Arts Listings

Music Review: Carneiro Ends BSO Season on High Note

by Ken Bullock
Thursday April 08, 2010 - 09:52:00 AM

Berkeley Symphony's season closer on April 1 was a triumph, both for the orchestra and for Joana Carneiro, completing her first season as music director. 

A triumph for the orchestra for their playing, one of their best concerts ever in terms of execution. "They're getting tighter and tighter!" Carneiro enthused afterwards. 

For Carneiro, a triumph in programming that was both subtle and audacious, intensive and extensive. 

The opener, Jorg Widmann's “Con Brio” , in its West Coast premiere, took gestures and hallmarks from Beethoven's style, extending, parodying, even burlesquing them with unusual instrumental techniques, including offbeat pizzicato and the use of (special fiberglass) sticks on the metal sides of the tympani that have the effect of "a mouse with long fingernails, running around in a dryer." 

Nonetheless, these seemingly unBeethovenic sounds created a marvelous effect in a piece from a unique and very musical ear, celebrating the great composer while accelerating his "stylemes" into the space age. Carneiro conducted Beethoven's Fifth at her guest concert in 2008. Earlier this season, she essayed the Eroica. Widmann's gamey, adventuresome piece proved a spirited denouement. 

(Widmann's music has been performed by Kent Nagano with Berkeley Akademie; Widmann will join Nagano and the Akademie as guest artist and on clarinet for his own composition this May 20.) 

The only drawback to opening with “Con Brio”--"With Spirit"--was a possible restlessness provoked by it in the audience, not all of whom seemed to settle down and fully absorb the gorgeous presentation of Samuel Barber's setting of "Knoxville 1915," a prose poem from James Agee's A Death in the Family. Soprano Jessica Rivera, artist in residence, sang it rapturously. "Nobody alive sings Barber like Jessica," Carneiro later remarked. "The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums." Lushly orchestrated, it was a different way of looking back from Widmann's humorous, anti-sentimental excursion. 

And finally, Brahm's First Symphony, also deeply indebted to Beethoven, with which the composer struggled for years in order to emerge from his great predecessor's shadow. It opens with signs of the tumult and profundity of the struggle, soaring to identity with the sublime, even the divine. 

But the Symphony's playing showed no sign of struggle, only deep engagement. "We're like a new orchestra now!" one player exulted afterwards. That newness, that particular form of engagement is Carneiro's own commitment to the music--to the whole spectrum of orchestral music and its conversation with its own history and with the audience.