MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Thrilling Berlioz and Mahler with Guest Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and Seattle Symphony

1718_Concerts_Mahler 2_ Carlin Ma-3940-2

Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the Seattle Symphony; photo (c)Carlin Ma

It’s one thing to fulfill an emergency engagement, subbing at the last minute for to conduct an orchestra that’s essentially new to you.

But when the program is as challenging as the one Ludovic Morlot had planned to launch Seattle Symphony’s main concert series, the stakes are significantly intensified.

Giancarlo Guerrero pulled it all off to extraordinary effect on Thursday evening, the first of three concerts pairing Berlioz and Mahler. Guerrero has made himself an invaluable musical force as music director of the Nashville Symphony, where he actively promotes a vigorous commitment to new music and American composers. He’s also pursued creative links with that city’s rich music scene beyond the classical realm. [Full disclosure: I serve as the Nashville Symphony’s program annotator.]

Technically, this wasn’t the Costa Rica-born maestro’s first rendez-vous with the SSO. I can’t find any online record of it–and would love to know what the program was–though he did conduct them once before: apparently in 2004. But the membership has changed significantly since (seven members joining/rejoining the ranks as of this season), and this was no program of routine, tried-and-true orchestral fare. [Update: It was an all-Gershwin program in what was then called the “light classics series”: An American in Paris, the Concerto in F, Catfish Row, and Rhapsody in Blue — h/t Jeff Eldridge.]

(I wrote separately about Morlot’s thinking behind the program. A leg injury has sidelined the maestro, causing him to miss the season’s opening events.)

The concert began with a Berlioz rarity: La Mort de Cléopâtre, one of the four cantatas he wrote in his bid to win the Prix de Rome. (Despite its beauties, this one, from 1829, didn’t succeed with the jurors.) It’s not only a fascinating piece, but Guerrero shaped it with commendable conviction, coaxing some splendid nuances from the SSO.

And the soloist, Dutch mezzo Christianne Stotijn, credibly inhabited her character as the desperate Cleopatra facing the ultimate humiliation from her latest Roman conqueror, Octavian: sexual indifference and the prospect of trading her throne for a future of enslavement.

The writing is at times downright awkward, with long stretches of recitative, and it took a few minutes to begin making its proper impact. But Stotijn used the music’s fascinatingly unpredictable blend of anxiety, pride, shame, and sorrow to shape Cleopatra’s awareness of being trapped–and, ultimately, her restored sense of power by choosing her quietus to make.

Stylistically, it’s all very mixed: Berlioz’s love of Mozart and Gluck sits side by side with wildly original harmonies and orchestral effects, especially in the passage Berlioz devises to depict the aura of Cleopatra’s Pharaonic forebears.

Significantly, Berlioz doesn’t supply a transcendent Liebestod in which Cleopatra envisions her forthcoming liberation through death. (Then again, he was limited to a text pre-selected for him to set by the jury.) Instead, the cantata concludes in suspense and sepulchral darkness. Guerrero elicited especially impressionable moments here, allowing full resonance for Berlioz’s notably understated conclusion–all the more effective after the torrent of passions expressed earlier.

And that was just the first half of this remarkable concert. Guerrero has cultivated his gifts as a Mahler interpreter over the past decade with the Nashville Symphony, but this was my first opportunity to hear his Mahler live. The impact of his Mahler Second was electric and lasting.

Overall, Guerrero exuded an air of inspired confidence, of knowing just what he needed to get from the orchestra and singers without being overly controlling. His podium manner is quite interesting to watch: like a film director right on top of where the camera’s eye should be, he zoomed in and out, cutting across to dramatically contrasting shots and perspectives.

Guerrero turned orchestral knobs and signaled “more” for the many shattering climaxes that punctuate this symphony lasting the length of a feature film. In the Andante immediately following the vast, funereal opening movement, the scene changed so drastically it was as if we had landed for the moment in an entirely different narrative, as the conductor nearly held still, using minimal, graceful gestures to get maximal bloom. For a few moments, I was hoping Guerrero would observe the five-minute pause Mahler asks for in the wake of the devastating first movement (which he apparently has done in Nashville). Perhaps some intangible factor from the audience made him decide to limit the break to a more conventional length.

The scherzo’s restless flow (in which Mahler recycled his setting of the Wunderhorn tune “St. Anthony Preaching to the Fish”) churned evocatively, with Guerrero wiggling to direct the flow just so. He also underscored the bittersweet klezmer snap of the commenting woodwinds (featuring Ben Lulich’s wondrously phrased clarinet).

Stotijn sang a moving “Urlicht” over radiant brass and a serene bank of beautifully balanced string harmonies. That movement convinced me how multilayered Guerrero’s vision of Mahler is: he had no hesitation to go full throttle in the outer movements (and in the “panic” outburst of the Scherzo, where the intertextuality of Mahler’s symphonies–here anticipating the Third–is so strikingly manifest). But he also showed faith in Mahler’s gentlest orchestrations, savoring its most delicate intimations with genuine sensuousness.

If there’s a musical equivalent to the scope of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine, the last movement of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony has to be a major candidate. A few moments seemed to lose a sense of the bigger picture–and this score, for all its miracles, is not without flaws–but I especially valued the suspense Guerrero built up in this scenario of Mahlerian apocalypse.

The Seattle Symphony Chorale didn’t quite achieve the sotto voce effect that makes the choral entrance such a unique, impossible moment, but they ensured that the catharsis Mahler writes into this score happened nonetheless, singing with soul-shattering, heaven-storming power, reinforced by Joseph Adam on the organ. Soprano Malin Christensson joined Stotijn, contributing thrilling colors that soared atop the mass of choral voices.

The SSO, dramatically expanded with guest players and crowding the concert stage, gifted the audience with some of the finest Mahler I’ve heard this orchestra achieve.

Review (c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

Filed under: Berlioz, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

A Primer in the Romantic Spirit from Seattle Symphony

khachatryan-12Sergey Khachatryan. Image courtesy of Seattle Symphony.

My review of this weekend’s Seattle Symphony program with Ludovic Morlot and violinist Sergey Khachatryan is now live on Vanguard Seattle:

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO)’s sixth season with Music Director Ludovic Morlot has so far included a pair of electrifying programs that paired world premiere commissions by composers of today with Beethoven classics—the latter part of an ongoing two-year cycle of the composer’s complete symphonies and piano concertos.

continue reading

Filed under: Berlioz, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Vanguard Seattle

Another Layer to Berlioz

image ©Bernd Uhlig

image ©Bernd Uhlig

Hector Berlioz’s treatment of the beloved Shakespeare tragedy in Roméo et Juliette, his “dramatic symphony” premiered in 1839, stands apart for its radical approach to narrative and musical story-telling.

It transforms the (still very recent, still-being-digested) Beethovenian legacy of the choral Ninth Symphony into something even less conventional in how it negotiates the relation between words and instruments, text and “programmatic” music.

Not the least unusual choice is the oblique way of recounting the famous story using not Shakespeare’s words but instead a libretto by Emile Deschamps that actually eliminates the figures of Romeo and Juliet themselves. They’re only spoken of in the text, whereas their big scenes are depicted by the orchestra alone.

So I was especially intrigued to see what Berlin-based choreographer (and aptonym!) Sasha Waltz does with one of my favorite scores. Her choreographed version of Roméo et Juliette premiered at Paris Opera in 2007 but was introduced only this year to the Deutsche Oper’s rep.

I caught a recent performance, with the title roles danced by Joel Suárez Gómez and Lorena Justribó Manion, respectively, and with Moritz Gnann conducting. The vocal soloists were Ronnita Miller, Thomas Blondelle, and Marko Mimica. (Miller and Mimica sounding especially splendid, with the latter’s Frère Laurent taking part in the action, while the other two were merely staged as vocal “presences.”) Overall, the orchestra played decently, if not spectacularly, despite occasional rawness from the winds.

The evening suggested some new ways of thinking about Berlioz, even if not all of Waltz’s specific choices were effective. (It also made for a wonderful supplement to the complete performance by the Seattle Symphony led by Ludovic Morlot which I reviewed this past February.)

By adding back in the stuff Berlioz leaves out, or allows only as third-person narration — most notably, Romeo and Juliet — a staged and danced version seems to court the danger of “pushing” Berlioz’s music into the background, making it mere accompaniment to the narrative that unfolds with great visual allure. (The problematic bias of ballet music as “secondary” has much in common with the bias against film scores — another story.)

And there were stretches of distinctly uninteresting choreography: most painfully in the ball scene in which the two lovers meet, which featured dull, arbitrary-seeming moves.

But rather than distract from or eclipse Berlioz’s music, the gestural vocabulary Waltz develops often amplified aspects of the score for me. I enjoyed her staging of the Queen Mab dream, with its blend of the quirky and sublime. Most memorably, we can observe Juliet’s perspective, and one of Waltz’s most significant additions is to suggest the story of Juliet’s promise of liberation from the person she’s been moulded into by her family and situation.

This comes to the fore in the most sublime music of the symphony, the lengthy Scène d’amour. To actually see the process of mutual discovery of Romeo and Juliet “happening” to this music gave me another layer to think about that intensified the inwardness of Berlioz’s music.

By the same token, the tone poem-like instrumental music in Part III (Roméo au tombeau des Capulets, etc.) now had its visual analogue. It moved me even more than productions of the Shakespeare source have done in the same scene — whereas I suspect that wouldn’t have been the case had this been a full-on operatic treatment, with text and singing to bring home each new phase of the story line.

An especially daring and effective choice: the music falls silent when Romeo learns of Juliet’s supposed death and Gómez desperately tries to scale the steeply pitched wing of the moveable, abstract set (designed by Waltz, Pia Maier Schriever, and Thomas Schenk).

Something about this “in-betweenness” — of Berlioz’s carefully scored gestural music matched with the pantomime and choreography — also managed to evade the literalness of mere recounting that was key to the composer’s motivation in opting for purely instrumental music for the loftiest and most tragic moments.

(c) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Berlioz, choreography

Berlioz’s The Trojans: “A Virgilian Opera on the Shakespearean Plan”

My essay on San Francisco Opera’s upcoming new production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens is now available online:

“For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera,” wrote Hector Berlioz at the end of the first edition of his Memoirs, in 1854. This oblique reference to the still-to-be-written The Trojans suggests that the composer, then just 50 years old, intuited the difficulties awaiting him. “I am resisting the temptation, and trust I shall continue to resist it to the end.”

 

It wasn’t birth pangs per se he feared. Within an astonishing two years (1856–58), Berlioz composed both the text and the music for The Trojans, working with intense focus as he sustained a high pitch of inspiration. What he feared was the agony of getting his work produced— a struggle that, sadly, turned out to be even more bitterly disappointing than he foresaw. Fortunately, the impulse to create The Trojans proved strong enough to override his early anxieties. However improbably ambitious an undertaking, Berlioz’s magnum opus at the same time represents the inevitable culmination of his life and thought as an artist.

If the stakes seemed impossibly high for Berlioz, the same could be said of his source material. Virgil himself allegedly complained to the Emperor Augustus that he must have been “mad” to have undertaken the Aeneid. According to tradition, the dying poet (he lived from 70–19 BCE) indicated that he wanted the manuscript to be burned, for it lacked his finishing touches. Not only was Virgil competing directly with the Homeric epics venerated as the foundation of literature (to his contemporary Romans, Homer was a quasi-divine poet, already several centuries older than Shakespeare is in relation to ourselves): with the Aeneid he attempted nothing less than to rewrite the national narrative. By depicting the sufferings and victories of the Trojans, Virgil’s epic aimed to make sense of a period of cataclysmic social and political transformation.

continue reading [in pdf format]

Filed under: Berlioz, essay, San Francisco Opera, Virgil

In a Berlioz Mood

Great way to start the week – one of my favorite takes on opera’s “storm” meme:

Filed under: Berlioz

Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette Symphony toute entière

Berlioz

Hector Berlioz didn’t even know English when he saw his first stagings of Shakespeare in 1827 in Paris, performed by a British company on tour. But it didn’t matter. “Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt,” he later recalled. “The lightning flash of that sublime discovery opened before me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest depths.”

Those reverberations mixed with the young French artist’s discovery of the Beethoven symphonies around the same time. And both epiphanies propelled Berlioz along his adventurous course as a musical revolutionary.

The work that fuses Berlioz’s reimagining of what a symphony could be with his Shakespearean obsession is Roméo et Juliette. Last night the Seattle Symphony performed RnJ in its entirety — to my knowledge, for the first time in their history. Ludovic Morlot led the expansive forces called for by the score: three vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra (in this case splitting the first and second violins to left and right). There’s even a touch of acoustical “space music” in the positioning of a brief double choir offstage.

It’s a mammoth score (all told, around an hour and a half — not counting the intermission that was inserted here after the “Queen Mab Scherzo”). The instrumental sections are played as a kind of abridged suite often enough, but encountering the whole megillah is a rarity that brings home how radical were Berlioz’s ideas about music and its relation to text and drama. The result is that RnJ is more or less an acknowledged masterpiece that contains some of this genius’s finest music, yet, oddly, as a whole the work remains more often talked about than heard.

Following Maestro Morlot’s work with specific composers since his tenure began here has been fascinating — and the Berlioz thread has proved particularly satisfying artistically (La Damnation de Faust in his first season, an electrifying Symphonie fantastique this time last year).

Morlot and his musicians are showering love on Roméo et Juliette. Sorry if that sounds schmaltzy, but there’s really no other way to put it: the breathtaking precision of their dynamic shadings, the intensified expressivity, their Zen-like focus on detail, the awareness of complicated, even contradictory emotions in this score.

Berlioz carries further the idea from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth of the instruments trying to break out into words by doing the opposite: after an orchestral introduction — the discipline of fugal writing paradoxically depicts violent disorder and passion — he stages an overall summing up of the play’s main action in a prologue “act” that features chorus and two soloists positioned behind the strings. (Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo contributed her velvety mezzo and tenor Kenneth Tarver sang with elegant fervor.)

But already you sense the instruments straining to take over the telling, with solemn, commanding rebukes from trombonist Ko-ichiro Yamamoto and the brass ensemble standing in for the Prince of Verona. And Berlioz reserves the most sublime passages for his orchestra, above all in the scene of Romeo alone and the nocturne of the young lovers meeting in the garden of the Capulet residence, beneath Juliet’s balcony. The woodwinds played with soulful poignance, with admirably individualized phrasing from Mary Lynch on oboe and clarinetist Ben Lulich; bassoonist Seth Krimsky sustained a mood of deep, anxious melancholy later in the Tomb Scene.

(The playing was so precise and riveting that I encountered a novel torture to add to the usual litany of cell phones, coughers, page-turners, seat kickers, and other occupational hazards of the concert hall: the penetrating sound that a pair of leather shoes squeaking against each other can generate, as a patron helpfully demonstrated during one of the score’s most heartbreaking moments.)

Morlot tenderly shaped the ebb and flow of the scène d’amour, with its sudden pullings-back and renewed outbursts of pained passion. Richard Wagner (Berlioz’s junior by a decade) was there at the historic premiere of this “symphonie dramatique” in Paris in 1839, and it was an epiphany for Little Richard as well.

It’s enlightening to compare/contrast the passionate melody of this music with its transmogrification in Tristan: the Classical transparency of Berlioz’s sensibility survives his most radical harmonic ideas, so that the French composer’s love music still betrays a moving awareness of limits and fragility that is a far reach from the oceanic transports Wagner permits his lovers to experience.

The players’ crisp focus on detail paid off richly, too, in the gorgeously nimble, ear-tickling “Queen Mab Scherzo” — Berlioz’s rendition, purely through the means of orchestral language, of Mercutio’s ingenious speech about the “fairies’ midwife.” Jeff Fair’s horn solo was outstanding, and Michael Werner’s light-as-a-feather pings on hand-held crotales echoed dreamily against infinitesimally delicate pizzicati. The rehearsals must have been incredibly focused, resulting in a lightning speed tempo and crystal-clear textures that throw the sheer weirdness of this music in high relief.

It should be noted that the text set by Berlioz — no mean wordsmith himself — originated in his own paraphrasing and rewriting, only loosely based on Shakespeare’s original; he had the poet Émile Deschamps craft this into a libretto, thus avoiding direct “competition” with Shakespeare’s verse. The “words” and actions of the lovers themselves are reserved strictly for the orchestra to impart.

Another highlight was Juliet’s Funeral March and the Tomb Scene (in the third part or “act,” which was performed after the intermission). A smaller subset of Joseph Crnko’s Seattle Symphony Chorale had appeared for the narrative of the Prologue. Here they came out in full force and sang with clarity and power. The restraint of their single repeated unison E gave way to emotion-laden elegy, its resplendent polyphony expertly balanced.

Arguably the lengthy finale is the weak link in Berlioz’s conception of this symphony-opera-oratorio hybrid. All the pain, longing, and ecstasy — and violence — that lead to the denouement feel swept aside in a superficially rousing reconciliation, the most overtly operatic scena of the work. Here Berlioz gravitates more obviously back toward the Beethovenian Ninth model of a choral finale. Baritone David Wilson-Johnson — filling in at the last minute — delivered the significant part of the peace-maker Friar Laurence with flair and charisma.

But Berlioz knew that “the very sublimity of this love” is beyond words, though not beyond expression. To access this he focuses in Roméo et Juliette on, as he described it, “the language of instruments, a language richer, more varied, less restricted, and thanks to its very indefiniteness, incomparably more potent.”

There’s one more chance to hear this performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette: Saturday 14 February 2015 at 8 pm at Benaroya Hall. Tickets here.

UPDATE: I asked SSO staff about an odd commotion that took place just as concertmaster Alexander Velinzon came out. A man started shouting something in an agitated voice (I couldn’t make out what he was saying) and walked up the aisle holding a pen and pointing it at one of the ushers. Apparently police were notified and came to Benaroya Hall after the gentleman had exited the hall. I’m told there were no other problems and that he was given a refund for the ticket he had purchased.

On Twitter, Terry Miller wondered whether the disturbance was from the Montague or Capulet side.

(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Berlioz, conductors, review, Seattle Symphony

Morlot, Seattle Symphony, and Berlioz: An Explosive Match

High school students discovering the world of Berlioz at a Seattle Symphony rehearsal

High school students discovering the world of Berlioz at a Seattle Symphony rehearsal

Ludovic Morlot is now back from his winter duties as chief conductor at La Monnaie in Brussels (where he just led performances of Janáček’s Jenůfa). And in its most incandescent moments, last night’s program — his first with the Seattle Symphony following the hiatus — blazed with the impatient passion of lovers meeting after an enforced absence.

The players were champing at the bit to whip up the energy of the brief concert opener, Emmanuel Chabrier’s Bourrée fantasque. Despite the nice thematic tie-in of the title, Chabrier’s piano piece felt like a mere diversion from the heart of the matter. The orchestration by the famous fin-de-siècle Wagnerian Felix Mottl layered lavish, high-calorie toppings over Chabrier’s zesty piano piece – frankly, at times, threatening to smother it.

Morlot has a genuine affinity for the music of the Romantics, so there’s a fascinating opportunity in this program to compare his approaches to the subjectivity of Robert Schumann versus Hector Berlioz. The issue of Schumann’s mental illness is by now such a cliche that it was refreshing to encounter a performance so alert to the astonishing mindfulness of his poetic reveries. In other words, what came across in the Cello Concerto wasn’t so much a sequence of “moody,” unsettled and changeable emotions as one lengthily sustained poetic fantasy.

The three chords in the orchestra that launch and unify the piece were shaped with an appropriately evanescent dreaminess, setting the tone for the Concerto’s primarily meditative as opposed to show-offy quality. The soloist, the French cellist Xavier Phillips, was especially memorable in the slow middle section of the three interlocking movements, when his orchestral “doppelgänger” (SSO principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil) engages him in a duet.

Phillips played with an inviting warmth and intimacy well-suited to Schumann’s elaborate lyricism, but the moment when the cello “rouses” the orchestra from the fantasy at the very end of the Concerto sounded underwhelming. Acoustic imbalances with the orchestra — a particular peril of cello concertos, and one reason composers avoided them for so long — were a persistent distraction. Still, there was breathtaking beauty to be enjoyed in Phillips’ sensitive and musically intelligent phrasing.

A good concert then became great in the program’s second half: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, that blockbuster of Romanticism that flips the bird to the conventional polarities of French/German, Classical/Romantic, fact/fiction.

Too often we hear the Symphonie as a manifesto of its moment in time, a “textbook” of Romanticism with the usual checklist — and the result is a performance that sounds like the epitome of a museum piece (in the bad old sense of museums, before the smart ones started updating themselves).

Young Berlioz in 1832, around the time of the Symphonie fantastique ; painting by Émile Signol

Young Berlioz in 1832, around the time of the Symphonie fantastique ; painting by Émile Signol

Last night it suddenly occurred to me that Morlot’s understanding of Berlioz is of the same category as Leonard Bernstein’s identification with Mahler: apart from all the technical knowledge and even sensibility he brings to Berlioz, it’s as if Morlot internally identifies with this music and so is able to give his interpretations a uniquely compelling stamp.

That’s the only way I could make sense of the 3-D vividness of last night’s performance: colors and textures I’ve never noticed before, for sure, but most of all a sense of what’s at stake with the emotions and obsessions of Berlioz’s score. I found myself grinning with near disbelief at how shocking and still over-the-top parts of it can still sound.

Morlot got the SSO musicians to tap into that sense of conviction. There were memorable achievements from every single section of the orchestra. None of this would have worked without the artistry of Michael Crusoe (timpani), Valerie Muzzolini Gordon (harp), Stefan Farkas (English horn), Christie Reside (flute), Ben Haussman (oboe), Seth Krimsky (bassoon), for example, not to mention the thrilling playing by the strings and brass, particularly in the witches’ “orgy” of the last movement.

This wasn’t the usual colorful story of young Hector going all wild after seeing the actress Harriet Smithson and getting tangled in an insanely obsessive/possessive love attachment – the whole business is really a MacGuffin, anyway — just as it wasn’t the corny 1960s-flavored rethink of an orchestra on an LSD/mushroom/opium-fueled trip.

Morlot understands that Berlioz’s “protagonist” in the Symphonie fantastique is an artist above all else — that the Eros, the drive, the alienation, the hallucinations, all of it, are all components of a universe he imagines into being, not mere triggers of emotions that require expression. And that the entire epic he lays out for us in this score is an “instrumental drama” (the composer’s own phrase) that expertly transforms his musical material to give voice to a radical subjectivity.

I especially like how Morlot refuses to settle for one overall approach — stressing Berlioz’s Classical underpinnings, say, or staying focused on his novel orchestration. He understands the multidimensional character of this score and allows its widely varying facets to come out when they make sense in the dramatic context.

There was a particularly persuasive hint of Beethoven of the Pastoral in the beautifully played woodwind writing of the third movement. (Beethoven cast an enormous shadow over Berlioz at this point in his career.) Some of the “spatial” effects of offstage timpani and shepherd’s pipe anticipate Mahler.

The March to the Scaffold, sardonic as hell, actually helped set the scene for what usually seems an abrupt shift of tone in the Witches’ Sabbath/nightmare finale. And in that fantastic musical phantasmagoria, despite all the humiliations and horrors the protagonist endures, it’s the image of the cocky young artist Berlioz who emerges, dominating and enthralling his audience.

So what is it with Berlioz and obnoxiously intrusive noise in Benaroya? Two years ago, smack in the middle of one of my favorite Morlot performances to date — Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust — a patron’s alarm actually forced the music to a halt for several minutes. Last night someone spoiled the carefully built-up atmosphere by ringing heedlessly away, audible at a good distance. Now that should be a damnable offence.

There’s one more chance to hear this program: Saturday night at 8:00 pm at Benaroya Hall.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: Berlioz, review, Seattle Symphony

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR