All was set for the Berkeley Symphony to launch its new season, the fifth under the direction of Joana Carneiro, when a moment of panic, no doubt, rattled the front office. Due to a medical condition that temporarily prevented air travel, Carneiro would be unable to reach Berkeley in time to lead on 3 October. Who would be available and willing to step in at the eleventh hour to lead the orchestra through an ambitious program including a new work by Edmund Campion, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto?

Gerard Schwarz © Ben Vanhouten
Gerard Schwarz
© Ben Vanhouten

In storybook fashion, Gerard Schwarz happened to be traveling west en route to another engagement and agreed to stop in Berkeley to lead the orchestra’s big night. Highly regarded for his diverse and lengthy musical career, Schwarz, who began as a trumpet virtuoso during the 1960s, has had distinguished tenures directing the Mostly Mozart Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the New York Chamber Symphony, and for more than two decades was at the helm of the Seattle Symphony. Berkeley was doubly fortunate that Schwarz agreed to save the day: the conductor’s experience and starry presence obviously suited the auspicious occasion, but the fact that Schwarz’s All-Star Orchestra series on public television will soon be making headlines further served the Berkeley Symphony’s cause. In a few week’s time they can sit back and say, “Oh, yes. Jerry led our opening night this season.” Timing is everything.

What appeared to be conservative, pro forma programming – new work, 19th-century curiosity, repertory warhorse – made for a perplexing musical line-up. The choice of these particular compositions and their order of presentation showed little inherent logic, excepting the cynical placement of the Rachmaninov last to prevent patrons from leaving early. The concert opened with the world première of Edmund Campion’s Ossicles (Tiny Bones). Campion has on occasion employed computers and multimedia in his music, but his new work relied solely upon the forces found in a traditional orchestra. The piece evoked that moment when a radio station has become so clouded by static and interference from other stations that many would naturally feel compelled to change the channel. Rather than adjust that dial, Ossicles entreats the listener to linger and listen for the moments – pretty, noisy, sometimes humorous moments – as they emerge unexpectedly and unintended from the intersection of diverse signals. To search for the music in the sounds, as it were. Its three movements, named for the three bones within the ear (Malleus, Incus, Stapes), all seemed to begin similarly, but diverged from there on fascinating, yet fragmentary paths that occasionally hinted at familiar melodies. Despite the limited time to rehearse this highly nuanced composition together, Schwarz was in full command of the work’s complex textures and the Berkeley Symphony well-prepared and responsive.

Wagner’s meandering Siegfried Idyll was a disappointing follow-up. Bland phrasing and a narrow dynamic range prevented Schwarz and the orchestra from generating much interest in this Wagner-lite exercise. Written in 1870 to serenade his wife on her birthday, Wagner decided to publish the work in 1878 to combat a mountain of payables after the first Ring festival. Thursday’s performance added little to the argument that this private work belongs in the concert repertory.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor provided a satisfying conclusion as the second half of the program. The orchestra gave heartily during the work’s many romantic climaxes, yet Schwarz clearly expected more from them. Gesticulating with passion and feel for Rachmaninov’s lyric lines and lush orchestration, the music Schwarz wanted to make seemed beyond the orchestra’s reach. As the solo voice at the heart of the piece, pianist Alessio Bax served the rapturous quality of Rachmaninov’s score with blistering virtuosity and confidence. Due to acoustical vagaries in Zellerbach Hall, I missed out on some of his finer shadings when accompanied by the full orchestra, but in exposed passages and throughout the final movement Bax’s ease and delivery were a delight to eye and ear. After taking a bow, Bax answered the call for an encore with Brahms while Schwarz, the orchestra, and audience all hung adoringly upon every note.

**111