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San Francisco Classical Voice

Outwater Rides to Berkeley Symphony’s Rescue

April 26, 2012

By Jeff Dunn


Sorry, no more arm waving allowed right now! On doctor’s orders, Music Director Joana Carneiro had to avoid exacerbating a shoulder injury she received from an earlier fall. Springing forward, Edwin Outwater was able to fill the conducting breach all the way from his Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, Canada. As Outwater revealed in the pre-concert-talk in Zellerbach Hall, “My favorite part was flying over—four more hours with the score.” He was referring to a piece he’d never seen before, resident composer/advisor Gabriela Lena Frank’s Holy Sisters, which he had to master faster than you can say “Telegraph Avenue” for its world premiere. Not to mention the other scores he had to prepare on short notice: a tricky Bartók (Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta.


Outwater’s arrival didn’t just save the day. His vigorous and focused approach effected an outstanding set of performances from the Symphony players, and evidenced that he’s headed for a top-tier future. Joining him in excellence was soprano Jessica Rivera and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, who joined the Symphony for Frank’s new work.


So confident was the Symphony in the success of Holy Sisters, it was moved to comprise the entire second half of the program. In other cities, a new work all by itself after intermission would guarantee a mass exodus of traditionalists. Not so in Berkeley. The concert began, therefore, with what was originally scheduled to end it, Kodály’s crowd-pleaser. And please it did, from Roman Fukshansky’s lovely rendition of the famous clarinet solo, to Outwater’s idiomatic rendering of Hungarian rubatos, to the fine precision of the strings in the raciest dance passages.


Bartók’s more demanding masterpiece fared nearly as well under Outwater’s direction. Only a couple of instances of lack of synchronicity in the strings marred an otherwise first-class realization of this challenging and underperformed work that languishes in the shadow of the more famous Concerto for Orchestra. What would have all the horror-move composers done if Bartók hadn’t invented the unearthly sounds of the “night music” Adagio movement?


The lone conductor rides to the rescue


Frank’s piece was really just a front end. The official title, buried in a supplemental program note, is Holy Sisters: Part One. The composer, with great stage presence and charm, explained to the audience that the music to be heard Thursday was really an “extended prelude” to a larger work to be performed next year. The conception jelled as an “initial brainchild” of Rivera’s for a piece celebrating “pivotal women characters from the Bible” combined with a request to Frank and playwright Nilo Cruz from the San Francisco Girls Chorus for a collaboration. As Frank put it in her notes, “I could create a evening-length work that would beautifully suggest an Old World-New World pairing with one running theme: A vibrant portrayal of women’s faith.”


Carneiro’s confessor and poet, José Tolentino, adapted the text of Part One from biblical sources to introduce Mary of Magdala, Rachel, Sarah, Hannah, and Miriam. Frank’s music, while sensitive and attractive, didn’t take off until near the end of the 20-minute work, where she inserted a beautiful song she had written for Carneiro’s wedding last September. On the whole, the music indeed sounded like a prelude; it left me waiting for more. Before it joins the rest of its promising music next year, however, I’d recommend limiting the use of slapstick percussion, which was too loud and frequent; adding a tambourine perhaps where it’s mentioned in the text; and changing the harmony on the word “Grace” of her fine song, where the previous harmony goes on too long.


Judging from the audience reaction, many will be looking forward to the complete Sisters next year — with a fully healed Carneiro to guide her wedding music into what may well turn out to be an impressive conclusion. As for Outwater, though he’s ridden out to the sunset for now, I hope to see him back in the Bay Area inspiring other orchestras.