his review is premium content at sfchronicle.com, so I will have to read it on paper. (If you're a Chron digital subscriber, click the "his review" link and you'll be able to read it.)

As for the Bruckner, it got what I think was a good performance, to the extent that I can judge. I really cannot fathom what is going on in Bruckner, whose symphonies sound like this to me:

Idea. Idea. Idea. Idea. Idea. New idea. Idea.

There's not much development of any of those ideas, though there is some repetition, and over the course of an hour, well, this is the last time I plan to sit through a Bruckner symphony live. (Now I'm wondering if I have a ticket to an upcoming SFS program with Bruckner on it. Oh joy.)

Thomas May's program notes talk about how Bruckner's "spaciousness" is paramount over other compositional elements, that he's a symphonic radical with a different focus from the core Romantic composers. Fair enough, but give me Schumann's energy and thrust, Brahms's intensity and counterpoint, Wagner's motivic development, anything but Bruckner.

Okay, I'll own that the second movement is extremely beautiful and well-organized. But that's it for me. Even the Furtwangler recordings haven't managed to convert me.

It is true that the orchestra sounded exceptionally good; either they've twiddled the Meyer Sound dials to better settings or rearranged the orchestra or I was just sitting close enough that I was within the nimbus of decent sound in Zellerbach. Special kudos to Alex Camphouse for knife-edge handling of the exceptionally difficult principal horn part. And Joana Carneiro did a good job of moving the thing forward and giving it appropriate weight and proportion. I mean, most of the time I'd blame the conductor when a work doesn't come across. But in this case, I'm pretty sure it's the composer.

P. S. Berkeley Symphony, why do you remove all traces of past concerts from your web site? There used to be an archive page, but damned if I can find it. Please put it back up. This is important historical information....and three days after a concert is way, way too soon to take material down.

P. P. S. House management at Zellerbach really leaves something to be desired. This concert started late. So did The Secret Garden a month ago. And when the lights came down for Act II of Secret Garden, at least 50 to 75 audience members were still wandering the aisles trying to find their seats, including people using walkers. Safety issue, folks. Risk the overtime, don't risk the patrons' safety.


Evan Tucker said...

Not to put you through still more pain, but try Eugen Jochum's Bruckner 4 with the Berlin Phil. Just sayin'...

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hmmm. MAYBE. Tim Mangan of the OC Register is separately plumping for HvK with the BPO on grounds of sheer gorgeousness.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think I accidentally deleted a comment of calimac's, which I am posting here:

calimac (http://calimac.livejournal.com/) has left a new comment on your post "Stucky & Bruckner at Berkeley Symphony":

If you ever do feel the urge to learn to understand Bruckner, Robert Simpson's book The Essence of Bruckner is a lucid and insightful guide to what he is actually doing with all those ideas of his.