Berkeley Symphony music director Joseph Young in the last live performance in Zellerbach Hall on Feb. 6, 2020, Symphonic II: You Have a Voice. Credit: Dave Weiland

Returning to Zellerbach Hall almost two years to the day after its last indoor performance, the Berkeley Symphony kicks off its 50th season Sunday afternoon with a program calibrated to meet this trying moment.

Renew, Berkeley Symphony, Zellerbach Hall, Feb. 6

Following a canny decision to push the season from the usual start in October to Feb. 6, the orchestra is taking musical stock of the recent tumult with a program titled “Renew.” Rather than an expression of optimism, it’s a mission statement for a concert that opens with “Protest,” the fourth movement of Morton Gould’s breakthrough 1941 work Spirituals for Orchestra.

A taut, three-minute piece from an even more fraught era, “Protest” gets a new programmatic context courtesy of Mark Grey. Berkeley Symphony music director Joseph Young commissioned the San Francisco composer and sound designer to create a setting drawing on recordings from the demonstrations that roiled the nation following the murder of George Floyd. At the suggestion that he turn the opener into a multimedia production with video, Young demurred.

“Haven’t we had enough of video? We’re all on Zoom all the time,” he said. “We want to do it in the dark. Just listening to the sound. We start with that kind of poetic moment and cacophony, then my downbeat starts this piece by Morton Gould. After more sounds of protest we merge into this rain and the cleansing of the land.”

YouTube video

That aqueous purification comes courtesy of Los Angeles composer Derrick Skye (who until recently was known as Derrick Spiva). The first work commissioned and conducted by Young as a music director, “As Water, Freedom” is a mutable meditation upon the protean nature of the essential substance. Written to be premiered as part of the 2020 season (with the support of S. Shariq Yosufzai and Brian James), the piece has continued to evolve during the pandemic hiatus.

“Haven’t we had enough of video? We’re all on Zoom all the time. We want to do it in the dark. Just listening to the sound.” — Joseph Young, Berkeley Symphony music director

Unfolding in one flowing 12-minute electro-acoustic movement, “it’s absolutely programmatic, with amplified sounds of rain in different parts of the performance,” said Skye, 39, a prolific composer whose portfolio includes works for orchestra, small ensembles, the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, film, dance, and synchronized swimmers. “For thousands of years people have loved storytelling. Some people want to develop their own feelings and relation to the music, too, but the story’s going to be there.”

The Berkeley Symphony may not have been playing concert halls, but the organization has kept busy during the pandemic. Venturing into new territory, the orchestra played a series of concerts at Bruns Amphitheater, the home of Cal Shakes. And a bustling program of streaming performances kept many of the ensemble’s musicians engaged. But there’s nothing that’s equivalent to experiencing an orchestra in an acoustically friendly room, particularly with the unveiling of a new work.

Young felt Skye embodied everything he envisions for the orchestra, “someone who can celebrate the concert hall as a communal space, who brings collective groups and individuals together,” he said. “His piece captures the confluence of water, all of us moving around together. Part of it based on a James Brown song, so we really can celebrate each other. I’m so happy we can finally bring this to a Berkeley audience.”

Derrick Skye. Courtesy: Berkeley Symphony

Raised in Fresno and educated at UCLA and Cal Arts, Skye has become one of Southern California’s signature voices, with a stylistic palette as cosmopolitan as the region itself. “As Water, Freedom” includes influences from West African music and North Indian classical music, American soul and Persian classical music, among other sources. Studied in Persian music theory with Pirayeh Pourafar, Balkan music theory with Tzvetanka Varimezova, tala in Hindustani classical music with Swapan Chaudhuri, and Ghanaian music and dance with Kobla Ladzekpo all inform his compositions.

“When I write music, that’s how it comes out,” he said. “I’m always in search of a new combination. It’s really just what I want to hear, and it would be great if I didn’t have to write it.”

The first half of the concert concludes with Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” an intentional move by Young to pair a world premiere with a canonical work (inspired by Finland’s struggle against Russian domination). The program resumes with John Adams’ wildly playful “Lollapalooza,” which Young describes as “a six-minute rhythmic dance, and if you just say the word you can almost sing along with the melody. It’s funky and daring, like Berkeley.”

The afternoon closes with Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” which underlines the concert’s theme of renewal. For Young, the program offers an opportunity for catharsis, for starting to get a handle on the unsettling drum beat of “traumas that happened during this past two years, the civil unrest, the Capitol riots,” he said. “I don’t have the answers, but the concert hall is a place for us to open the door, responding to where we come from and celebrate where we’re going.”

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....