Berlioz to Raise the Roof, Poulenc to Stir the Soul

Janos Gereben on February 6, 2013
Berlioz's Cathedral in Sound" Photo  illustration by Jeff Dunn
Berlioz' Cathedral in Sound
Photo illustration by Jeff Dunn

Looking for pretty, pleasant music? Stay away from Davies Symphony Hall for the rest of the week.

There, Wednesday through Sunday, the 147-rank Fratelli Ruffatti pipe organ, an expanded brass section, woodwinds galore, string players around the stage, the SFS Chorus and two children's choirs above them are joined to shake the rafters in gorgeous paroxysms of one of music's mightiest outreaches to the heavens.

There are two major sources of the Te Deum's arrival in Davies Hall:

One was Hector Berlioz' 1855 bid "to surpass all the enormities I have ever been guilty of before," with an immense, grandiose, intended-for-coronation (Napoleon III) work. The name originates with the Ambrosian Hymn, "Te Deum laudamus" (Thee, O God, we praise).

Charles Dutoit
Charles Dutoit conducts

The other point of origin is closer in time: a Danville high school student attending the Choral Society's monster Berlioz Requiem in the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, getting hooked on the composer for life.

After the concert, I went on a buying spree at Tower Records in Berkeley on my way home, getting Claudio Abbado's recording of the Te Deum, Colin Davis' (first) LSO Romeo and Juliet, a disc with Jessye Norman singing La mort de Cleopatre, Kiri te Kanawa singing Les nuits d'été ...

From high school to UCLA, then to the New York Philharmonic, Berlioz-fan John Mangum became the orchestra's artistic administrator there, returning here in 2011 as San Francisco Symphony's director of artistic planning. Mangum missed the only SFS performance of the Te Deum, with Seiji Ozawa in 1973, by many years, and he was determined to hear it live. Preparations were extensive and challenging:

We literally had to make dozens of decisions once we decided we wanted to program the Te Deum. We needed another piece for the concerts, and the Poulenc Stabat Mater seemed like a natural — it's the 50th anniversary of his death this year, and it's another major French work for chorus, orchestra, and single soloist.
John Mangum
Te Deum godfather John Mangum

Then, we had to figure out how to realize the Te Deum in performance. Who would our soloist be? How large would the choruses be? How would they be arranged? How many brass and percussion players would we use? How would we fit the organ [console] on stage — it's such an important part — and still have room for all of the strings we needed?

How would we schedule the chorus rehearsals so the boys could work with the adults, and then both work with the orchestra? We're happy with how we've answered all of these questions, and we think that this will be a stunning week, a unique chance to hear one of the truly massive pieces of the choral-orchestral repertoire performed by all of these assembled forces under Charles Dutoit, one of the master Berlioz interpreters of our time.

The SFS Chorus has a major role in both the Berlioz and Poulenc. Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin is in charge:

It's a bit difficult to say what is involved in preparing the chorus for a specific production. The reason is that so many parameters are the same for any production: learning the music, working on equalized vocal production, projection, diction, intonation, phrasing, dynamics, and expression.
Erin Wall, soprano soloist in the Poulenc Photo by Alexander Vasilijev
Erin Wall, soprano soloist in the Poulenc
Photo by Alexander Vasilijev

Preparing the Stabat Mater requires extraordinary sensitivity to weighing and balancing the choral body of sound. The sonorities are so rich and sensitive, very often influenced by jazz music. Also, the chorus is every now and then exposed in delicate a cappella stretches.

The Te Deum, on the other hand, is musically often dense, with rich contrapuntal writing, and the challenge is for the chorus to cut through the big orchestra and the organ. Musically, one also has to discern how the phrases develop naturally through Berlioz' very personal and original harmonic progressions.

There are also such great contrasts between the fortissimi of the "Te Deum" and "Judex crederis" (Our Judge we believe) parts and the intimate and hauntingly beautiful "Dignare, Domine" (Vouchsafe, O Lord) — everything changes from movement to movement.

To return to the beginning, these concerts have nothing light and pleasant, but when the Poulenc begins with "Stabat Mater dolorosa" (The sorrowful mother stood), the contemplative, spiritual nature of the music is deeply affecting. The near-a cappella sections Bohlin mentioned occur especially in "Fac ut ardeat cor meum" (Make me feel as you felt), with only a quiet punctuation from the muted orchestra.

Between the Berlioz and the Poulenc, there are galaxies of musical and emotional varieties, depths and heights. Mangum will have his live Te Deum — and so can you.

Checking on that long-ago Civic Auditorium Berlioz Requiem, I reached Andy Horn, who organized and conducted the concert. He writes:

Paul Groves
Tenor Paul Groves in Te Deum

You've asked about a concert dear to my heart. It was on Aug. 11, 1991. We had about 400 singers and 100 in the orchestra, and at the first combined rehearsal at Civic Auditorium, I stood there and looked out at the mob and said, "All I wanted to do was get some people together to sing, and the whole thing got totally out of hand."

Vance George came up to me after the concert and asked how much amplification we used. I had the great pleasure of replying, "None." One of the local TV stations put a snippet of the concert on the 11 p.m. news and the announcer commented, "Those 500 voices sure sounded darn nice."

My oldest son was about 10 months old at the time, and during the dress rehearsal we hung him from the balcony on a long bungee cord and he bobbed up and down happier than a maggot on crap for three hours. People to this day mention how mesmerized they were watching him.

Another aspect of that concert that I mention with pride, ticket sales were coming in slower than expected, and with my financial background, I am always cognizant of fiscal matters, so I had an emergency plan to reduce the size of the orchestra if ticket sales continued to lag.

I announced this to the chorus, and lo and behold, I got a call from the San Francisco Foundation asking me how much money we needed to insure that the program was presented with a full complement of musicians. I think I told them $20,000, and they agreed to guarantee that amount. Ticket sales did pick up, and I proudly advised them after the concert that we wouldn't be needing their generous guarantee.

Nada! How many arts organizations do you know of that turn down money these days? FYI, we made over $30,000, split three ways on our Berlioz last summer.