By Cristina Schreil
The San Francisco Bay Area, in desperate need of respite from the wind, received a gentle gust of relief from the Windy City.
It was a tense Friday the 13th. Smoke from nearby wine-country wildfires hung heavily in the air above Berkeley, California, like a sallow, hazy cloak. Light ash traveled in the breeze—an alarming reminder of the destruction that had gripped communities mere miles north for the past five days.
This made it interesting to enter a concert promising fanfare, lightness, and romantic abundance. As part of a Cal Performances three-day residency at UC Berkeley, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by the vivacious Riccardo Muti, packed a dynamo punch as grand and striking as the skyline from whence they came. The concert also presented the West Coast premiere of a new orchestral work by young composer Elizabeth Ogonek, who is the orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence with Samuel Adams. Program notes promised musings over equivocations of dawn: “I have chosen to trust that light will appear and it has.” She’s expressed that it was a wish to create “something happy and melodic” that first beckoned her to compose. Perhaps an auspicious listen for the beleaguered Bay Area.
Yet it was the opening piece, Rossini’s William Tell Overture, that diverted the packed-in audience to spaces far from the disaster up north. Most associate the grandiose work with the high-octane finale, but principal cellist John Sharp opened the Prelude (subtitled “Dawn”) with a transporting solo singing with glossy lyricism. The opening measures progressed into a cello quintet accompanied by basses and light, foreboding timpani rolls. It was a captivating opening that filled every nook and cranny of Zellerbach Hall’s sculptural, dusky-gray space.
“The first movement offers plenty of tonal polarities, with cellos asserting rumbling tremolos one moment and the violins gliding through a nostalgic melody the next.”
The Overture’s zesty finale, during which several audience members perked up at the familiar galloping melody, proved a curious segue to Ogonek’s penetrating and ornately fashioned All These Lighted Things. The three-movement piece, beguilingly brief at 15 minutes, is subtitled “three little dances for orchestra.” It’s Ogonek’s first commission by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through MusicNOW, its new-music concert series. It’s also a rare work of hers for full orchestra.
The piece drew upon several influences—namely, Ogonek’s Polish heritage and Chopin’s embrace of the traditional mazurska dances. She loosened her clutch on dance form, however, and now asserts the movements are more like dances that have been cast through filters. Often using literary texts as her springboard, Ogonek borrowed her title from a poem by American Trappist monk Thomas Merton. His references to dawn touched her in particular.
However, the piece is hardly a picture of sunshine and birdsong. Ogonek’s intricately chiseled work, powered by a dance-rhythm verve and fleshed out into an engrossing layered sound world, feels not so much concerned with the celebration of resplendent dawn than its contrast with the cold dark that comes before it.
The wonder of the piece lies in its juxtapositions. The first movement offers plenty of tonal polarities, with cellos asserting rumbling tremolos one moment and the violins gliding through a nostalgic melody the next. Ogonek seemed to relish the broad orchestral palate at her disposal. There’s a bevy of textures rising up from the percussion section alone—the score calls for such instruments as an egg shaker, crotales, Burma bells, Chinese opera gongs, rainsticks, and more—and the whole movement is a stimulating network of lines that rise from different directions and, after splintering and roaming, converge.
The second movement is a dreamy delight. It feels forged within the inky dark of an ancient, moist cave, although Ogonek reportedly wanted the experience to resemble sinking to the bottom of a pool and looking upward—a sarabande elongated and submerged. Concertmaster Robert Chen delivered a lovely nostalgia-inducing solo touched by supple vibrato.
The third movement began differently than the first two, which both sparked to life with many inputs sounding off at once. This beginning echoed aspects of the William Tell Overture, with separate voices entering distinctly. Ogonek compares the third movement to a sort of fly trap, pulling in and piling on more sections of the orchestra as the measures tick forward. After a juicy spotlight on the bass section at the opening, it grows to a near-cerebral level of detail, sounding like a bustling urban network that gathers more life as the morning progresses.
Muti commands everything with an assertive effervescence. Ogonek said she had his dramatic demeanor in mind when composing, and Muti often communicates with his players in delightfully specific emotional gestures. At one point he sent forth graceful, arching upsweeps of his arms, as if he was trying to fold a large fitted sheet via telekinesis.
Muti’s probing command reached an exciting height at the finale work, Bruckner’s lush Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major (Romantic), wherein it proved a key lodestone for a visibly antsy audience. Through this, the Berkeley audience got to peek into Muti’s multi-season presentation of Bruckner. Save for the pastoral evocations and opulent sonorities echoing William Tell—and an opening horn solo that also conjures images of dawn—many moments paralleled Ogonek’s precise ebb and flow of energy: a reminder that change will come.