Daily Cal Review – Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky – Summer Symphony Concert August 2015

Here’s a review by the Daily Cal of the Summer Symphony concert a few weeks ago!

UC Berkeley Summer Symphony delights
with pieces by Russian composers

by Lindsay Choi

Just after sunset on a warm midsummer night, a crowd of people streamed into Hertz Hall, the shuffle and scuff of shoes against the tile mingling with the low hum of tuning violins.

Gathering members of the community for its 27th annual concert, UC Berkeley Summer Symphony performed a selection of pieces by Russian composers Modest Mussorgsky, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Dmitry Shostakovich on Friday and Saturday.

As a student-run and student-supported orchestra, Summer Symphony is led by young conductors under the tutelage of David Milnes, the director of UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. Every year, the symphony collects players from around the community, from UC Berkeley students to members of local youth orchestras and other college symphonies. This year, student conductors Stefano Flavoni, Nicholas Koo and Jane Kim led the symphony, meticulously guiding the orchestra and selecting the pieces in the program.

“The controlling theme for me about this concert set is: What is Russianness?” Flavoni said. “The biggest question is a historical one and an ethical one — do we have to make Russian music sound Russian in order for it to be true to the music?”

The performance began with the thrumming buzz of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” conducted by Flavoni. A tone poem originally written by Mussorgsky as a typically bombastic Russian piece, the arrangement played by most orchestras — including Summer Symphony — was “translated” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to the 19th century French conservatoire tradition.

As a result, the piece travels in short, robust bursts of melody, its rich brass sections offset by the shimmery treble tones preferred by the French classical tradition. Though the opening melody is forceful and bold, with a wild, ecstatic energy meant to capture the revelry of a Satanic summoning ceremony, the tone poem ends by calming to a lyrical section with long, sweeping, melodic lines. Despite the trickiness of executing this transition while maintaining the pulse of the piece, Flavoni and the orchestra deftly navigated the musical terrain.

The program then transitioned seamlessly to Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy,” conducted by Koo. From its ethereal, rich opening harmonies, the piece traverses a vast emotional range, moving from somber funeral-march-like chord progressions to glimmering harp and pizzicato violin passages and on to the impassioned melodic sections later in the piece. Koo and the orchestra excelled in shaping the lines: Each crescendo in the beginning passages blossomed with a gorgeous full tone that carried beautifully through the overture’s more frenetic, aggressive passages and into Romeo and Juliet’s famous love theme.

“The Tchaikovsky (piece) has always struck a chord in me,” Koo said. “The aspect of church, the sound of church — I grew up Russian Orthodox, actually, so that kind of sound is what I try to feel with Tchaikovsky. For me, it’s … more of a matter of my personal faith.”

Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5 in D Minor,” conducted by Jane Kim, closed the program. Written to appease Stalin and now seen by most scholars as a farce of Soviet bombasticity, Shostakovich’s symphony is perhaps the most “Russian” of the pieces in the program, yet out of the three, it best embodies the fraught nature of Flavoni’s question. As the musical face of anti-Stalinist political discontent, the symphony opens with a tortured, discordant chord progression that quickly quiets to an eerie, atonal dialogic section. Throughout the movements of the piece, a sense of claustrophobic angst thrums within the lines of the melody, even within the more airy, ethereal passages.

Kim and the orchestra seized upon the angst at the core of the piece, performing the symphony with an electrifying energy that carried through each movement. Despite the excellence of the other performances, the Shostakovich was easily the highlight of the night. In this piece, the performers perfectly combined passion and technique, teasing out the subtle nuances of each phrasing without overworking and deadening the music.

With the concluding notes of “Symphony No. 5” still lingering in the air, the concert closed to a standing ovation — the final chapter of a long process of labor and preparation.

“The entire thing is a learning process — not just for us, but for everyone in the orchestra,” Koo said. “For the players, it’s musicality, adaptability, cooperating with completely new players. For the conductors, it’s about control, vision and, in a sense, being selfless. We don’t make any noise — we do our best to be artists and inspire. And that takes a lot of time, commitment, effort and just being open to whatever’s thrown at us.”

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