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‘Holy Sisters’ at the Berkeley Symphony

April 28, 2012

By Cedric Westphal


Billed as a “Hungarian Excursion,” the season finale of the Berkeley symphony was mostly for us a trek to the East Bay: we had meant to check out the orchestra since the relatively new music director Joana Carneiro replaced Kent Nagano in 2009, and what tickled us in this program was the premiere of a new mini twenty-minutes oratorio by Berkeley composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Hungary, shmungary, it was the local aspect that drew us in.


Half of our plan fizzled when Carneiro bailed due to a shoulder injury. We were told from the stage she gamely tried to rehearse the orchestra. When it became obvious she was too impaired, they scrambled to find a replacement. Namely, Edwin Outwater, familiar in these waters for his time as Resident Conductor with the SF Symphony, for a bunch of Peter & the Wolf concerts with the SFS Youth orchestra, and now music director of the resurrected Kitchener-Waterloo orchestra in Canada.


It’s mildly ironic: Gabriela’s piece about women in the Bible –“Holy Sisters“– came out of the collaboration between Gabriela, Joana and soprano Jessica Rivera. They’re not sisters, but kindred spirits. “BFF” is the technical term used by Gabriela, and the program insert insist on their friendship: a theme in the piece was written by Gabriela and sung by Jessica for Joana’s wedding. And at the darkest hour, here comes their savior, Edwin, walking on water.


He did quite well, conducting the demanding original program while flying in the day before. He must have run out the door to catch his plane, he forgot to pack a baton and led with bare hands. The first half was the promised voyage to Hungary, with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, highlighted by the luminous clarinet of Roman Fukshansky. We had just heard the piece led by Charles Dutoit with the Royal Philharmonic, and Berkeley under the challenging circumstances wasn’t as smooth: an orchestra on tour prepares and then repeats the same program a bunch of time, they have it down pat.


With no recent reference in our ear for Bartok’s Music for strings, percussions and celesta, we were just left to enjoy the intricate construction: the first movement built symmetrically around a blast of cymbals, the theme coming in in a fugal manner a fifth apart in the first half then unwinding upside down in the second half. The second movement featured bursts of energy from the piano of Miles Graber, whom we’ve seen a million times accompanying student recitals at the SF Conservatory. The harp, celesta and piano had an etheral trio in the third movement. And the percussion shone in all four movements. Because it’s so percussive, Outwater had to keep everyone in tight check, but still allowing the orchestra to breath in the more lyrical first and third.


As for the Holy Sisters, Gabriela Lena Frank sets a mood tinged with sadness from an elegant dialogue between the soprano (Jessica Rivera) and the choir (the SF Girls Chorus). Basically, the strings provide a blanket of melancholy harmony, over which the singer weaves a melody and the rest of the orchestra provides punctuation, endind a phrase from the singer with some appogiatura from the woodwinds or the harp. It develops slowly, staying into a mournful atmosphere, repeating a wobbly motif around the word “weeping.” And there is a lot of weeping, as most Bible women present in the piece went through some rough stuff. The piece shifts to peaceful, with the harmony getting more conservative and the orchestration less adventurous. Anyhow, it ends on an hopeful, redemptful note.


The soprano part stretches the singer’s range, but Rivera dispatched it with ease. The SF Girls Chorus was excellent throughout, with so many different colors. They sounded like boys voices when chanting the lines of angels. This is the first part of a dyptich, the second half to be presented next year, and if it’s as pleasant, we’re looking forward to it, especially if it brings some contrast to the restricted palette of this half.