Surprise Berry Performance Delights Cal Phil


So let me get this out of the way before I start my review: I’m a huge fan of bass-baritone Cedric Berry.

Ever since I first heard him about four years ago at a performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in Pasadena, his voice had seized my attention. His instrument is powerful and dense, but pliant, and leavened with irresistible charisma and interpretive insight. If one were to compare him, his voice most closely resembles Cesare Siepi’s – and Berry really is that good.

A last-minute replacement at the California Philharmonic’s concert at Santa Anita on Saturday night – necessitated by the orchestra having to scrap their previously scheduled performance of Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” when the actors engaged to perform the narration all had to drop out – was truly a case of the old Russian proverb of an “emergency coming to the rescue.”

Singing the first set of Copland’s Old American Songs, Berry took these arrangements of folk songs and breathed a sense of drama into them that imbued them with a near operatic intensity. The shade and colors he conjures, as well as the rich humor he easily mined in the songs “The Dodger” and “I Bought Me a Cat,” made one sorry that both sets of Copland’s arrangements weren’t performed.

The California Philharmonic and conductor Victor Vener were at their top form here, generally allowing Berry plenty of interpretive room, while adding plenty of color of their own.

For the remainder of the program, however, the orchestra was the star and it didn’t disappoint.

A generous helping of Wild West-inspired scores for the concert hall and silver screen formed most of the program on Saturday.

At the forefront were excerpts from Copland’s Rodeo and Billy the Kid, which were played with rhythmic verve and hearty fun. It was also instructive to take stock of how much the Brooklyn-born composer created the symphonic sound of the West, a sound which countless composers decades later would continue to find inspiring for their own Western-themed works.

It was a connection that was clearly apparent in the selection of film score excerpts by Jerome Moross, John Williams, and Alfred Newman – though in true Hollywood fashion, it was Copland as refracted through the Viennese prism of film composer giants such Waxman, Steiner and Korngold.

Especially attractive was the main theme from The Big Country by Moross, with its running string ostinatos and grand horn themes.

Bookending the concert were two works by Copland. At the end was the perennially popular “El Salón México,” while the concert opened with “Fanfare for the Common Man.” In the latter work, the orchestra’s brass and percussion were stately and grand, though never crushing. In the former, the orchestra did fine work in untangling the score’s spiky rhythms, with principal clarinetist Michael Arnold delivering a delightfully tipsy tang to the joyfully raucous proceedings.