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A Symphonic Epiphany

May 1, 2007

No matter how often you've heard a piece of music, once it fails to surprise it's past its sell date. Perpetual surprises are what separates merely well-made and original music from masterpieces. The refreshing level of discovery on last week's San Francisco Symphony presentations of Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24, under guest conductor Charles Dutoit, beautifully achieved that. Berlioz' great choral-orchestral composition remained as fresh last week as if it had seen its premiere performance.
Soloists included mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose as Marguerite, tenor Gregory Kunde as Faust, bass-baritone Willard White as Mephistopheles, baritone Christopher Feigum as Brander, and in the brief role of the Celestial Voice, soprano Maria Meyer. These were seconded by the orchestra and San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Girls Chorus, and Pacific Boychoir. There was only one mild disappointing element among such large forces, an excellent average for any major choral work.

The Damnation of Faust was not so much composed as compiled, and even that went through a 15-year gestation period between 1829 to 1849. Such a length of time is understandable, since setting music to Goethe's singular masterpiece was and remains a daunting prospect. Several famous composers tried without quite capturing the essence of Goethe's full grandeur: Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, and Gounod. But Berlioz came quite close, leaving the others behind in terms of depth of concept.
Slowly Building the Architectural Elements
Berlioz began with Huit scènes de Faust ("Eight Scenes of Faust"), for three soloists, chorus, and orchestra. But once he'd heard it, Berlioz suppressed the piece. Part of it would later be fed into Damnation. Berlioz had created his famous setting of the Rákáczy March as a separate concert piece for an engagement in Hungary. It, too, got added in. The introduction even quotes a few motives from the Roman Carnival Overture. (Check the transition between the slow introduction and full Allegro of the overture, if you like.)

What's amazing is Berlioz' remarkable sense of architecture, a thing too infrequently praised. For all the surprising sonic delights along the way, Berlioz wrote one long line that holds audience interest. It never sags, drawing a single arc of inevitability.

He's world famous for inventing a new concept of orchestration that has influenced composers ever since. But for me, his ability to balance so much thoughout a two-hour-plus work, and with so many changes of direction, represents raw genius. The thing is, he accomplished this entirely on his own, even as he throws most traditions overboard. As with his literary writings, everything in Damnation scans. Dutiot conducted the performance without an intermission, as if to emphasize the point.

Dutoit, now 70, has continued to grow over the past 25 years from a solid, basic conductor into an exceptional one. He certainly proved that Friday night in Davies Symphony Hall. He tends to overcue a bit, seeming to trust nothing to chance. But that's all right when the finite bits of articulation and balance were so detailed.

I cannot remember hearing this work — nor even excerpts from it — so precisely and cogently presented. On top of that, Dutoit obviously has a keen sensibility for the pictorial elements and dramatic impact. It left me wondering why he has not devoted more of his career to opera, which seems like a natural fit with his talents.
Singers of Note
Of the soloists, the largest contribution came from the amazing Willard White. Not only does he have the artistic sensibility and vocal power for the Mephisto, but he could also mime bits of the action, and not infrequently with humor. As he was singing the song about fleas, White stared down at his left arm for an instant, then reached over to pick off an imaginary flea, pinch it, throw it to the floor, and crush it underfoot — singing beautifully all the while. He also varied vocal colorations brilliantly, from utter charm to menace, and then to malice. (Of course, anyone who saw him as the Grim Reaper in the San Francisco Opera's production of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre would not have been surprised.)

Romanian Donose, a petite woman, also sang the ideal portrait of Marguerite. Hers is a light, youthful voice that achieved an excellent impression of innocence, even in the latter part of the work when her lines are elegiac. The fact that she's so good-looking didn't harm the portrait one bit. I was also impressed by the musicality, as well as the vocalism, of baritone Feigum. His was a brief role, done with excellent artistry.

The one disappointing soloist turned out to be tenor Kunde as Faust. He was prone to force his voice in the "Anything you can sing, I can sing louder" tradition. That was surprising considering his impressive list of accomplishments in major European and American venues. The inevitable result of such immature antics was that his high register sounded raw, and not infrequently, scratchy. Quiet passages fared well, but it's really not necessary to try to reach sidewalk traffic on Van Ness outside the hall.

Otherwise, all went well. Choruses and orchestra brimmed with elegance, and where necessary, powerful dynamics. The delicacy of the orchestra during the pastel Ballet des Sylphes was ravishing, the deliberately ugly fugal parody of an Amen chorus perfectly irreverent. And those two children's choirs, singing from memory (as usual), was a little hard to fathom. How kids that young can be that musical confounds me. Of course, Berlioz' rigid nonconformity was not kind to them. The poor kids had to wait backstage for nearly two hours, before marching in for the last few minutes of Faust.

The whole thing was captivating. Now, about L'enfance du Christ, Berlioz' other great oratorio. We can only hope for future programming.

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.