As far as employment goes, Quelani Penland was in a better situation than many of her Berkeley Symphony colleagues. With a day job as event coordinator at UC Berkeley’s school of optometry, the violinist didn’t face the sudden loss of her primary source of income like a multitude of the orchestra’s professional musicians. But that doesn’t mean the longtime Berkeley resident hasn’t been longing for concert halls to reopen, and that she isn’t thrilled that Berkeley Symphony is performing on Wednesday, Aug. 4, at Bruns Amphitheater — the orchestra’s first in-person concert since February 2020 (and the ensemble’s maiden voyage onto the home turf of Cal Shakes).
“Personally, I was pretty down for the whole year,” said Penland, a Berkeley Symphony volunteer musician who also serves as the symphony’s librarian. “I really enjoy playing with other people. The symphonic experience is hard to replicate. Being on stage with 100 musicians with the music soaring over you is pretty amazing.”
The Bruns program offers a delectable musical repast with favorites such as Rossini’s Overture from Barber of Seville, Bach’s “Toccata y Fuga,” and selections from Beethoven’s Egmont, Op. 84, and contemporary works by Brian Nabors, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Jessie Montgomery. It’s both a joyful welcome back for Berkeley Symphony supporters and a welcome reunion for musicians who were on the cusp of a new era in the weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown.
The pandemic arrived at a particularly inopportune moment for the Berkeley Symphony. Excitement was running high in winter 2020 as conductor Joseph Young seized the reins in his first season as the ensemble’s music director (only the third person to hold that position). In a scene from a Hollywood screenplay, he had stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Joana Carneiro in early 2019, conducting the Berkeley Symphony on a meaty program including Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes, and the world premiere of Hannah Kendall’s Disillusioned Dreamer. His skill and aplomb on the podium and immediate connection with the orchestra sparked a scramble to formalize the relationship.
“He came in on 24 hours notice and brilliantly conducted the program, music he hadn’t conducted before, music not often performed,” said Berkeley Symphony flutist Stacey Pelinka, who was on the search committee for a new music director. “The discussions started immediately. We have to snap this guy up. In the Peter Grimes, where the orchestra depicts an ocean in this really subtle passage he just got us all playing beautifully together. There was a spot where one section was coming in a little late in rehearsal. He did something amazing with his hands, flicked his hands a little ahead of the beat, and made it work.”
While the Berkeley Symphony hasn’t performed with Young in 18 months, the organization hasn’t been idle. Violinist René Mandel, the orchestra’s longtime executive director, spearheaded the audacious video program REAL Berkeley. Featuring various contingents of Berkeley Symphony musicians performing chamber music works, the YouTube film series tapped into the city’s deep creative reservoirs. The third installment, for instance, features Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkeley composer John Adams conducting his celebrated piece “Shaker Loops” with dancers from Berkeley Ballet Theater’s Post:ballet company and choreography by BBT Artistic Director Robert Dekkers.
“It’s a cool, innovative chamber music and art films series, and for me personally a real career highlight playing John Adams’ ‘Shaker Loops’ with the composer conducting,” said Berkeley cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak, who was hired by the symphony just months before the shelter-in-place order.
A veteran member of the “freeway philharmonic,” the ever-expanding pool of conservatory-trained musicians who hustle up and down the highways from one ensemble to another, Pastor-Chermak has followed the Berkeley Symphony for decades, since he was a Cal undergrad. Before the pandemic he was performing in nine different orchestras across California (and beyond), and he’s been duly impressed by the orchestra’s resilience.
“I think Berkeley Symphony has done among the best jobs staying visible and relevant, using the online concert format to force ourselves to innovate, and create presentations that would never be possible otherwise,” he said. “There’s a great sense of pride and accomplishment with the REAL Berkeley series, but we’re itching to get back to playing for an audience.”