I ventured the wearisome commute-hour journey (part car, part BART1) up to Berkeley because this concert was too tempting to miss. It's the first time I've heard this orchestra in many years, and my first ever encounter with the now six-year tenure of its current music director, Joana Carneiro.
What made it tempting was the presence of a work by Sofia Gubaidulina, the difficult but always profound and fascinating dean of Russian composers. Titled Fachwerk (she's been living in Germany for some years now, and the language has entered her soul), it's a concerto for bayan, the Russian national button accordion. In a vastly over-detailed half-hour pre-concert lecture on the history of the accordion - there were two other guests on stage,2 but they hardly got a word in edgewise - the soloist, Geir Draugsvoll, failed to explain what made a Russian button accordion different from other button accordions, and despite the moderator asking him several times, and the conductor likewise at the start of the concert, he didn't say much about the work either.
What he did explain is that the button accordion is good at playing chords with a single button. Consequently the music turned out to be rich and thickly harmonized, though often dissonant. At times the bayan sounded like the Phantom of the Opera gone mad, and it ended the work by giving out the dying croaks of a doomed airship. Most of the concerto, however, consisted of soft stealthy alternating phrases between the accordion and the orchestra (strings, supplemented by a little percussion).
Carneiro, clad in a long heavy skirt far too restricting for the amount of movement she was trying to do in it, is an intense and dynamic conductor. Frequently looking as if she was about to either stab the orchestra with her baton or clobber them over the heads with it, she led nevertheless relatively calm performances. The old standard that filled out the program, the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, pleased in this rendition by being well-shaped and graceful rather than raw or exciting.
1. Unlike the train that goes to San Francisco, BART still runs at the time evening concerts let out, so I can make use of it for those outings. So, incidentally, did a contrabassist for the orchestra, who was sitting opposite me with his instrument for a while on the way back.
2. One of whom was Laurel Fay, the pre-eminent American authority on modern Russian music, and one might have liked to have heard more from her.