An Outstanding Symphonie Fantastique by the Midcoast

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique is one of the longest and most difficult works in the orchestral repertoire, and also one of the most exciting. Last night’s performance by the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra under Rohan Smith, was one of the best I have heard, and more dramatic than most.

The performance will be repeated this afternoon at the Orion Center for the Performing Arts in Topsham, and should not be missed. Live performances are few and far between, due to lack of resources, and the piece probably will not be scheduled next time you visit New York or Vienna, if you want to hear a comparable rendition.

Smith went for broke in evoking contrasts between movements and within them, reflecting the mercurial Romantic moods of the composer. He unified the structure by emphasis on the recurring “beloved” theme. The glorious waltz of the second movement, for example, almost degenerates, presaging what Ravel did with the form many years later.

The dialog between oboes —the English horn is a large oboe— in the third movement, set in the bucolic countryside, was perfection, with the horn soloist located about halfway up the incline of the Franco Center,  providing a sense of open space. The movement itself, suspended between delight and horror, is the essential interlude.

The final witches’ sabbath, following the famous scene in which the hero, having murdered his inamorata, imagines his affair with the guillotine, is one of the most colorful and imaginative in music. It has everything, from a supernatural flight of locusts, sul legno, (played with the wood of the violin bow), to the world’s most terrifying “Dies Irae” on the low brass.

Every section of the orchestra played admirably, but the percussion often took center stage, including the loudest drum roll I have ever heard.

Part of that effect was due to the addition of mallet percussionist Nathaniel Hackworth, to the battery.

Hackworth, from Presque Isle, is the winner of the MIdcoast’s first Judith Elser Concerto Competition, and just before intermission played the Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, Op. 27 of Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). The concerto, which Hackworth played brilliantly, sensitively supported by the orchestra, is jazzy and colorful, full of musical in-jokes. One passage, for example, is lifted verbatim from Stravinsky’s piano transcription of “Petrouschka,” where, for a few measures, the piano does sound very much like a marimba.

The orchestra warmed up with the delightful Prelude and Mazurka from “Coppélia” by Leo Délibes (1815-1910), which first got me interested in ballet many years ago. It immediately conjures up grande jetés by Nureyev.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.