Friday, October 5, 2018

concert review: Berkeley Symphony

Finding my Thursday evening unexpectedly free, I accepted an invitation to attend the Berkeley Symphony at Zellerbach Hall. Ming Luke, who leads the orchestra's educational programs, conducted this first concert of a season bereft of a music director.

I couldn't leave home until 4:15, and the drive to the station was heavily congested with traffic, but BART was on its best behavior, and I arrived at 6:25 for a 7 pm show, which, as long as I wasn't expecting to eat anything, was just early enough to be relaxing.

My experiments at finding a sonically decent place to sit in this hollowed-out cannonball of an auditorium have not yet succeeded, and that may be the reason that Anna Clyne's Night Ferry, which is the work I was there to hear, came across as roiling chaos rather than the powerful roar it was at the Cabrillo Festival when I first fell for Clyne's music.

It was followed, without a break, by Ravel's La Valse, whose opening quiet section seemed to fit pretty well with Clyne's dying-off ending.

Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto is the work that won her a Pulitzer, but I have little affinity for violin concertos as a genre and this one did little for me. There were some intriguing and lovely sounds from the orchestra now and then, but soloist Benjamin Beilman's determinedly ceaseless sawing and squeaking away did not appeal.

Lastly, or rather firstly, came Shostakovich's Festive Overture. I do not understand why orchestras so frequently play this work. It's a piece of tossed-off hackwork with no redeeming value. The program notes actually quoted a Soviet conductor as saying that the usual third-rate hacks who got such festival commissions "wrote terrible shit." Well, now we get to have terrible shit by Shostakovich instead. If you want a fairly brief orchestral work by this composer, why not the Five Fragments, Op. 42? Them's weird stuff. Or the orchestration of Tea for Two that he wrote in an hour on a bet. Anything.

Friday, again fighting traffic, I got over to Stanford for a noon concert by the Puck Quartet. This group from New York is described on the leaflet as "drawing inspiration from [the] mischievous" Shakespeare fairy, playing with "a capricious spirit ... and sense of humor." If only they had done that in the Ravel Quartet, it would have been quite a show. Instead, they played it in a subdued Romantic manner. Nice, but nothing to write home about. Britten's gnarly Three Divertimenti (which we were told was his first work for quartet, but it wasn't) came off more puckishly.

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