Don’t Miss a Beat: Adventures with the Berkeley Symphony

The big news stepping into Berkeley Symphony’s final mainstage concert of the season on April 26 was that Joana Carneiro, the orchestra’s music director since 2009, had just seriously injured her shoulder and needed two months recuperation time. That this was one of the orchestra’s four concerts in the 2000-seat Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus would have caused concern enough, but the centerpiece of the program was the world premiere of Holy Sisters, a Berkeley Symphony commission from Gabriela Lena Frank, for orchestra, soprano Jessica Rivera, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus. This set the scene for the last-minute arrival from Chicago of conductor Edwin Outwater, who tweeted obliquely the morning before the concert:


The Berkeley Symphony, which was founded in 1969, became known under three decades of Kent Nagano’s leadership for its commitment to contemporary music; in the last ten seasons they have received ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awards eight times. The orchestra has continued in this direction under Carneiro, announcing on Wednesday four commissions—by Steven Stucky, Dylan Mattingly, Andreia Pinto-Correia, and Paul Dresher—scheduled for the 2012/13 season.

There was a particularly personal connection for Carneiro, Rivera, and Frank behind the commission of Holy Sisters. One transcendently lovely section had initially been written by Frank and sung by Rivera as a secret gift at Carneiro’s wedding. Frank, who is an East Bay native and currently serves as the orchestra’s creative advisor, gave a spoken introduction to the 20-minute work with her characteristic ebullience by telling the personal stories behind the commission and the selection of texts about five Biblical women: Mary Magdalene, Rachel, Sarah, Miriam, and Hannah. (Jesse Hamlin wrote a nice preview piece featuring interviews with Carneiro, Frank, and Rivera for San Francisco Classical Voice in which the depth of their relationship comes through.) Frank also spoke about how the portion that was being premiered was the first part of what will eventually become a larger work, with the second half, Holy Daughters, scheduled to be premiered in May 2013 as part of the San Francisco Girls Chorus’ season.


Frank juggles limes (Warning: This video features squealing)

Given Frank’s personal introduction, the audience was made even more appreciative of Outwater’s effort, stepping into a premiere performance with two days’ notice, having studied the scores on his iPad. (Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Kodály’s Dances of Galánta filled out the program.) To Outwater’s credit, the orchestra—a combination of professionals and clearly very skilled community musicians—played remarkably well, especially under a conductor whom they had only just met the day before the concert. The San Francisco Girls Chorus, impeccably prepared, as always, provided a backdrop and commentary to Rivera’s lyrical and committed delivery. I am looking forward to hearing what direction Frank will take the music in the work’s second half next season. (If you can’t wait all the way until then to hear what’s already been written, this concert will be broadcast on KALW on September 16, 2012.)

Carneiro’s injury also necessitated a substitution for another Berkeley Symphony concert a few days later, for their second Under Construction concert of the season. The Under Construction Composers Program, open to composers in the San Francisco Bay Area, began as a public reading series but has recently evolved into a more developed mentorship program, where selected composers work for a year with Frank on the creation of a new orchestral work. There was an initial public session in January (which I wasn’t able to attend) where sketches were presented and read; on April 29 the completed works were performed, publicly rehearsed, and performed again.

Paul Dresher introducing the Under Construction concert

Paul Dresher introducing the Under Construction concert

The three composers selected for this season were Nils Bultmann, Evelyn Ficarra and Noah Luna. Each wrote a piece of about ten minutes in length, which the full orchestra performed under the direction of Ming Luke, the orchestra’s education director and associate conductor. Paul Dresher, a fellow Bay Area composer who is being commissioned for next season, was on hand to introduce the event at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, where, he added, he had produced Lou Harrison’s 60th birthday concert in 1977. (A recording of that historic performance can be heard via the Other Minds Audio Archive.)

Noah Luna addressing the orchestra during the open rehearsal

Noah Luna addressing the orchestra during the open rehearsal

Dresher mentioned that the Under Construction program was an opportunity he wishes he had had himself, and one could immediately hear why. The orchestra gave surprisingly and commendably clean performances of these three works—again, under someone other than Carneiro’s direction and just three days after the Holy Sisters premiere. The three works were contrasting and complementary. Luna took full advantage of the large orchestra to write a lush and layered tone poem. Ficarra explored colors and textures by having, for example, the string instruments tapped with fingertips and then moving to fingernails, and having multiple wind players put air through their instruments audibly without playing notes. Bultmann chose to write a more virtuosic, tonal piece that focused on rhythmic play. The symphony is accepting applications for next season’s program; the deadline is June 1 (PDF application).

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Amy X Neuburg at BAM/PFA

Amy X Neuburg at BAM/PFA

Speaking of Lou Harrison, I am sorely disappointed that I will be out of town for a performance of Harrison’s La Koro Sutro at the Berkeley Art Museum on Friday, May 25, as part of the L@TE: Friday Nights at BAM/PFA series, programmed by Sarah Cahill. The last performance on this series I went to on April 13 was Amy X Neuburg’s Spaces Out with guest Moe! Staiano and a 30-voice chorus. Both Neuburg and Staiano had written new pieces for the chorus (Inbred Kisses and Having Never Written A Vocal Piece, respectively) that made use of the unusual space and its multiple performance levels. But ultimately Neuburg’s wonderfully witty and captivating solo pieces like Every Little Stain and Finally Black (some of her “greatest hits” for those who have been following her for a while), in which she samples and loops herself live and lets loose her amazing range and tonal flexibility, were the most memorable works of the evening.

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