OAKLAND -- Oakland East Bay Symphony's "Saints and Sinners" closed the 2012-13 season with proof that earthly and heavenly sojourns follow not only vertical, but perpendicular paths.
How else to explain the singular, shining moments -- appearing unexpectedly from around the "corners" of the beefy, ambitious program?
Music Director Michael Morgan promised "a wild ride" in program notes and in "front of curtain" comments about OEBS's upcoming June 1 tribute to East Bay legend Dave Brubeck and the 2013-14 season.
"I'll be out in the lobby after the show," he warned. "I'll be there when -- that's when, not if -- you sign up for next year's subscription."
With that, Morgan and his consummate musicians were off on the evening's first existential hunt: OEBS principal cellist Daniel Reiter's atmospheric "Mysterium."
Drawing inspiration from The Kabbalah, a universe-explaining method of thought based on multiple labyrinthian numerical formulations, the work was both skittish and haunting. Against waves of accelerando in the strings and woodwinds, solo instruments (harp, cello, violin and flute) traced eery, fairy-light paths, like apparitions appearing, then evaporating in a roiling mist. A brief interlude with Reiter and principal harpist Natalie Cox -- and string bass rumbling like distant thunder in the background -- was particularly evocative. Alice Lenaghan, the principal flutist, revealed the work's most ethereal attributes with subtle sophistication.
Johann Sebastian Bach's musical megaplex, "Magnificat," brought out the multiple talents of soprano Shaunette Sulker, countertenor William Sauerland, tenor Trey Costerisan, baritone Nikolas Nackley and the Pacific Boychoir, led by Artistic Director Kevin Fox.
The original "Magnificat" text rises from the words of the Virgin Mary as she glorifies God's promises while visiting her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Although Sulker's aria glimmered, Costerisan was solid and Nackley's performance was precise and never stiff, their solos appeared to struggle with tempi and lined up uneasily with the OEBS musicians. In contrast, Sauerland and the boys and men of the all-male chorus grabbed the work's horns and ran with them. One could note Sauerland's connection to the choir (he is the group's Associate Music Director) and attribute his and their powerful performances to mutual training, but that would fail to recognize how each enhanced an individual aspect of the work. The choir captured Bach's grand drama with balance and convincing, forceful delivery. Sauerland's radiant voice inhabited, as if meant-to-be, "Magnificat" compact, pure structures.
Perhaps more than in the program's first half, the OEBS showed their mettle in Ludwig van Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major." Dubbed the "Emperor Concerto" by either "a French soldier or the pianist Johann Cramer," according to program notes, the 40-minute work was written during Napoleon's occupation of Vienna. Characterized by drastic, contrasting compositional shifts -- from the long, robust opening movement to the sweet, shimmering delicacy of the adagio movement to the final timpani-filled skirmishes -- the work showed off Morgan and his orchestra's dexterity.
And seated with grace in front of them was pianist Terrence Wilson, arriving on a chariot of awards and major orchestral credentials. Wilson's performance was bold, assertive, imperial and intensely expressive: When he played, it was church. Rampaging through vigorous sections or traipsing majestically over fiendishly difficult passages, it appeared, at times, Beethoven's very soul wound its way through the piano strings, into Wilson's nimble hands, and out into the Paramount Theater.
After Beethoven's heroic showpiece, it was hard to imagine César Franck's "Le Chasseur Maudit" ("The Accursed Huntsman") would stand up to end the evening on a high note. But it did, and kudos go to Morgan, who called the work a personal favorite and told the crowd he'd chosen it to end the season because of his fondness for it. His enthusiasm appeared to imbue the symphony, who played the work with exceptional sensitivity. Most notable were the assertive percussion and brass sections, the strings' pastoral lyricism and the heightened dramatic passages that never resorted to giddy or melodramatic flourish.