110: Golfspeak

Noun: golfspeak (uncountable) – The jargon associated with the sport of golf.

I had the privilege today of attending the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s Winter Concert. Now that I am cozy and warm and happily remembering the music, I feel compelled to praise the University Symphony for its superb performance.

The program leaned towards the modern (and the grotesque, if I may add subjectively). We began with an adventurous foray into Takemitsu’s “A Flock Descends Into The Pentagonal Garden.” Whatever the audience expected was immaterial; this piece was a bombshell. The orchestra conjured arrays of dissonances and tones that wandered around without discernible musical threads to grab onto. I must say, I doubt more than a tenth of us gleaned anything coherent out of this piece. The piece was largely a touchy-feely thing: “big loud dissonance,” “quiet somber consonance,” et cetera. It was sometimes awe-inspiring to hear the orchestra produce such unearthly tones (there was a memorable segment featuring a three-way between the celestia, some percussion instrument I can’t recall, and the xylophone), but for the most part we the audience took the piece as a novelty or an exercise.

My lukewarm opinion on the composition does not reflect on the orchestra, though; the sound was “all wrong, in the right way.” For comparison, a baby smushing a fist into piano keys at random is “all wrong, in the wrong way;” a poorly trained novice pianist will sound “all right, in the wrong way.” The University Symphony played deliberately and with powerful conviction; the result was not particularly pleasing to the ear, but could hardly be confused for lack of skill.

By the time the orchestra concluded “Garden,” I was already making a mental note to come again to the next performance. It’s one thing to listen to recorded music at home on a pair of decent speakers, but to be in the hall, getting the full force of the symphony, is really something out there. I’ve forgotten how wonderful the sound is and how hypnotizing the sights. The strings bow together. The brass nod together. The winds chirrup together. And then there’s that ball of charisma standing at the podium. You don’t get to see a man in a tux bouncing up and down every day, do you?

Ann Yi took the stage (and thus Chekhov’s piano was played) for a performance of Prokofiev’s third piano concerto. I’m going to be brutally honest, she wasn’t at all the highlight of this piece, let alone the evening. The majestic orchestral statement of the primary theme from the first movement left me limp with shock and pleasure; the second movement, fraught with theme and variations, was beautifully drawn through in the capable hands of the orchestra; the hair-raising symphonic pyrotechnics of the third movement closed everything off with a bang. But I was not terrifically impressed with Yi’s performance. I heard mutters (from the patrons next to us?) of comparison with Yuja Wang (which angered me, because so far as I could hear the only similarity was their nationality; their styles were completely at odds).

I do not wish to place blame on any party but unavoidable circumstance, but I feel that the limiting factor in the Prokofiev was the soloist’s readiness. I thought Pletnev attacked the concerto at a slow pace; Yi came shambling along and made it nearly unrecognizable. It became difficult for me to follow the musical threads because the buffers in my memory are more time-sensitive than material-sensitive. (Later, I was told that she only rehearsed twice with the orchestra. I guess it’s not a huge surprise that this wasn’t as good as it could have been.)

The audience, of course, disagreed mightily with scroogey old me and gave her a standing ovation. They might have demanded an encore had not other patrons began sneaking out of the auditorium. Perhaps I am being too critical. At any rate, it was not bad, though certainly not mindblowingly amazing.

After the intermission, we jumped to the highlight of the program: Saint-Saëns’ third symphony. This was my chance to hear the great pipe-organ of Hertz Hall at work, combined with the impressive battalion that was the University Symphony.

This was the work that left me tongue-tied. I was not baffled but blown away: gone was the meandering modernist Takemitsu; gone was the lollygagging lukewarm Prokofiev – here was the white-hot Saint-Saëns, played with a ferocity and depth that rocked me out of my seat. I would not be so rash as to suggest a comparison with other leading orchestras, but I will note that I am too much a philistine to know the difference. The sound! Oh, the sound!

The organ part, performed by Professor Davitt Moroney, was monumental: from its soft entry in D flat major to its joyous final romp, I was waiting for more. As the Professor put it in his preface to the work, “I make more noise than [the members of the orchestra] do.” The Hertz Hall organ held up excellently in this regard, making itself heard but not being obnoxious.

The University Symphony, again, is the real hero here – they attacked every phrase with care and with understanding belying their college-level ages. We were whisked up and down on a long stream of music; it was glorious in every respect. I have no higher praise for it than a desire to own a record of this performance: if I could purchase a performance on compact disk, I would do so without hesitation (except maybe at the price).

I left the concert in high spirits; I talked a little with two gifted violinists I am proud to know, Marissa and Michael, and they shed some insight on the orchestra. Rumors float on the wind that their next season will include Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.” I can’t wait! I would go again, even if it meant paying more than the $5 for UCB student admission. It was well worth it, worth it ten times over.



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