UC Berkeley’s Symphony Orchestra closes on a beautiful note

UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra/Courtesy

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Playing with textures, rhythms and musical shapes, the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra closed its fall season with a dynamic program of pieces from the modernist and contemporary eras of classical music from Dec. 11-13 at Hertz Hall.

Incorporating selections from Witold Lutoslawski, Gyorgy Ligeti and Richard Strauss, the orchestra combined atonal, textural pieces from the late 20th century with Strauss’s grandiose, 22-movement tone poem, “Eine Alpensinfonie.” Together, the three pieces presented a refreshingly expansive program of pieces that covered a vast span of both time and compositional technique.

“(The program) reflected our interest in doing the masterpieces of the past,” said conductor David Milnes in an interview with The Daily Californian. “(Another) thread we have is to do the music of the early 20th century, because we feel that that gives us a good background to play new music. The masterpieces of the past are a historical interest, like going to the museum.You go to the Rembrandt wing because it’s so great — you don’t go because it has much to do with the art of today. But then you might go to the Picasso wing, and that is a little bit more relevant to today’s art. It’s not today’s art — it’s 100 years old — but it’s connected to today’s art in a way that Rembrandt’s is not. We do a lot of music from the early 20th century, like Bartok, Shostakovich, people within the first decade, because it connects to our lives now.”

Opening with a low, atmospheric rumble, the program began with Lutoslawski’s “Symphony No. 4,” an atonal piece punctuated by complex, rhythmic staccato passages. Through the first movement’s long melodic lines, tension builds through dramatic dynamic changes and sudden, rhythmically sharp passages, which resolve into the faster second movement’s consistent compound triple meter.

Though the piece is not traditionally melodic, the audience’s ear is drawn toward the rhythmic fluctuations and the dialogic passages between instrumental sections.

Continuing in a similar vein as the Lutoslawski piece, the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra performed Ligeti’s micropolyphic “Atmospheres” next, again presenting the audience with a texturally interesting, modern piece. In contrast to Lutoslawski’s symphony, however, “Atmospheres” maps a less turbulent rhythmic and dynamic landscape, instead focusing on the tonal textures created by the dense layering of instrumental timbres.

After the intermission, the program closed with the dramatic and ambitious “Eine Alpensinfonie, op. 64” by Strauss. A tone poem following the story of Strauss’ childhood hike through the Bavarian Alps, “Eine Alpensinfonie” covers a wide dynamic and emotional range that corresponds with the dynamism of his trip. From the hushed, somber opening movement, “Nacht,” the piece expands to the climactic, majestic theme of “Auf dem Gipfel,” meaning “at the summit,” before descending to the more somber and emotionally stormy falling movements of the piece. The concert concluded with the final movement of the symphony — also titled “Nacht” — which delivered a return to the opening texture of the composition.

As a program, the three pieces mingled to create a strong, melodically nuanced concert that reflected the orchestra’s musical agenda. Milnes’ museum metaphor proved to be incredibly apt, as listening to the concert was somewhat like walking through a well-curated gallery — each piece complemented the others in theme and mood without creating a sense of repetition. And with that, it’s safe to say that the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra ended the season on a strong note.

Contact Lindsay Choi at [email protected].