Saturday, April 28, 2012

Edwin Outwater to the Rescue at Berkeley Symphony

The Berkeley Symphony's final concert of their season at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall was billed as a "Hungarian Excursion," which meant playing two of that nation's greatest 20th century orchestral masterpieces, Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and Bartok's Music for String, Percussion and Celesta. There was also a very non-Hungarian world premiere by East Bay composer Gabriela Lena Frank, the first half of of a song cycle for soprano and girls' chorus called Holy Sisters.

It turned out that the Berkeley Symphony conductor Joana Carneiro had recently injured her shoulder in a fall that was bad enough to keep her from leading the orchestra, so a last-minute substitute in the person of Edwin Outwater (below) was flown in from Ontario, where he has been leading the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony for the last five years. (Click here for his website.)

Outwater was the Associate Conductor at the San Francisco Symphony under MTT from 2001-2006, and he was always a decent musician, but on the evidence of this concert he's turned into a very good conductor. The orchestra, which had slaughtered the Sibelius Fifth Symphony last fall, sounded like an entirely different band this evening. Their performances of the Kodaly and the Bartok, which are both very tricky pieces of music, were superb: rhythmic, lively and assured.

Special praise should go to Roman Fukshansky on clarinet in the Kodaly and the entire large string section in the Bartok. They were wonderful.

The originally scheduled program was rearranged so that Gabriela Lena Frank's (above) Holy Sisters followed after intermission. The composer started off at the microphone telling a long story of serendipity and chance occurrences between composer Frank, conductor Joann Carneiro and soprano Jessica Rivera (below), which you can read about in full on Jesse Hamlin's post at San Francisco Classical Voice. Listening to the story, you'd think the piece's creation was a chapter from The Celestine Prophecy.

Jessica Rivera sang beautifully, the San Francisco Girls' Chorus sang beautifully, and the orchestra meandered along beautifully, but the piece was dull and conservative, a variation on John Adams's El Nino without any of the genius. It also didn't help that the libretto read like a Twitter version of Women from The Holy Bible.

Still, it was great hearing the orchestra sound so good, and the BART ride home with an Internet Writer Gang, including Cedric Westphal above and Sidney Chen with Patrick Vaz below, was filled with laughter. It was our first experience sitting in the new, more sanitary seats that have been promised for some time, and we all wanted to spill something on them just to feel more comfortable.

A pretty young woman with a bicycle got on at one of the stops, and after a few minutes came over to me and asked if she could have my seat since it would be more comfortable for her next to the door and the wall than where she was currently seated. "You want me to give up my seat for you?" I asked. With a perfect sense of entitlement, she replied in the affirmative and I was so flabbergasted that I did so without a word.

Then, in a divine coincidence out of The Celestine Prophecy, a voice came over the intercom and demanded that all bicycles get off the first car of the train and go into other ones. I hadn't even realized we were in the first car, and the look of amusement on everyone's faces when our bicyclist was firmly ordered out by the Female Voice of God will stay with me forever.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

Actually, not only did I not want to spill something the seats so I would feel more at home, but after you transferred to the SF train I had to move to keep from punching an old man who had his dirty feet up on the brand-new seats. I think it was the fine-art magazine he was leafing through that really infuriated me, as well as his advanced age -- he really should know better. This is why we can't have nice things!

Nancy Ewart said...

You doubt that God is a woman? Unfortunately, bicyclists, whether male or female, have a sense of entitlement that is beyond belief.