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Brilliant, Blazing Berlioz

December 11, 2007

Every so often there's an ideal confluence of conductor, orchestra, and city that produces historic results. San Francisco is currently enjoying such a boon, as was evident at Thursday's all-Berlioz program in Davies Symphony Hall. It was a purely Michael Tilson Thomas performance all the way — which is to say, a marvel.
The rather daring program consisted of two vaguely related works: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14, and its appendix suite in six parts, Lélio, Op. 14b. Along with the orchestra, the performance of Lélio included tenors Stanford Olsen and Shawn Mathey, baritone Dwayne Croft, and the S.F. Symphony Chorus. The optional spoken text in the work for narrator was omitted (no great loss).

Since Symphonie fantastique is such a super-bravura display piece, Tilson Thomas reversed the order of the two works, using Lélio to open the concert rather than close it. The rarely performed Lélio is an odd duck indeed. Titled Le Retour à la vie (The return to life) at its premiere in 1832, the work was later renamed Lélio by the composer for the revised 1855 edition, although no one can be quite certain of whose Lélio inspired him (there are various possibilities).

Berlioz often recycled materials, especially melodies. He was not alone in that. Dozens of composers did likewise, especially those of the Baroque — Telemann, Handel, Bach, you name them.

Yet Lélio was, and remains, unprecedented in musical form, much of it having been borrowed from a mishmash list of Berlioz' earlier completed pieces, or from things that had failed to click with the public. As it stands, Lélio contains sections called "The Fisherman," "Chorus of the Shadows," "Brigands' Song," "Song of Bliss," "The Aeolian Harp: Recollections" (an intermezzo for orchestra alone), and even a "Fantasia on Shakespeare's 'Tempest.' "
Odd Provenance, Thrilling Results
Bits of Berlioz' early cantatas Le Mort de Cléopâtre and Le Mort d'Orphée turn up in Lélio. His ominous Les Ballet des ombres, Op. 2 (Ballet of shadows), was lifted bodily into Lélio, where it was simply renamed "Choœur d'ombres" (Chorus of shadows). Etcetera. The whole of this sonic gumbo was then stirred up by means of the narrator-actor to create a story line consisting of what the composer called a mélologue — whatever that means. (Melodic epilogue?) To hedge his bet, Berlioz also inserted the idée fixe from the Symphonie fantastique along the way, as a sort of binder for the two works.

None of that really matters, since hearing Lélio was a thrilling experience. I suspect that its neglect in concert halls has to do with financial reasons. It requires a large orchestra, a chorus, and three fine male singers. But none of the soloists has more than one item to sing, each one brief. I know of no other composition for similar forces. You end up having to hire the three guys without being able to use them for the remainder of the evening.

We heard three fine ones. Tenor Olsen, well-known for his operatic work, was featured in Berlioz' daring chamber instrumentation that opens Lélio. His fisherman's lullaby — again, originally an isolated song (H55a) — opens with only piano accompaniment. Berlioz alone would have dared to call for a stage full of musicians and yet open a choral work with a single singer and a pianist. Olsen, standing behind the second violins, did a fine job with the song, although he did choke on a note or two.

Baritone Croft, who recently sang the role of Robert E. Lee in San Francisco Opera's production of Philip Glass' Appomattox, created a powerful effect in the rather demonic "Brigand" aria. Even against the full blaze of the chorus and orchestra at full volume, he could still be heard, rich in timbre and clean in delivery of the text ("Let us drink to our mistress from the skull of their lover"). He had the menace of such braggadocio flawlessly colored, which was a gripping accomplishment.

Tilson Thomas held the musical textures in a beautifully expressive state, warm and genteel or blasting fiery sounds around the hall as needed, and always free of exaggeration. The orchestra could hardly have captured Berlioz' picture painting more artistically. And, needless to say, the chorus was its usual magnificent self.

The lithe elegance of the waltz, the sheer violence of the brass during the "March to the Scaffold," so free of raw tones, and the ghoulish finale — all displayed a pinpoint accuracy of color and precision of ensemble. That cannot be conducted, not really, unless the individual musicians care enough to give it their all. The orchestra was not just following but contributing throughout the performance.
Orchestra Superbly Cohesive
The San Francisco Symphony is in wonderful shape these days, but what was so extraordinary was the level of unanimity of phrasing and dynamics. Everyone sounded in perfect sync with all their colleagues. The only other time I have heard an orchestra with that form of cohesion was from George Szell's Cleveland Orchestra in its heyday.

MTT was in his element, of course, as if the music had been written specifically for him to conduct. He didn't seem perturbed by a slew of television cameras that surrounded the stage area, including a little robot camera on runner tracks along the floor in front of the stage. The purpose of all this camera work was to record the Fantastique for MTT's "Keeping Score" series, devoted to the exploration of live music and its composers, in detail. Several programs from the series have appeared on public television, as well as been issued on DVDs.

What tickled me most about the concert was the change in Tilson Thomas between the performances of Lélio and the Fantastique. For the former, he conducted vocalists and orchestra in a straightforward fashion, displaying complete professionalism. Things shifted for the TV cameras into a pretty good Bernstein imitation. Gestures became wilder, broader physically, and replete with little jumps on the podium. Showbiz!

Oh well, one shouldn't begrudge conductors having a little fun once in a while.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.