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Berkeley Community Chorus tries something new

By Miko Sopler Daily Planet correspondent
Wednesday May 09, 2001

The Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra usually performs mainstream classics, the so-called “workhorses,” the core of the classical music tradition.  

This is fine, for that part of the repertory has already proven its drawing power for audiences and interest to the performers.  

Sometimes Arlene Sagan, director of the BCCO, likes to get bold new works in hopes that the singers are up to the unusual demands of non-standard fare, and that the listeners will trust her and show up to appreciate works they have never heard before. This is the crux of this current concert series: a premiere of “The Children's Hour” by Berkeley composer Julian White, a pair of Randall Thompson’s obscure settings of poems by Robert Frost and Ludwig van Beethoven.  

The work in question, the choral Fantasia in C major, is in fact rarely heard. There is no reason for this: it is a splendid showpiece for flashy pianistic display and a glimpse at what powers Beethoven would muster for the chorus in his Ninth Symphony. The featured pianist, Matthew Edwards, rose to the occasion and sent the required sparks out through the grand instrument.  

I am not sure whether anybody actually swooned, but I swear that several listeners were near to it. The chorus took advantage of the rich acoustics in St. Joseph the Worker Church, filling the sanctuary with a mighty sound. The spiritual text of the poem, an ode to music and harmony, was clearly understandable even in the midst of the storming volume which the singers and orchestra created. The piece is as uplifting a statement about the human spirit as the “Ode to Joy” which finishes the Ninth Symphony. (This famous Ode also finished the BCCO concert: more on that later.) I can only guess that the Fantasia is mostly ignored because its short duration makes it not seem worth the effort of assembling the required forces. It is worthy of more exposure. 

The evening opened with Thompson's setting of one of Frost's most famous poems: “The Road Less Taken.” The piece begins with a simple unison melody, which gradually splits into harmonies and accumulates appropriate counterpoint, so the listener is led gradually into the gently modern idiom which Thompson utilizes for the remainder of the work.  

Nothing is jarring; even the dissonances are sweetly bitter. The attention given to the familiar text makes the vocabulary of the composition immediately palatable: it is like new spice for familiar meat. The chorus created a nicely philosophical tone throughout, serving the poem well with crisp diction and respectful phrasing. The palate widened for “Choose Something Like a Star,” the other Thompson setting of a Frost poem on the program. The chorus managed ethereal serenity after moments of dark brooding on cosmic mysteries. I regret that they did not repeat this profound choral song, for its deep complexity invites another hearing. The final piece performed was Julian White's masterful “Children's Hour,” based on two poems by William Blake, which form the philosophical crux of the work, and five other short selections from various other sources. White illustrates his interpretations of the texts and paints his amazement and wonder at the precious world of children. The audience is coaxed into accepting dissonance as expressing the loss of innocence and the bittersweet reflection on youth. The dissonance is romantic, not post-modern, and is a crucial part of the color scheme rather than a required bow to convention.  

White extends the range of his harmonies into lush eleventh and thirteenth chords, developing rather than abandoning traditional structures. The chorus managed some rather difficult passages with sure-footed musicality. Mezzo-soprano Miriam Abramowitsch brought warmth and intelligence to her featured solos, during which we got to hear that White's melodic sense is as refined and profound as his harmonies. It was a treat to hear the world premiere of this beautiful work. At the conclusion of the work, Sagan invited the composer to the podium to conduct a reprise of the final movement.  

White managed to draw even more intense beauty from the chorus, who poured their souls into the phrase "Let me comprehend all that I see with the light of awareness," which formed a kind of tribute to the man who stood before them. The singers and instrumentalists then heartily applauded the composer and his work. 

A lovely tradition of the BCCO is to end each concert with a sing-along number, which in this case was Beethoven's “Ode to Joy.” While I cannot say that it was a world-class rendition of the Ode, it was great fun. The audience had become singers, and went away happy. 

Miko Sloper can be reached at