Monday, January 8, 2024

concert review: Berkeley Community Chorus

What I'd gone to Berkeley for was this concert, in Hertz, the smaller concert hall on campus and the one with good acoustics. And the music I was going for was Michael Tippett's anti-war, anti-persecution oratorio, A Child of Our Time, written in response to but without direct reference to Kristallnacht. And the reason I went such a distance to hear it is that it's a masterpiece I hadn't heard in concert in 17 years, having it snatched away two years ago when the Oakland Symphony cancelled a performance at the last minute because the chorus didn't show up due to covid, and they didn't let the ticketholders know. That whetted my appetite for another chance, though this was a free performance by a volunteer chorus and orchestra. (B. was tempted but decided it was farther away than she wanted to go.)

The soloists were all in excellent voice, including the powerful duo of bass Kirk Eichelberger, whom I last heard as Candy in Livermore Opera's Of Mice and Men, and alto Sara Couden, whom I last heard as Katisha in the Lamplighters' The Mikado. Tenor Jonathan Elmore and soprano Brandie Sutton also very fine.

The chorus and orchestra were both adequate (most of the tenors were women); but somewhere in the interpretation the piece lost something. It didn't have the power, or the subtle rhythmic drive, of the Santa Cruz Symphony performance I heard back in '07. What survived best was the melting of Tippett's music into the transcribed African-American spirituals which are scattered strategically around the score.

It was conducted mostly by the chorus's music director, Ming Luke, whom I once heard conduct a Berkeley Symphony concert that I didn't find entirely satisfactory either. I say "mostly" because he turned over the podium for part 3 to his assistant, Samantha Burgess. Luke's greatest contribution was the remarks he made beforehand, noting that while the theme of the oratorio seems particularly relevant today, that's true whenever it's performed.

Also on the program, the premiere of a piece by Sam Wu setting Ezra Pound's rendering of a poem by Li Po about an abandoned frontier post. Quiet singing over oscillations in the orchestra, building up to a roar of anguish as the lyrics consider the war and destruction that led to the abandonment. Prefixed by Elgar's somber Sospiri for strings.

It was raining, not too heavily, as I walked up the hill to the hall, but the rain had stopped by the time the concert ended.

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