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Berkeley Symphony Features Guitar Compositions

By BEN FRANDZELSpecial to the Planet
Tuesday January 20, 2004

Most of us celebrate an important anniversary by remembering the best of the years we are marking. Not so for the ever-adventurous Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kent Nagano. For their Wednesday evening concert (Jan. 21) at Zellerbach Hall on the UC campus, Nagano and the BSO will continue to celebrate the conductor’s 25th season with the orchestra by exploring new musical directions.  

The 8 p.m. concert will feature some outstanding guest artists, a spotlight on the orchestra’s growing connection to the contemporary music of Japan, and an instrument you don’t normally expect to hear at an orchestra concert, the electric guitar. 

The orchestra will perform the American premiere of La Corde du Feu (“Fire Strings”), a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra by Ichiro Nodaira. Nodaira, one of Japan’s leading contemporary composers, writes in an eclectic style that incorporates everything from ragtime to the latest avant garde techniques. He has become one of Nagano’s favorite composers in recent years, with the BSO performing several of his recent works. 

La Corde du Feu was written in 1989, and reconceived on a larger scale in 2002. The new version was premiered in Tokyo that year with Nodaira conducting and electric guitar virtuoso and former Frank Zappa sideman Steve Vai performing as soloist. 

For the Berkeley program, the soloist will be guitarist David Tanenbaum. Tanenbaum, who lives in Berkeley and directs the guitar program at the San Francisco Conservatory, is celebrated as one of America’s finest classical guitarists. This concert is a rare occasion for the guitarist, who regularly premieres new works but seldom performs on the electric guitar. The work’s enhanced electronics will be provided by UC Berkeley’s renowned Center for New Music and Audio Technologies. 

Continuing the surprising focus on the guitar, the orchestra will also present the world premiere of the Concerto for Two Guitars and Orchestra by the Symphony’s composer-in-residence, Naomi Sekiya. Sekiya has quickly emerged as one of the leading younger Japanese composers in recent years, winning several international competitions. The soloists will be Duo ASTOR, the young French/Spanish team of guitarists Gaelle Chiche and Francisco Bernier.  

The duo, who met Sekiya in Italy, has been working on the piece since mid-summer and say it is one of the more challenging they’ve played. To her credit, they also say that is the best calibrated piece they’ve performed. 

“Guitar is such a soulful instrument that balance is a really important,” said Sekiya, who had to tone down the orchestra during the guitar parts.  

Both Chiche and Berneir say they are excited to play with the Berkeley Symphony. They are also a little star struck about playing with Nagano, even though they’ve performed around the world. 

“We’re quite nervous, you don’t have many chances to play with an orchestra, and Nagano is so famous.”  

Performance goers are also in for a little theatrical treat when the two play. Having practiced so much together they’ve created a vibrant energy that adds to the music, swaying as they cradle their guitars. The intense exchange of glances as they play can easily distract the listener but in the end adds to ambiance.  

The orchestra will turn to the classics to finish the program, but again Nagano will take a creative approach. In addition to conducting Mozart’s rarely performed Symphony No.19, he’ll lead the orchestra in a new edition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 that reflects recent research into the composer’s original manuscripts. 

Daily Planet reporter Jakob Schiller contributed to this article.