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San Francisco Chronicle

‘Holy Sisters’ review: Substitute conductor shines

April 27, 2012

by Joshua Kosman

The last thing anyone wants on the eve of a musical world premiere is for the conductor to call in sick. But that was the fate of Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Holy Sisters,” commissioned by the Berkeley Symphony as the headliner for the orchestra’s season-closing concert in Zellerbach Hall on Thursday night.


Music Director Joana Carneiro, who was an intimate part of the piece in more ways than one, injured her shoulder and couldn’t lead the premiere. Fortunately, the orchestra was able to bring in Edwin Outwater – well remembered in these parts for his tenure as resident conductor with the San Francisco Symphony – as an excellent last-minute replacement, and the concert went off without a hitch.


Frank’s piece, a cantata for soprano, girls’ chorus and orchestra, couldn’t have been easy to pull together on short notice. It’s not that the writing sounded particularly intricate – Frank favors lush chordal textures without too much counterpoint or rhythmic complexity – but the general mood of “Holy Sisters” is luminous and evocative, and required a deft touch.


Running about 22 minutes, the piece offers a parade of biblical women, beginning with Mary Magdalene and then proceeding to several figures from the Old Testament. Each of them introduces herself in turn, in a dialogue between the soprano and the choristers who adulate her.


Those dialogues, with their light-toned, lovely harmonies and vaulting solo melodies, are the heart of the piece. Soprano Jessica Rivera (who will give a solo recital Sunday afternoon with San Francisco Performances) brought clarity and grace to her assignment, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, led by guest conductor Brandon Brack, sang with touching translucency.


The piece also includes a hymnlike episode, which Frank wrote for Carneiro’s wedding earlier this year. It’s a beautiful stretch of writing, but it’s not clear what it’s doing in this context.


Although “Holy Sisters” is an alluring piece of writing, it all feels rather introductory – the characters troop on and then quickly bow out again. So it’s a relief to learn that this is only the first part of two planned works, with the follow-up scheduled for next year.


The rest of the program was splendid, beginning with a buoyant account of Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta” and continuing with Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.” If the latter sounded a little under-rehearsed, that was hardly surprising under the circumstances.