In composer Steven Stucky's "The Stars and the Roses," chords and colors seem to float upward, like haloes, hovering and circling. Or the music takes on a sense of expectancy, moving in a rush of dappled flight. The effects are sensuous, luminous, taking pleasure in the world.
Premiered Thursday at Zellerbach Hall by the Berkeley Symphony and Joana Carneiro, its music director, Stucky's work put a glowing cap on the orchestra's season. His song cycle -- based on the lyric and touchingly optimistic wartime poems of Czeslaw Milosz -- seems to paint with light. It makes beautiful sounds, as does the tenor soloist who sang the new piece: Noah Stewart, a former Adler Fellow with San Francisco Opera, whose voice has a sweet-topped majesty, warmly expressive.
Milosz -- who later taught at UC Berkeley and was a presence on campus through the '90s -- wrote two of the poems while living in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, in the early '40s. Anthony Milosz, his son, noted in a pre-concert talk with Stucky that his late father viewed the poems "as an antidote, that the only way to combat nothingness was with somethingness."
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Stucky has matched this "somethingness" with an effervescence inspired by the rich harmonies of Ravel and Debussy. "Happiness" (also from the '40s, and translated from Polish to English by Richard Lourie) speaks of light on a "glowing bay" and of ship masts "in the morning mist." Immediately that mist is translated by Stucky into a gauzy haze of strings, colored by shimmery vibraphone and touches of wind instruments. He openly anticipates the text: A lone flute glides through the soundscape even before the poem alludes to the presence of a musician with a flute on a "small bridge."
Milosz once explained that he was trying to "describe the beauty of the simplest things and express the effort of resisting the temptation of total distress" during wartime. The second and third poems set by Stucky -- "The Sun" and "The Bird Kingdom" -- are from Milosz's "The World," a set of poems described by their author as "naive." Thursday, Stewart's singing was round and rich amid the tremulous orchestral awakening of "The Sun," then piously quiet as Stucky's score dissolves toward its evocation of "the dusks and the dawns."
"The Bird Kingdom" (like "The Sun," it was translated into English by Milosz) reaches for a heightened mood, a blood-rush of motion. Stewart's long phrases stretched across equally long breaths and through many gradations of soft and loud. Again, Stucky's orchestrations were expert, but somehow simple: As a bird feather drops from the sky and to the bottom of a lake, a bass clarinet evoked that bottom.
The performance by Carneiro and the orchestra was very much like the final line of verse: "bright, beautiful, warm and free."
If only the effects of this piece had been allowed to linger. Instead, Stewart was called back for an encore: Donizetti's "Una furtiva lagrima" from "L'elisir d'amore" ("The Elixir of Love"). Stewart had some technical hitches here: off-pitch notes, a not-so-smooth roulade. Still, his voice has such a quality of beauty about it -- it's easy to bask in. The thing is, the audience should have been basking in Stucky's world premiere, commissioned by this orchestra.
After intermission, Carneiro and the musicians finished their 2012-13 season with a performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, "Romantic." For 70 minutes it rose and fell and rose again, ebbing and flowing, building and dissolving, moving through Bruckner's vast landscapes and his evocations of medieval gallantry, hunts and the woodsy magic spells of the natural world. In its way, it was complementary to Stucky's piece -- but so much heavier, more ponderous. As Stucky joked in the pre-concert talk, this program paired "a ladybird" (his piece) and "an 800-pound gorilla" (Bruckner's monument, composed in 1874 and revised in 1880).
The orchestra had its rough patches: errant trumpet entrances in the Scherzo; pitch problems through the strings in the Finale. All in all, though, this was a spirited performance, giving shape to Bruckner's vastness. In its best moments, the orchestra was like a big clipper ship in full sail, proudly plying those endless waters.