Looking West

We went out into the very stormy night to hear the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM. This was the first time I’ve seen the new hometown band, and I was looking forward to that along with the pleasure of the programming; Takemitsu, Bartok and the increasingly ubiquitous John Adams, with his rhapsody for electric violin and orchestra Dharma at Big Sur.


If BAM is the big brother to Berkeley’s Cal Performances, than the opposite holds for the BPO and the Berkeley Symphony. They are both part-time, local orchestras with aesthetic ambitions but not top-flight depth. Kent Nagano turned Berkeley into a pretty good symphony, and I think it’s possible here too. The program presented the strengths and weaknesses of the group; fine, lean strings in the Bartok Divertimento, rough brass in two Takemitsu fanfares. Michael Christie is a strength, though, with his enthusiasm and patience with the audience, and his excellent programming and understanding of the music.

The strings were dynamic and supple in Takemitu’s Three Film Scores, sandwiched by variable performances of Day Signal and Night Signal – the commitment was there, the color and intonation came and went. I find Takemitsu an intriguing composer, the only one equally the child of Debussy and Bernard Herrmann. The Bartok was excellent. This is a fibrous orchestra, which is appropriate for the music. Unlike composers who’s colors go from dark to light, Bartok goes from angst to determination, and Christie shaped the focus and dynamics of the movements with a real understanding of what to say. The molto adagio was especially gripping, whispering along and drawing in the listener with almost apologetic declamations.

The second half featured Leila Josefowicz as soloist in a rapturous performance of Adams’ wonderful work. The composer has been seemingly producing a long, personal travelogue through the last 15 years or so, starting with the Chamber Symphony, and he’s visiting the places – composers and styles – that inform his own creative life. Dharma at Big Sur is a conscious homage to Lou Harrison and Terry Riley, and also, it seems to me, a sign post on a personal journey. It’s important, I think, that the recording of Dharma is part of a set that includes My Father Knew Charles Ives, the only work I know that successfully emulates Ives style, and sets the starting point. The rhapsody announces the consciousness of being a California composer, of belonging to a school that Ives made possible but that abandoned his model of Brahms and look to gamelan music and Chinese opera. Parts of California are on the Pacific tectonic plate, physically not North America, and the viewpoint from there is across the endless expanse of the Pacific, into the future, into things that have not been done before. The view and the environment leads to work that is simultaneously explorative and contemplative, and Adams’ work is just that, especially in Josefowicz’s performance. She was delicately, achingly lyrical in the opening part, “A New Day,” and driving in the “Sri Moonshine” half. She made great use of the sound of the electric violin and the effects available to it. This is music that is comfortingly lovely but has a lot to say, and the violinist and conductor treated is with care, interest, and great musicality. The transparent, colorful textures really suit this orchestra, and I imagine their Pulcinella later this year will be stunning.