Both San Francisco (where she was born) and Orinda (where she has family)
are minutes away from Berkeley, but Linda Watson has circled the globe
several times to get here tonight for her debut with Kent Nagano's
She stopped on the way at the Met, in Bayreuth, Munich, and a great many
of the world's opera houses, so her appearance in Zellerbach Hall was
highly anticipated. So much more disappointing it was then, at least
for this listener (who had found her Seattle Kundry "vital, striking,
satisfying") that tonight's great "local girl makes good" ovation was
With her imposing presence (the same height as Nagano... when the
conductor stands on the podium) and great mezzo-colored soprano, Watson
ruled over the hall without effort. As she started to sing Strauss'
"Four Last Songs," all was well with the world, but then the beginnings
of euphoria suddenly imploded. Never have I heard, not even from Renee
Fleming, such total disregard for the text.
"Spring" was pure vocalise, not a word coming through with all the
scooping and cooing, Herman Hesse's luminous text swallowed whole.
In "September," the last word ("zu"), and the last word only, was clear.
In the next section, Watson concatenated "sehnliches Verlangen" to
"sehn-angen." And "In Twilight," the entire poem sounded devoid of both
consonants and vowels - a hard thing to do.
Diction (or lack of it) did not improve when Watson returned with
the "Tristan und Isolde" finale, but there was greater hurt yet in
the rapturously received "Liebestod." Not only was there no text to
speak of, but the vocal part of the music was telephoned in, distantly,
while the orchestra did its best to present the dizzying cavalcade of
extreme emotions the music is about. Detached to the point of disconnect,
Watson offered ennui as a substitute for Isolde's final acceptance of
an unacceptable loss. This was no Wagnerian diva, but a big-voiced
singer producing a bland sound. A huge disappointment.
Berkeley Symphony, as usual, went the other way in the
expectation-performance equation. It's not condescension, simply a
statement of fact that one cannot expect much from what is a pickup
orchestra in all but name - musicians playing together at five concerts
a year, and having perhaps as many rehearsals with their globe-trotting
music director. And yet, tonight and always - but especially tonight -
the Berkeley Symphony plays so well that no "part-time regional orchestra"
The Strauss was a bit gushy, but solid, concertmaster Stuart Canin's
solos simple, heartfelt, brilliant. In the Wagner, Nagano asked the
orchestra for much, and it was all delivered. Schubert's Symphony No.
4 was buoyant, warm-and-fuzzy, no, not sloppy, just lacking the snap,
verve and precision Nagano's Berlin orchestra delivers in this work.
Still, it was Schubert at heart, the essence of music well represented.
The finest performance of the Berkeley Symphony tonight was Schoenberg's
brief but affecting "Friede auf Erden," music presented with integrity,
deep feeling, and "exactly right." Just what one expected from Watson,
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