On May 10 and 11, the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra performed Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo” cello concerto and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor to a packed house in Hertz Hall. The two pieces, separated by an intermission, contrasted each other in both tone and inspiration, coming together to display the full range of the talented orchestra and soloists. Highlighted performers included cellist Mosa Tsay, soprano Ann Moss, mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims, tenor Brian Thorsett and baritone Nik Nackley.
Swiss-born composer and former UC Berkeley faculty member Bloch did not realize his true style until his self-termed “Jewish Cycle” from 1911 to 1926, in which he produced works with a uniquely Jewish sentiment of singular melancholy and expressiveness. The most acclaimed work to come out of this period, “Schelomo” is a single-movement concerto that alternates between the vibrant voice of solo cello and powerful symphony orchestra.
Bloch describes the piece as stemming from the emotion of his Jewish heritage, centered in the story of King Solomon from Ecclesiastes. “One may imagine that the voice of the cello is the voice of King Solomon,” Bloch wrote. The complex voice of the orchestra is the voice of his age, the world, his experience. There are times when the orchestra seems to reflect his thoughts, just as the cello voices his words.” The piece evokes Middle Eastern flavors in dark, rich phrases that begin with a cello cadenza moving from high range to low, followed by accompanying col legno (hit with the wood) percussion in the bass sections, a stormy, full orchestra climax and a floating woodwind interlude foregrounding solo bassoon.
UC Berkeley junior Tsay beautifully conveyed Bloch’s voice of Solomon with a performance that both growled and sang, building in intensity to the piece’s many tutti (all together) sections in which the full orchestra repeated the mournful central motif. A musician since age seven, Tsay has been the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s principal cellist for two years and was recently awarded the 2013 Eisner Award for Music among many other honors for achievement in music performance.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Choral,” provided a respite from the heaviness of Bloch. Completed in 1824, Beethoven revolutionized the symphony form by adding voice to the fourth movement, taking the text from Friedrich Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” — “Ode to Joy” — and setting it to what is now one of the most famous melodies of all time. Schiller intended the libretto to celebrate brotherhood, and set to Beethoven’s melody, “Ode to Joy” became the anthem for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As a whole, the symphony ranks among the most played worldwide.
The first movement, Allegro non troppo, un poco maestoso (fast, not too much, a little majestic) is fairly straightforward after the chaotic crests of Schelomo. With an introduction reminiscent of tuning instruments, it quickly evolves into a melody passed off from section to section, first constrained, then bursting in slow, punctuated crescendos. Molto vivace (very lively), written in the scherzo (light and humorous) form, is more energetic than the preceding movement but matches it in tone. A golden cello solo repeated throughout is quickly overtaken by rolling timpani, leading up to a frenzied tutti that melts into the third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile (slowly, much in a singing style), a tonal, stately and lush movement highlighting viola and horns.
These three movements are echoed in the final Presto movement (very fast) before the introduction of the singers. All professional musicians and recipients of many awards and honors, the four soloists provided a lush and operatic counterpoint to the familiar melody and were soon joined by the full UC Chamber Chorus, bringing the work to an ethereal and ecstatic conclusion.