Review: After a two-year wait, composer Katherine Balch unveils a masterpiece

"In the hands of the young American composer Katherine Balch, orchestral sounds become tactile objects — clattery, brightly colored pebbles that she assembles into evocative musical mosaics. Patrons of the California Symphony have already heard her do this in two memorable works she wrote as the orchestra’s composer in residence.

Now, with “Illuminate” — a brilliant and wonderfully inventive orchestral song cycle that was given its world premiere by the orchestra and Music Director Donato Cabrera at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts on Saturday, March 26 — she’s done the same with words.

“Illuminate,” which runs 30 minutes in a breathless but varied rush of emotion, is infused with poetic texts by Rimbaud, Sappho, Adrienne Rich and more. Three vocal soloists sing those texts, and the sense of the words occasionally comes through.

But like much of Balch’s work — including her previous creations for the California Symphony, “Like a Broken Clock” (2018) and the violin concerto “Artifacts” (2019) — “Illuminate” thrives above all on the physical sensations of music-making. You listen to the sounds, but you also feel them crawling up your calf, tickling your funny bone and popping implosively somewhere just behind your head. It’s a joyous, immersive roller-coaster ride.

That experience grows out of a degree of mastery operating on many levels at once. Buzzing below the surface of the score is a wealth of finely etched details, as Balch adapts “extended techniques” — things like blowing into the mouthpiece of a woodwind instrument, or bowing stringed instruments in unusual ways — for expressive effect.

You sense the impact of these resources, subtly but unmistakably, sometimes with an air of stage magic. Where does that soft click-clack come from? (The vocal soloists have small, resonant stones in their hands that they’re tapping against one another.) What’s that “whoop” sound that punctuated a moment so perfectly? How does she get the strings to rustle just on the edge of inaudibility?

Composer Katherine Balch infuses poetic texts into “Illuminate,” which premiered after a two-year delay.

Dolly back for a broader view, meanwhile, and you get a persuasive piece of firm large-scale planning. “Illuminate” is built in five movements that cycle through the four seasons, beginning with spring and returning at the end for a reprise of the same material.

This is a venerable conceit, as Vivaldi among many others could testify, and runs the risk of seeming formulaic. But Balch writes with such a vivid command of pictorial and emotional imagery that each season in turn makes its presence felt immediately.

Spring appears most vibrantly, painted in a series of unbridled musical explosions like flowery tendrils running rampant in a bit of time-lapse photography. Rimbaud’s lines “O sweetness! O world! O music” — not only its words (in English translation) but its component vowels and consonants — are the material from which Balch creates a sensation of growth and exuberance.

Summer brings torpor, sweltering and the delicate pricking of insects. The amber hues of autumn give way to a chilly, gleaming slab of winter music before spring returns in triumph.

Listening to “Illuminate” in Saturday’s attentive performance put me in mind repeatedly of Botticelli’s vast painting “Primavera” (“Spring”). On the most literal level, the three female soloists — mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra and sopranos Molly Netter and Alexandra Smither, all superlative — conjured up the figures of the Three Graces, twining their vocal lines in an ever-shifting round dance. But the unbridled profusion of detail seemed Botticellian, too, an image of the rich buzzing energy encoded in the natural world.

“Illuminate” was scheduled to have its world premiere two years ago, but the onset of the COVID pandemic quashed that plan. Now the waiting has come to an end, revealing a work of boundless beauty and imagination.

In a stroke of thematic consistency, Cabrera surrounded “Illuminate” with three French keyboard works, each of them transformed for orchestra. Opening the program was Thomas Adès’ “Three Studies from Couperin” (2006), which recasts harpsichord music by the Baroque master in virtuosic orchestral colors. Two of Ravel’s feats of orchestration, Debussy’s “Danse” and his own “Mother Goose” Suite, occupied the second half, in performances that sparkled with vitality and tenderness.

But Balch’s work, which prompted an enthusiastic outpouring of applause from the audience, remained the evening’s high point. One hopes that other orchestras will have the wisdom to take it up.".