Wednesday, February 04, 2015
Luciano Berio in Davis
From the ages of 10 to 20, I hitchhiked everywhere. Bouncing often between Northern and Southern California, I cultivated a series of safe havens up and down the state in college towns, where I was usually welcomed as an adventurous young mascot of the late 60s/early 70s.
Every college town had its own flavor, and one of my surprising favorites was UC Davis, the Aggie campus ten miles south of Sacramento. Its mixture of serious foreign medical and agricultural students, San Joaquin Valley farmers, and assorted California misfits was sweet. Possibly because there was nothing fashionable about the place, it had authentic charm and if you were in one of the arts programs, an enviable freedom to experiment under top-notch professors.
I visited Davis for the first time in 40 years last Saturday, and the place was still charming while looking slightly more prosperous. Instead of hitchhiking, I rode on Amtrak which drops you into a small downtown dominated by pedestrians and bicycles who treat each other with great courtesy, a cultural shock for a San Franciscan accustomed to war between the two groups. When Earth Day began in the 1960s, Davis took it seriously and actually created a bicycle infrastructure that works as public habit decades later.
The reason for the visit was to hear a friend sing in the rarely performed Sinfonia, the 1968 masterwork for huge orchestra and 8 amplified singers by the Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio. It was being offered as part of a New Music festival presented every two years by the UC Davis Music Department at the Mondavi Center, a fancy performing arts complex donated by the famous alumni viticulture family, which opened on campus in 2002.
The 1,800 seat Jackson Hall is breathtaking, both for its warmth and beautiful acoustics. Whoever designed it probably studied Davies Hall in San Francisco and UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall as negative examples, and decided to do it right. The audience of about 600 people was refreshingly mixed for a contemporary classical music concert, half being students who were required to write about it for a Music Appreciation course and the other half everything from Sacramento Society to discerning music lovers to adventurous faculty families with children in tow. They turned out to be a welcoming, appreciative audience.
I had no idea what to expect in terms of expertise from the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra under its music director and conductor Christian Baldini, and the happy surprise was that they were a stunningly professional sounding ensemble. The curtain raiser was a five-minute piece from 2012 by Ben Goldberg which the composer described in the program notes: "Deception is a musical interpretation of the emotional progression felt when deceived: confusion, shock, anger, and disbelief." It was much more fun that description, and introduced just how great the orchestra could sound in that hall.
Each biennial music festival features a resident composer and 2015 belonged to Melinda Wagner above left. With Tod Brody as the soloist, they played Wagner's Concerto for Flute, Strings, and Percussion, a composition that won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1999. It was perfectly pleasant music, but a bit dry and academic for my taste.
That was certainly not the case for the evening's main event, Sinfonia, which was introduced by conductor Christian Baldini above with great enthusiasm, for the piece itself and the forces that had been assembled for it. He detailed how rare it has been to hear this music in the United States, whereas in Europe it's an established modernist masterpiece that's performed with some frequency. Baldini proudly mentioned that only five orchestras in all of the U.S. had played Sinfonia since it was written for the New York Philharmonic's 125th anniversary in 1968, and that the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra would be the sixth such orchestra.
The eight amplified singers were recruited from the San Francisco contemporary acapella ensemble Volti, and from some accounts learning the score was one of the more formidable tasks any of them had ever attempted, being insanely complex and difficult. While learning the music, there was also reportedly much use of profanity and laughter and just plain confusion, because their parts are written for a mixture of speech, chanting, singing, harmonizing, and orating with texts from Beckett to Claude Levi-Strauss, not to mention a minimalist paean to MLK, Jr. that simply intones the phrase, "O King..." The third, middle movement of the 40-minute piece is an audacious sampling of the entire Scherzo from Mahler's Second Symphony wrung through a trash compactor with 40 other musical scores, with the singers reacting to the orchestra and overlapping each other's text in brilliant, cacophonous tapestries. I'll never be able to hear that Mahler movement straight in my brain again.
The performance on Saturday was extraordinary, one of those electric moments when you know that you're hearing something special and get to brag that yes, you happened to be at that legendary concert when there was a magical rendition of Berio's Sinfonia at the Mondavi Center with a student orchestra playing out of their minds, and a singing ensemble that included Celeste Winant above performing at a level which was mind-blowing for performers and audience alike.
Afterwards, the ensemble of altos Sharmila Guha Lash and Celeste Winant, sopranos Yuhi Aizawa Combatti and Cecelia Lam, tenors Jeffrey Wang and Julian Kusnadi, and basses Jeffrey Bennett and Sidney Chen posed on a stairway with their conductor during a dessert and wine reception for donors and friends, and they all looked higher than kites with adrenaline from performing the wild, wacky, ambitious Berio Sinfonia.