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Marin Symphony's Fantastique Season Opener

September 30, 2014

Marin Symphony

Marin SymphonyA quick look ahead shows a lot of familiar names and works on the concert programs for the Marin Symphony’s upcoming season — its 62nd. Scheduled are works such as Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, Sibelius’ Finlandia, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; a Beethoven program with Symphony No. 5, Piano concerto No. 3, and the third Leonore Overture; plus a holiday concert with lots of traditionals, and a Star Trek themed pops concert next summer.

A lot of familiar fare, perhaps, but if Sunday’s season opener is any indication of the care and dedication with which each program will be presented, the many fans of the orchestra and its eminent Music Director Alasdair Neale can expect an awesome season, full of encounters with dear old friends.

One such friend was present last Sunday: the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz, as part of a program with the more evocative than factual title "French Reverie." The works on the program were in most cases somewhat ‘French’ or ‘dream-like’, but as Alasdair Neale already admitted: Bernstein’s Overture to Candide was really “French, once removed.”

Before Candide, the first concert opened with the traditional playing of the National Anthem and a performance by winner of the ‘baton auction’ and therefore special guest conductor Sandra Hoyer. She led the orchestra in Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, and took her job quite seriously.

Apart from a few uneven opening bars, Candide was a vivacious and delightful start to the actual concert program, with the orchestra’s strings especially resounding and homogeneous in the lyrical middle section.

The main course of the program was Berlioz’ manic masterpiece. According to his own program notes, the composer musically describes "various episodes in the life of an artist" (himself), mostly in the form of feverish hallucinations induced by his obsessive but unrequited love for Irish actress Harriet Smithson.

This includes terrible nightmares about a March to the Scaffold and a Witches’ Sabbath, but only Berlioz knows why. He wrote that he considers knowledge of the program for the Symphonie fantastique "indispensable to the full understanding of the dramatic plan of the work" but this very knowledge also underscores what a complete maniac he must have been.

The music reflects this, and Alasdair Neale knew exactly how to use Berlioz’ grotesque and schizophrenic musical imagery to his and his orchestra’s full advantage, with more beautiful strings, alert woodwinds, and nicely restrained but forceful brass and percussion.

In between Bernstein and Berlioz, the Marin Symphony showed its more reflective and meditative side, together with returning cellist Zuill Bailey and his views on Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33.

Charming, handsome, and with a jovial stage presence, Bailey laid out the single-movement concerto in no uncertain terms, applying just enough drama and pathos to bring out the beautiful simplicity of the central minuet, and the right mixture of risk-taking and showmanship in the virtuoso conclusion of the concerto.

Bailey was also responsible for the perhaps sincerest piece of French Reverie on the program with his gorgeous encore, played together with the orchestra: the Méditation from the opera Thaïs by French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912). The cellist could have easily filled an entire program with these bite-size musical delicacies; his many adoring fans would have been okay with that.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.

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