Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Sort of French

Berkeley Symphony opened its 2015-16 season tonight with a program that looked great on paper. In execution, it left rather a lot to be desired. It was, really, the kind of program that makes me want to stay home with Boulez conducting Debussy....or Boulez.

In all fairness, a qualification or two. I was under the Zellerbach overhang, which can't possibly improve on the poor acoustics of the hall. I've heard an awful lot of great Berlioz this year, too - I'm looking at you, San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles, and everybody who had a part in Les Troyens. Beyond that, I have a few great recordings of Les Nuits d'Ete, and the last time I heard it live, it was with Susan Graham, at San Francisco Symphony with MTT conducting, a great account of the work.

There's no tactful way to say that tonight's performance by soprano Simone Osborne, led by Joana Carneiro, was a disappointment from start to finish. Tempos dragged; there was no lilt at all to "L'ile inconnu," the concluding song. Singer and conductor had difficulty staying together, and Carneiro's phrasing was incomprehensible; she has little feel for Berlioz's line. The orchestra was so recessed that none of the cycle's colors came through.

Osborne sang from the score with terrible French, everpresent and unvaried vibrato, and failed completely to put across the mood or sense of the poems. Really, Berlioz should never be boring, and this performance was.

I'd be willing to bet that Kaija Saariaho's Laterna Magica, a 20 minute orchestral work given its West Coast premiere, got the lion's share of the rehearsal time for the concert. Here, the playing seemed idiomatic and confident, as did Carneiro's conducting. I'm a well-known Saariaho fan; I've seen Adriana Mater, her second opera, and several of her chamber works, including the violin concerto Graal Theatre. I liked last year's Adriana Songs just fine.

But this particular piece doesn't work so well, I feel. It seemed episodic and somewhat ungrounded; in need of more color, contrast, snap, and momentum than it has. I will say that I had in mind Joshua Kosman's remark last year about Saariaho's "trademark gray palette," in his review of Adriana Songs, and after this piece, I think I know what he means - although that is not what I heard in Adriana Songs.

The program closed with a decent account of Ravel's Bolero, excepting some blare and poor blend in the last 30 seconds of the work. I must say that I was ready for it to be over right after the trombone solo.

Other commentary:
  • Joshua Kosman, Chron
  • George Rowe, Daily Democrat
  • Joe Cadigan, SFCV. Okay, never mind that I disagree with his assessment of Osborn; I'm puzzled as hell by his remarks on the Berlioz itself: "...Berlioz’ Nuits d’été, in which melodic inventiveness is swallowed up in a luxurious sea of strings, making it hard to differentiate between the six movements." I had problems differentiating among the movements because of Carneiro's tempos.

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