“Music begins with orchestras.” So says Matías Tarnopolsky, executive and artistic director of Cal Performances, which brought the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti to the University of California- Berkeley, for an October residency, as part of the CSO’s U.S. Fall Tour.
The CSO arrived in a traumatized community. Days earlier, the deadliest wildfires in California history began ravaging Napa and Sonoma counties and beyond, curtaining the Bay Area in smoke, reminding us of how suddenly life can go wrong. In recent weeks, provocateurs unnerved Berkeley, using the Free Speech Movement’s birthplace as backdrop to redefine the First Amendment. Like the rest of the country, Berkeley consumes the unwholesome fare of catastrophic news, from Houston and Las Vegas, Mexico City and Puerto Rico. Music exerts counterbalance. Music, as Muti told the U.C. Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, is “food for the soul” — a healthy diet, so to speak.
Orchestras are about more than music. To hear an ensemble like the CSO is to understand aspiration, to lose patience with second best. Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for years, I’m a Chicago native, and the Chicago Symphony taught me to love music’s gut appeal. An orchestra offers what mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive.”
Tarnopolsky, who once served on the CSO’s senior staff, brings orchestras to Berkeley for full immersions. On the CSO’s schedule was a master class, a forum with Mead Composer-in-Residence Elizabeth Ogonek, an open rehearsal and three concerts.
Thursday: Riccardo Muti workshopped Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony with the U.C. Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. First, he relaxed the players with a stream of banter, delivered with a standup comic’s timing. Then he turned to the music.
Employing solfège, he sang, showing how to articulate phrases. “I don’t hear the contrabass!” Repeating the passage, the basses inserted their lub-dub heartbeat. “Legato!” The musicians fol- lowed. “Bell-iss-imo.” Music is like life, he maintained. It should be full of surprises. And: “One thing is important in romantic repertoire: If you feel the instrument is speaking, then it’s right.”
Tonight, Muti revealed his approach to music. Now he and the CSO would put ideals into action.
Friday: Few orchestras today dare touch Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Treated with respect, it’s the ideal curtain-raiser. Its final explosions drove the audience nuts. My wife shushed me as I shouted a thrilled expletive. Contrast Rossini with Elizabeth Ogonek’s All These Lighted Things, whose shimmering colors captured rapt listeners and brought the composer three curtain calls after its West Coast premiere.
At intermission, I overheard a woman tell of a friend’s bad luck in Santa Rosa, destroyed by fire. Such stories plague us. Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony is not quite an antidote; nevertheless, substitute the sound of CSO brass for whatever else fills one’s thoughts, and for a while only music remains. That brass. You’d think Bruckner wrote with this orchestra in mind.
Saturday: Muti made good on his words to the U.C. Berkeley Symphony Orchestra: Music should surprise. In Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, the orchestra opened new textures and sonorities. The instruments spoke. Principal clarinet Stephen Williamson, eloquent soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, seemed to enjoy every bar. Schumann’s Second Symphony confirmed what I was starting to grasp. Muti and the Orchestra shun theatricality. They concentrate on the score. The music makes its own case. Such commitment to truth is a model, and not only for musicians.
Sunday: With Brahms’ Second and Third symphonies, I got it. “The conductor should never be an impediment to the music,” Muti had told his master class. Of the many performances of these symphonies I’ve heard, never have orchestra and conductor vanished as Muti and the CSO disappeared now, leaving only Johannes Brahms. The greater the artists, the less apparent their artistry. They directed our focus to the music.
But we understood their greatness, too. Everyone in this band is a star, and as individual players took bows for their contributions and then the entire ensemble rose, the audience offered the next best thing to an embrace: a roar.
At the end, Muti picked up a microphone. “These have been wonderful days. Unfortunately, we came in times of great tragedy, not only for Berkeley and California, but for the world. We want to end with a tribute to those who have died and to the thousands of homeless.” They played music by Schubert, who knew his share of tragedy. The Entr’acte No. 3 from Rosamunde is gentle and consoling: one last gift from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to the Bay Area.
Larry Rothe is author of Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of the essay collection For the Love of Music. For many years, he headed the San Francisco Symphony’s publications department. He lives in Berkeley, Calif.