Berkeley Symphony's Innovators

Last week, really beginning back on October 3, I took in an exhausting number of performances, and still missed much that was going on around town. After seeing I Capuleti ed i Montecchi on Wednesday, I went across the Bay on Thursday evening to see the Berkeley Symphony's season-opening concert with Rosine Stoltz. The audience was comprised of locals, students, and a large contingent of contemporary composers: John Adams, Ken Ueno, and Erling Wold were among those I spotted in the crowd.  

The orchestra's Executive Director Rene Mandel strode onstage and thanked everyone for showing up and then Music Director Joana Carneiro and composer/musician/inventor Paul Dresher came out onstage. The petite Carneiro sparkled with energy, wearing a black top and a long grey a-line skirt that would have looked great if it didn't look like she worn it on BART before coming to the concert. She was quite the contrast to Dresher, tall and dressed in Berkeley casual. Carneiro explained they were going to play the first two pieces of the program together (Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question and Dresher's Concerto for Quadrachord and Orchestra, receiving its world premiere this night) together, before turning the microphone over to Dresher so he could explain what a quadrachord is and something about the piece we were going to hear.

Ives' Question was answered by series of coughs and other noises coming from the audience. 

Dresher, in collaboration with instrument designer Daniel Schmidt, is the creator of the quadrachord, and it's essentially an electric bass on steroids without a wooden body, its 160-inch long strings strung over a base that has electric bass pick-ups next to two bridges and can be played by bowing, plucking, striking, etc. In the program notes Dresher writes that it's capable of "easily and accurately playing the harmonic series up to the 28th harmonic and beyond." I'm not really sure what that means, but many in the audience apparently did, and were excited at the prospect of hearing it in action. The concerto was broken into three movements, fast-slow-fast, and the first two are called Uncommon Ground and A Tale of Two Tunings.  I certainly felt I was standing on uncommon ground as I watched Dresher playing instrument and couldn't hear a thing. It seemed someone had forgotten to turn on its amplifier. As the music progressed, parts of it actually reminded me of Wold's Certitude and Joy, and then Dresher began to use a bow, which produced a sitar-like sound, and soon, as he programmed a loop to form a rhythmic bottom, the piece took on an Art of Noise/world-pop quality complete with chimes and "smooth jazz" elements. The piano provided much of the propulsion, along with the loop, which functioned like a metronome, thus essentially robbing Carneiro of the ability to establish the rhythm, but instead keeping the orchestra playing along with it.

Paul Dresher and his quadrachord

There were some giggles from the audience during the second movement, and I'm not sure if they were in response to the ever-escalating cacophony which veered into a funeral march, which was fun for a brief moment and then became repetitive, as Dresher showed off the instruments capabilities, the finer points of which frankly were lost on me.

The last movement is called Louder/Faster, and it was, but to my ears it essentially sounded like a mash-up of the of the theme from Mission:Impossible and Resphigi, and Dresher played the quadrachord with mallets and what looked like knitting needles, creating a power-pop extravaganza with which the percussionist was clearly having a blast. In the end it felt like pop music masquerading as Art music. That intersection/intent isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but I kind of wish that Dresher had composed a concerto for Geezer Butler instead.

During the intermission Rosine and I ended up chatting with Ueno about Dresher's piece. Well, they chatted about it, and I tried to follow along, not really understanding much of what they were talking about until Ueno brought Jeff Beck into it, and then I began to get it. Most of the conversation revolved around equal temperament and timbre.

Ueno left us, and the concert, and we returned to hear the orchestra play Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which Carneiro led at the extreme edges for each movement, pushing the orchestra to play very fast or very slow.

This concert, called "The Innovators" will be followed by three more with a similar format featuring 20th Century music, a contemporary world premiere, and a piece by the Old Guard: "The Rebels" on December 6, featuring Dylan Mattingly's Invisible Skyline, Ligeti's Piano Concerto with pianist Shai Wosner and Schumann's 2nd Sympnony; "The Illuminators" on February 7 will have Alfama by Andreia Pinto-Correia, Lutoslowski's Celle Concerto featuring Lynn Harrell, and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances; "The Idealists" on March 28 has Steven Stuckey's The Stars and the Roses  paired with Bruckner's 4th.