It was May of 1968 in Berkeley, and Zellerbach Hall was soon to open its spacious glass doors for the first time. The program to be played: Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and “Oedipus Rex,” conducted by Robert Craft and the celebrated composer himself. Unfortunately, Stravinsky had fallen ill and was unable to conduct. But he did still attend this inaugural performance at UC Berkeley’s famous music hall — legend has it that the distracted audience was more enraptured by Stravinsky’s reaction to the music than by the actual performance itself. On Oct. 9, 2016, nearly 50 years after this opening concert, Stravinsky’s music returned to its Zellerbach Hall home, played prodigiously by London’s Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen.
The “Symphony of Psalms” and “Oedipus Rex” can be interpreted as the composer’s attempt to regain a sense of belonging or rediscover his Russian roots. These were particularly fitting choices for a performance celebrating Zellerbach Hall’s upcoming semi-centennial and commemorating its historical first concert. Stravinsky, who spent most of his life outside of (and often distancing himself from) his native Russian heritage, only looked back to his motherland later in life. In fact, he spent most of his life in a state of exile, living in Switzerland, France and Los Angeles during most of his productive years as a composer.
In 1926, however, Stravinsky returned to the Russian Orthodox faith after renouncing it in his early teen years, and his renewed spiritual commitment served as a major influence for the composition of this religious symphony. Stravinsky selected the Psalms himself (notably, number 150, which evokes the sounds of blazing trumpets, cymbals and pipes), and from them wrote this grand glorification of God with a distinctly Russian sound.
The expressive, dramatic “Oedipus Rex” might also be seen as part of Stravinsky’s attempt to grapple with questions of identity and origins like those faced by the work’s protagonist — but this Sunday afternoon performance at Zellerbach Hall was one that concluded not in hopeless tragedy, but rather in sheer symphonic triumph.
The palpable sense of excitement and victory was largely due to the contagious dynamism of the Philharmonia’s conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen. From the moment he leapt spritely and effortlessly onto the box, Stravinsky’s music burst forth and flowed from his fingertips without hitch. The Finnish-born conductor, who served as the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years, gracefully led the Philharmonia through the “Symphony of Psalms,” creating an ideal balance between the bold brassy sound of the orchestra and the softer choral verses — sung by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Chorus, the Lund Male Chorus and the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco.
The symphony’s distinctive opening E minor chords rang regally throughout Zellerbach Hall, followed by a somewhat more discordant melody emitted in eerie arpeggios from the woodwind section and then by the piano. More powerful still were the words of the supplicating chorus — those of a sinner crying desperately for God’s salvation — in turn echoed hauntingly by the cello’s wails.
“Oedipus Rex” was likewise conducted with Salonen’s remarkable force and musicality. The opera, based on the play by Sophocles, included a more classical fullness and depth from the strings section, and borrowed elements of the Baroque oratorio with an interchange of recitative, aria and chorus.
Nicholas Phan as Oedipus delivered a performance both convincing and moving, his smooth vocals tackling a difficult range of notes with fluidity and emotion; Phan’s tenor was well-complemented by Hadleigh Adams’ expressive baritone in the roles of Creon and Tiresias. Michelle DeYoung’s performance as the queen Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife and (unwittingly) his mother, was especially engaging: She illuminated the stage not only with her impressive stature and regal charisma, but also with the rich, resounding quality of her mezzo-soprano voice.
Thanks to the seamless buoyancy and brilliance of Salonen’s conducting, the afternoon’s performance ended on a positive note in spite of the opera’s grim conclusion — overall a masterful tribute to both an illustrious composer and a beloved music hall.
Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected].