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Davis, California

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Contemplating madness, music and everything in between

As the first bass clarinet note struck with a slow trill of resonating sound, the excitement dwelling within the wooden structures of the Mondavi Theatre began to pulsate with animalistic strokes of color. There’s passion, excitement and vibrant energy transpiring from an action-filled sequence that seems to be taking place.

The UC Davis Symphony Orchestra ended the Mondavi Center’s Madness and Music Festival with a concert Sunday night. Its diverse and beautiful program represented the festival’s exploration of the connections between music composition and the intricacies of the human mind.

Sensemayá: a Chant for Killing a Snake (1938), composed by Silvestre Revueltas, was the first piece among Sunday night’s repertoire.

Cello syncopated with staccato piano playing alongside percussion created an uneasy feeling, at once alluring and haunting. The air was enveloped with quickened heartbeats that became synonymous with the music playing on stage. As the orchestral work was originally adapted from Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén’s poem, there is a climatic moment when the snake is sacrificed and killed. Low strings, bassoons and drums pounding violently illustrate the scene excitingly and vividly.

Coincidentally, it is Halloween, a night that is to be filled with madness, dark motifs and phantomesque mischief. However, this is not the purpose behind Sunday night’s performance. As a part of the Mondavi Madness and Music Festival, the repertoire only represented an underlying theme of madness stemming from the composers themselves.

“The original idea is to look at composers and the way they think about things,” said Phillip Daley, events and publicity manager for the Mondavi Center. “A lot of older composers went mad, such as [Robert] Schumann. There’s lots of ways in which composers can get engrained in what they’re doing and go mad. So we wanted to go with that and look at living composers and how they think about writing music.”

In complete contrast to the wildly thematic Revueltas piece, “Lu-lu, lu-lu,” composed by Jean Ahn, was a narrative depiction of the seemingly warm and gentle process of putting a baby to sleep. Flutes and drums break the tranquil sound waves as the baby is woken up. The juxtaposition of instruments created a strange feeling as the beautiful strings moved, slowing against the offbeat sound of percussion and drums. However, all goes back to tranquil bliss as the baby falls back asleep; strings and soft flute moving monotonously represent this closure.

As the final piece of narrative section and rather unconventional aspects of Sunday night’s performance, Four Hardy Songs, composed by UC Davis music professor Pablo Ortiz capture the beauty of poetry and music in unity.

“I like Thomas Hardy and his poetry,” Ortiz said. “I wrote many pieces using his text. It’s contemporary music made today and it reflects the time in some extent. These are somewhat crazy pieces. There is some sense of it not being quite there, there are some sounds which are particularly different like cello sounds or particular strings which is a little disturbing.”

Sara Gartland, soprano from the San Francisco Opera’s Adler Program, provided the beautiful vocals for Ortiz’s piece. “Did he dream of following me” was among one of the haunting and resonating lines which sent chills down the spines of the audience members. But amidst chilling vibrato, the string section created a beautiful backdrop of sound that paired wonderfully with Hardy’s textual poetry. Dark words, slow strings and long pauses all added to this hauntingly beautiful piece.

As the final piece of night and definitely grand moment, Cello Concerto in A Minor (1850), composed by Robert Schumann and performed by Susan Lamb Cook, sculpted graceful music. In a sparkling sequence top over a glowing gown, Cook played with grace and her fingers caress the neck of the cello with crisp and decisive movements. Moments of silence gave the audience time to absorb sounds as the orchestral strings echoed Cook’s cello.

Schumann went mad from symptoms of syphilis in the 1830s and this piece was one of his final publications before committing suicide in 1854.

As the conductor for the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, Christian Baldini takes music personally and has great passion. It’s not just interpreting music, he said. It’s about conveying emotions through translations.

“Conducting is communicating. Whether I am sitting in my office or at home, I’m learning music and to see how does this sound? It’s not the paper,” Baldini said. “The paper just brings a message to you. I think the absolute perfection is hard to achieve but that’s the beauty of it. It’s like when you see a guy or a girl with a [dimple], it looks so beautiful. This is exactly the same. And that’s the beauty of live music.”

UYEN CAO can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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