The UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra performed works by two classical warhorses on Saturday in Hertz Hall. The show featured Dvořák’s truly American “From the New World” symphony and Stravinsky’s riotous The Rite of Spring ballet suite—a sensational master-pair to kick off the UCBSO’s first concerts of the season.

Conductor Gene Chang used every sweeping wave and every subtle motion conducting Dvořák’s composition of the 1893 “New World” masterpiece.  According to Gene, the four-movement symphony reflects the Bohemian composer’s attempt to capture the flavor of African-American spirituals and Native American folk tunes. It was written following Dvořák’s first visit to America.

The ensemble delivered the New World taste through haunting melodies conveyed by English horn player John Speers in the second movement. A mellow harmonization of violins and cellos seasoned the Largo, building up to a thunderous opening in the third movement. The audience gave way to the Scherzo’s dancelike tempo as they immersed themselves in the ferocious and strictly synchronized ups-and-downs of the violin bows. Unrestrained clapping filled the space between movements and the final applause.

After the intermission was the memorable The Rite of Spring. The charismatic director David Milnes  turned the audience’s wild emotions up a notch with his unparalleled conducting creativity and confidence.

Stravinsky’s neo-classical milestone embodies “scenes of pagan Russia” with experimental techniques commonly attributed to early 20th century music. The 1913 two-part piece depicts primitive rituals glorifying the advent of spring and tells the story of a young sacrifice who gradually dances herself to death.

The Berkeley musicians brought out Stravinsky’s signature use of unconventional rhythm and bi-tonal dissonance. A feat of solidarity between the horns and strings was evident in the stamping rhythm, which constantly shifted on and off the beat. This added a menacing and sinister touch to the mesmeric Russian folk melodies that Bryson Cwick’s bassoon had introduced in the opening solo.

The percussion section showcased Miriam Anderson on timpani, along with a commanding bass drum and gong part. Overall, the interplay between the boisterous stomping chords and the roaring thumps delivered the essence of Stravinsky’s ritualistic rupture.


The ensemble struggled to sustain neat synchronization towards the end of The Rite of Spring. The listeners were engrossed in the brilliant sonic disarray of “Sacrifical Dance” when suddenly, Milnes’s dissatisfied grumble struck their ears.

He exclaimed something like “…want to do it again,” and asked the ensemble to redeliver the last section as soon as they finished the piece. The orchestra responded with a startling, tight replay of “Sacrificial Dance” that inspired a final standing ovation from the ecstatic audience. The encore prompted the listeners’ closer attention to the fascinating details of complex interactions between the percussion and the rest of the ensemble and the UCBSO under Milnes did a spectacular job to ensure this come to fruition.


Photo by UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra

The orchestra’s next performances will take place on March 14 and 15, and will feature Gerschwin’s “An American in Paris” and Shostakovich’s 10th symphony.

Article by Ning De-Eknamkul



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