Berkshire Symphony takes a plunge into darkness

WILLIAMSTOWN - The Berkshire Symphony did everything but line Chapin Hall in black crepe for the first half of its concert.          

Two tragic pieces proved too much of a good thing Friday night before the program moved on to the safety of Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony after intermission. In a quirk of programming, the almost unbroken plunge into darkness was draining - so much so that it actually became hard to focus on the music.          

It was all in a good cause - two good causes - and it impressively showed the student-professional orchestra's ability to cope. But following Shulamit Ran's "Vessels of Courage and Hope," a lament for shunned Jewish refugees, with four mostly tragic scenes from Prokofiev's sometimes exhilarating "Romeo and Juliet" ballet laid it on pretty heavily.          

"Vessels of Courage and Hope" (1998) memorializes the failed 1947 attempt of a boatload of Jewish concentration camp survivors to settle in Palestine. The story was made famous by Leon Uris' novel "Exodus" - the name the ship took - and the subsequent film. As an Israeli and Jew, Ran writes, she felt compelled to take on the story.          

Groaning brasses, screaming strings, pounding drums and clanging bells mark the first of the piece's two sections; Ran conceived of the section as "fleeing." The quietly grieving second section represents "yearning." "Vessel," Ran says, refers to both the ship and a container, such as for the passengers' emotions.          

Conducted by director Ronald Feldman and played with solid assurance, the work, though powerful, dares rather than invites you to enter into its world of sorrow and heroism. It gets into your ears and face.          

The effect was blunted by the Prokofiev selections that followed. Rather than one of Prokofiev's own suites from the ballet, this was four excerpts strung together by Williams College senior Leonard Bopp, who also conducted.          

Bopp, the orchestra's assistant conductor, brought strong credentials to the podium. He has studied and conducted extensively in New York and Europe, and he showed firm control of the orchestra, though a couple of his tempos - in the Balcony Scene, for example - tended to drag and balances occasionally favored accompaniment over melody. But these things were minor in the overall scheme of things; the talent and promise were evident, as Feldman pointed out in introducing him.          

Bopp explained that his choice of scenes from the 1930s ballet came from a senior thesis project focused on music composed in the shadow of World War II. There was shock aplenty in the clashes between Montagues and Capulets and in the death of Tybalt, the victim of 15 unmistakable jabs from Romeo's sword. Voluptuous melody offered moments of relief.          

The Rhine overflowed in the outpouring of sound Feldman drew from the players in Schumann's "Rhenish." Schumann's orchestration is famously thick, but the music's scene painting and overall cheer, strongly rendered, furnished a welcome contrast to the dark cloud that cloaked the first half of the program. The horn section excelled.


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