Arts & Events

Berkeley Symphony Plays Lutoslawski and Beethoven

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday February 05, 2016 - 01:55:00 PM

Berkeley Symphony’s Music Director Joana Carneiro was unable to conduct this program due to illness, so Tito Muñoz, Music Director of The Phoenix Symphony, was called in to replace her at the last minute. Muñoz arrived in time to conduct the first rehearsal on Tuesday, and the performance itself took place Thursday evening in Zellerbach Hall. Featured on the program were Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra (1954) and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, “Emperor,” with Conrad Tao as soloist. 

Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra has been hailed as one of the most outstanding works of the mid-20th century. It premiered in 1954 with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra. Modeled in part after Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra of 1944, Lutoslawski’s work is a showpiece of orchestral coloration, featuring a scintillating soundscape of ever-changing, ever-contrasting sonorities. It is scored for a large orchestra consisting of 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, tom-toms, snare, tenor and bass drums, cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, xylophone, chimes, celesta, piano, 2 harps, and a large string section. 

The work begins in 9/8 meter with a relentlessly repeated F-sharp beaten out by the timpani. Later, this opening gambit is inverted and the material is played in the upper registers by piccolo and celesta. Folk music from the Warsaw region serves as the inspiration, but, as Lutoslawski insists, it serves only as the “bricks” from which he creates a highly colored orchestral edifice. The second movement begins with squeaky strings that soon introduce a whirring sound. Trumpet blasts intrude, creating a contrast of loud/soft, until the brass section intones a powerful climax. The complex third movement opens with a passacaglia played by the double-basses and two harps. A brief folk-derived theme undergoes many variations – 18 in all, before it turns into a toccata, which in turn becomes a chorale first heard in the woodwinds. The toccata music returns in the work’s coda, building to a powerful, shrieking climax. Conductor Tito Muñoz led a taut, energetic reading of this brilliant Concerto for Orchestra by Witold Lutoslawski. 

After intermission Muñoz returned to lead the orchestra and soloist Conrad Tao in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major. In his opening remarks, Muñoz told of his first encounter ten years ago with Conrad Tao at the Aspen Music Festival, where the then 11 year-old Conrad Tao played violin in the orchestra. Now 21 years old, Conrad Tao has blossomed into one of the leading young pianists, performing with many symphony orchestras in the USA and abroad. 

From the opening chords of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto, pianist Conrad Tao tore into the three brilliant cadenzas that follow each of the three orchestral chords. It is a striking beginning, and it presages a heroic, almost militaristic first movement. Commentators have noted that Beethoven was working on this concerto at the very moment in 1809 when Napoleon’s armies were bombarding Vienna. However, far from glorifying Napoleon, this opening movement seems to embody the glorious struggle of the artist. In the nimble, forceful hands of Conrad Tao, this artistic struggle was glorious indeed. 

The second movement, an Adagio, is, by contrast, lyrical and dreamy. Here Tao played with a lighter touch, bringing out the gossamer quality of this movement. Just as it seems about to end, Beethoven enacts a startling tonal transition, from the Adagio’s distant B Major back to the home key of E-flat Major, as the work proceeds without a pause into the final movement. A rondo introduces a typical “hunting” theme, augmented by Beethoven’s energetic rhythmic accents. Ultimately, the rondo itself almost comes to a halt, and only the timpani continues to beat out the rhythmic motto. However, the pianist suddenly enters with a cascade of scales, thereby heightening the drama, until the orchestra takes up the rhythmic theme and builds it to an emphatic climax. The combination of pianist Conrad Tao and conductor Tito Muñoz inspired the orchestra to great heights. 

As an encore, Conrad Tao returned, having shed his suit jacket to play in his open-neck white shirt, and he performed a brief, energetic piece by Elliot Carter.