Berkeley Symphony at Zellerbach

Joana Carneiro

Passionate performance from Carneiro, Berkeley Symphony

Joana Carneiro programmed a subtle and difficult roster of works for the Berkeley Symphony’s January 26 concert, and then led them in a triumphal performance. That concert, held at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium, represented a high-water mark for her short three years leading them, and perhaps one of their highest moments of the last decade. Speaking afterwards, Carneiro answered an awed comment by remarking that she and the orchestra were in the process of becoming one instrument.

Titled “The Shadows of Time,” the evening featured the slow exoticism of Debussy, the careful colorings of Dutilleux, and the caustic sarcasm of Shostakovich.

In Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprèsmidi d’un faune, flutist Todd Brody delivered warmth and piquancy, keeping a fine metallic edge on low vibrant notes. Along with that flute as beguiling siren, we heard the call and response of horns as they slowly paced off the small interval between unison and dissonance for a gentle intoxication. Debussy’s canvas was spare and brightly lit: oboe and clarinet drifted down like falling leaves; a cascade of harp notes created a mirage in bright plucks and quick decays; violins of extraordinary sweetness.

If Prélude were a dessert wine, then Henri Dutilleux would have preferred sharp cheddar. Still, it was very French and very “gastronomic” with a coloration deriving from Ravel and Debussy: this modern work had both bite and fascinating textures. Dutilleux wrote The Shadows of Time in 1997 as a memorial for World War II, and its coloring is unusual. After sharp declamations of brass, the trumpets more “rustled” than “fanfared,” then came back together with edged harmonies. Strings climbed a slow scale, then brought in rhythmic gestures followed by a close dissonance of flute and clarinet.

Dutilleux added three children’s voices to the center of the work, and their high vocalizations sharply balanced winds and strings. Supplied by the Pacific Boychoir, the young soloists turned wordless cries into questions: “Pourquoi nous? Pourquoi l’étoile?” (Why us? why the star?), referring to the armband that Jews had to wear. Flutes and piccolo skittered across the voices, muting to an evocative finish. Double-tongued flute and marimba added pungency to the palette, as the orchestra wandered, sometimes urgently, but with a sense that they wandered in a wasteland.

After that first half, we settled in for Dmitri Shostakovich’s powerful and disturbing Symphony No. 5. This work was meant to save his life, both artistically and literally. Shostakovich had been denounced by Stalin’s cultural watchdogs as being too experimental and dissonant to fit the heroic mold of the Russian peasant-turned-revolutionary. While many of his fellow composers and family friends were “disappearing,” Shostakovich needed a work that fulfilled bold and simple themes while allowing him to express his fear and rage. The big bones and deep melancholy of the opening turned to savage martial horns, though his elements of parody were hooded enough to allow him to survive.

Joana Carneiro led the Berkeley Symphony in an electric performance, and the audience was captured in their first chords and sat spellbound throughout. The grand and disturbing opening of rising and falling intervals reminded me of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony—but turned on its ear! Where Brahms used falling thirds and rising minor sixths for a feeling that was hopeful and gently nostalgic, Shostakovich inverts that to rising minor thirds and then falling minor sixths for a sound that was dramatic and shockingly dark. That material developed into quieter patterns, and Carneiro shaped every phrase into living, breathing gestures.

The second movement, with its circus-like atmosphere, was more manic than light-hearted, and when it built to heavier brass underscored with snare drum, the lumbering waltz took on a fearful cast.

But our hearts were grabbed in the Largo, a movement of tremulous strings and wistful winds. There was a sense of quicksand in the shifting violins, and a suffocating slowness in the wind solos. This was Shostakovich’s elegy for his murdered countrymen, and I found it deeply moving. Curiously, while there was an enormous popular response from his fellow countrymen, those in power appeared completely blind to either the essential sorrow or their role in it—the death of half a million Russians and deportation of another seven million to Siberia. Official doctrine described that movement as the quiet “reeducation” of the state hero.

Their finale was big and crisply delivered, trombone and tuba edged with Shostakovich’s coded derision. The quieter center shaped the movement and gradually built to triumphant bombast, a very satisfying, if somewhat conflicted and Pyrrhic, victory.

—Adam Broner

Photo, top, of Joana Carneiro conducting the Berkeley Symphony; photo by Marshall Berman.