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Entertainment & Arts

Review: At ‘Dreamers’ premiere in Berkeley, neo-Romantic oratorio is the sound of hope

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Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra with soprano Ana-Maria Martinez in the world premiere of Jimmy López and Nilo Cruz’s oratorio “Dreamers” at Zellarbach Hall in Berkeley.
(Brittany Hosea-Small / Cal Performances )
Music Critic

As political pawns in a long-running congressional chess game, Dreamers, those children of immigrants with aspirations for a promising life in the United States, make dispassion very difficult for even the most cynical of lawmakers. The law is on one side and the American dream on the other.

“Dreamers,” an oratorio by the Berkeley-based Peruvian composer Jimmy López and Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban American playwright Nilo Cruz, had its premiere here Sunday afternoon, and it’s inspirationally on the side of the dream. If music can give hope, and maybe offer some support at the ballot box, this is what that sounds like. Furthermore, in a town marking the 150th anniversary of the founding of the first University of California campus and also of the 50th anniversary of the People’s Park demonstrations that played a revolutionary role in the late 1960s student protest movement, celebrating Dreamers is more than a little appreciated.

Commissioned by Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, where López received his doctorate in composition, and premiered by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the new oratorio was the newsy part of the London ensemble’s three-concert weekend residency in Zellerbach Hall. Sunday’s concert, which concluded with a sensational performance of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” also had an excited audience celebrating the fact that Salonen moves to the Bay Area next year to become music director of San Francisco Symphony.

However sympathetic the crowd, López and Cruz took no chances. After interviewing a number of Dreamers in the Bay Area, they produced a neo-Romantic oratorio that would have been too old-fashioned for the university’s then-modernist music department a half-century ago, but that may well speak to today’s more conservative audiences. Theirs was the attitude that an oratorio is not so much a timely report of today’s news — López and Cruz effectively did that with their 2015 opera “Bel Canto” that improves on the bestselling thriller by Ann Patchett — but a more timeless reflection with a biblical tradition.

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The six-movement, 45-minute “Dreamers,” which also featured soprano Ana María Martínez and the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, provides a broad spiritual context. Rather than dramatize individual Dreamers’ stories, Cruz poetically mythologized them. In the first two sections, their perilous journey north is given spiritual dimension as a migration on land walked along by centuries by “women and men … alongside of the puma and the shadow of the eagle.” They reach sacred lands of ancestors.

Only as the oratorio progresses does it become more specific and occasionally angry as it chronicles the oppression of children “imprisoned, interrogated,” and denied “the right given to a fish and a bird.” The fourth section portrays a Dreamer immersed in the science of language to escape uncertainty. The fifth is a dramatic and divinely inspired testament to the momentousness of dreams. Only at the end can the oratorio finally address “the politician who hunts mothers and fathers,” and the soprano turning quiet and saddened to “the businessman, who fears the future of the child.”

While López has produced more complexly organized music in the past, he here relies on a tried-and-true Neo-Romanticism to give weight to the subject matter. The orchestral writing is vividly colored. The chorus proclaims with biblical authority very much in the slightly simplified style of John Adams. Meanwhile Martínez, who proved the compelling star of the work, relied on lyrical reserve and fearsome outrage to dramatize and personalize the text.

López has maybe a little too likable talent for feel-good grandiosity. One feels good listening to it. The Dreamers will certainly feel good, situated on a holy mission. Overblown though it is, good could well come of all this.

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Salonen’s performance of “The Firebird,” with every detail illuminated and the narrative played out with tremendous force, sounded even more timely and, in its propitious ending, even more aspirational. Salonen first recorded the ballet with Philharmonia in 1988 just as he was about to turn 30. The tight, commanding performance, I thought listening to it again shortly before traveling to Berkeley, holds up remarkably well.

But this was something else. Altogether richer, the performance captured a new aural dimension, the sensation of feeling more connected to the world. For an encore, Salonen quieted the audience, offering Ravel’s “Enchanted Garden,” which ends his ballet “Mother Goose.” This was written the same year, 1910, as “Firebird” by a composer who had no need for myth making. Ravel, who has served as a model to Salonen as a composer and could to López as well, let magic be magic.

Salonen and the Philharmonia are only skirting Southern California, concluding their tour in Palm Desert on Tuesday and in Santa Barbara on Wednesday with a program of Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony — Los Angeles presenters no doubt (deplorably) figuring we’ve heard all that before from Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But he will be back next month for three Stravinsky programs at Walt Disney Concert Hall with his old orchestra.

In the meantime, Cal Performances, which streamed Sunday’s concert live, has archived “Dreamers” and “The Firebird” on YouTube for a month.


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