‘Wozzeck’ highlights Salonen, Philharmonia Orchestra

Courtesy PhotoMusical great: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts London’s Philharmonia Orchestra in various programs in Berkeley this week.

Describing a partly staged performance of Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” in London, British classical music critic Gavin Dixon asked: “How do Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia achieve such superhuman levels of searing intensity? And … how do they sustain it, without significant interruption, for the duration of an entire concert?”

The London-based Philharmonia Orchestra, one of the world’s most distinguished groups, will play the 90-minute piece — which Dixon called “a truly exhilarating, emotionally draining, experience” — on Saturday in Berkeley.

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The concert is part of a four-day Cal Performances residency by the internationally renowned Finnish composer-conductor. Salonen, 54, who has been making music for three decades, led the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 through 2009 before becoming the Philharmonia’s principal conductor and artistic adviser.

“Wozzeck,” based on German playwright Georg Büchner’s drama about a naive, poor man who is hounded to a tragic end, represents one of the earliest and most prominent examples of atonality. With its stark and gripping story, text and music, Berg’s almost century-old opera is as modern and dramatic as anything in the genre.

In Berkeley, Johan Reuter sings the title role. The cast includes Angela Denoke as Marie, Hubert Francis as the Drum Major, the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus and members of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir.

Local student musicians — 25 instrumentalists and 30 in the chorus — will tour with the Philharmonia as it goes on to Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall and New York’s Avery Fisher Hall.

“These kinds of experiences for our UC Berkeley students are life-changing,” says Matías Tarnopolsky, director of Cal Performances.

The Salonen-Philharmonia residence in Berkeley begins at 8 p.m. Thursday in Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus with a concert of four works by Salonen, who will introduce them. On Friday in Zellerbach Hall, Salonen leads the Philharmonia in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” On Sunday, the program is Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

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