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The Mercury News

Guest conductor Edwin Outwater saves the day at Berkeley Symphony

April 27, 2012
By Richard Scheinin

For its season finale, the Berkeley Symphony planned a showcase program: major works by Bartók and Kodály, plus the world premiere of an ambitious piece it had commissioned from Gabriela Lena Frank, an East Bay native and the orchestra’s creative adviser. Tuesday, music director Joana Carneiro picked up her baton, plunged into the first rehearsal with her musicians and — ouch! Having sustained a shoulder injury in a recent fall, she found it impossible to continue conducting.


What to do?
Carneiro phoned her friend Edwin Outwater, the San Francisco Symphony’s former resident conductor under Michael Tilson Thomas, from 2001-06. Wednesday in Chicago, he hopped a plane, studied Frank’s score on his iPad as he flew across the continent, then dove into the rehearsal process in Berkeley. And Thursday night, there he was on the podium at Zellerbach Hall: Like Mighty Mouse who saves the day, Outwater led credible performances of Kodály and Bartók — then delivered big-time with Frank’s “Holy Sisters,” a radiant work for orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist.


It is lyrical, earthy and luminous in its celebration of women of the Bible: Mary of Magdala, Rachel, Sarah, Miriam, Hannah. Setting English texts by Portuguese poet José Tolentino de Mendonça — in Lisbon, he is the Carneiro family’s padre, or pastor — the work was composed by Frank for a ravishing soloist, soprano Jessica Rivera. She anchored Thursday’s performance with her warmth, lustrous voice, bell-clear diction and sincere immersion in the many moods of this cantata-like work, fine-woven as it ranges from jubilation to a mysterious solace. (Rivera sings her own recital Sunday in San Francisco; see the accompanying box.)


Rivera’s opening salutation to the ancient women — slowly coiling, ornamental — rose out of a soft-glowing orchestral haze, something like a primordial dawn. The San Francisco Girls Chorus answered her, sounding freshly vibrant and pure-toned, as it would throughout the 20-minute performance; these are exceptional young musicians. And commanding all this was Outwater, who shaped Frank’s highly specific sound-worlds: her colorized textures and impressionistic sweeps, flavored with pinches of Iberian melisma or with the sort of reiterative chants associated with John Adams’ vocal works, including his “El Niño” oratorio, which similarly draws on Biblical themes to celebrate women.


For this piece to come together so well on such short order, with Outwater arriving “at the eleventh hour,” as Frank put it in remarks to the audience, was remarkable. The orchestra played impressively: a pungent wind chorale set the stage for salty quells of strings — the weeping of the ancient women. And that final note of solace arrived on the wings of a stately wedding hymn — originally composed by Frank for Carneiro’s wedding last year in Portugal, where it was first sung, as a surprise, by Rivera.
Carneiro — who says she is taking off two months while her shoulder heals — suggested the “Holy Sisters” theme to Frank during a conversation a year or so ago in a downtown Berkeley coffee shop, leading to Thursday’s premiere. Next year, a second part of “Holy Sisters” will be premiered: Commissioned by the Girls Chorus, with music from Frank and text from Nilo Cruz, the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, it will celebrate contemporary “holy sisters” in Latin America. And Carneiro will conduct.


But let’s close with Outwater: “Thank God for the iPad,” he joked in a pre-concert talk with Frank, alluding to his in-flight study time with her score. It paid off.


The program’s opening works by Kodály (“Dances of Galanta”) and Bartók (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta) didn’t dazzle to the same extent. Perhaps Outwater, who has conducted these pieces elsewhere, chose to focus his limited rehearsal time on the premiere.


Inspired by Hungarian dances and the composer’s childhood memories of Gypsy bands, “Galanta” is a terrific suite of big-hearted melodies and driving rhythms. Thursday’s performance was rough-edged but communicative, and it had a hero: clarinetist Roman Fukshansky, whose tone is dark and woodsy. His eloquent solos carried the performance.
This listener had expected Bartók’s masterwork to dominate the program with its pressurized concentration of sound and rhythm; a good performance can bring on the night terrors.


But Bartók, to create his effects, divides the orchestra into two camps, facing one another like mirror images. Thursday, one wondered if the string players on one side could hear their counterparts on the other. There was persistent out-of-tuneness and rhythmic imprecision. Even so, Outwater battled on, stirring a mood toward the end, just not enough of it. It was time for “Holy Sisters.”