Tag Archives: Berlioz

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.

A Study in Contrasts, Soprano Kate Aldrich

Mezzo-Soprano Kate Aldrich
Hannaford Hall
May 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich strode on stage at Hannaford Hall Saturday night, wearing a spectacular red dress, and proceeded to sing of love, death and suicide.

Germanic weltschmertz was appropriate for a singer who has made “Werther” her own, but the significance of the dress was revealed only in the second half of the concert, when she offered up a gloriously sultry version of the Habanera from “Carmen.” another signature role, which she sang at PORTopera (now Opera Maine) in 2005 and at the Met in 2010.

The contrast exemplified the singer’s extraordinary versatility, from Richard Srauss’ schadenfreude to Leonard Bernstein’s cleverness—in the little-known aria “What a Movie” from, “Trouble in Tahiti” (1952)— and a contemporary art-and-philosophy monolog from “Master Class” by Jake Heggie (2007). Both sketches also revealed her considerable acting talent.

She demonstrated a formidable coloratura in virtuoso arias by Rossini: “Riedi al Soglio” from “Zelmira” and the encore “Una Voce Poco Fa,” from “The Barber of Seville.” One can visualize a Rossini diva begging on her knees for such a display piece from the master. A friend aptly compared Aldrich’s fluidity in these to the elaborate and often improvised ornamentation of Chopin’s piano scores.

While I dearly love Strauss’ compositions on the theme of eros and thanatos, I came to the concert to hear the songs of Berlioz, whose small output in the genre is one of the towering landmarks of classical music. (Perhaps his pathetic portrayal of flowery drowning in “La Mort d’ophelia” influenced Strauss.)

One of my treasured vinyl recordings is the Berlioz song cycle “Les Nuits D’été,” sung by Eleanor Steber. Aldrich’s evocations of “The Captive,” and “Zaide” were its equal in every way. I wish I could hear her sing “L’Isle Inconnue,” the finest musical portrait of sailing ever written.

Speaking of sailing, Maine makes much of its artistic sons and daughters, out of a sort of provincial chauvinism. This is true of Aldrich, who was born in Damariscotta, but she doesn’t need any special dispensation. She might equally well have been born in Paris or Vienna. Her talent transcends borders.

Her accompanist, Martin Perry, born in California, also makes his home in Maine, but is in demand everywhere. HIs work seems to bring out the best in any singer, setting the stage perfectly, without dictating a note. Perry is also a genius at piano solo, to which anyone hearing his performance of the Samuel Barber piano concerto with the PSO can testify.

The Aldrich concert is one of a series of events leading up to Opera Maine’s performance of “La Traviata,” July 26 and 28. The next will be a gala celebration at Westin Portland Harborview on June 8.

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

A Musical Enormity: PSO Tackles the Berlioz Te Deum

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 11, 2015

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: “A work crowded with incident, I see, but somewhat too loud for Merrill Auditorium.” The Berlioz Te Deum, performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra before a large audience on Sunday, Oct. 11, is the 19th Century equivalent of a boombox. A few minutes more and the result would have been mass hearing loss.

During the final Judex crederis (the last judgement), tenor René Barbera, who has a rich, powerful voice that could fill La Scala, was totally drowned out by the massed forces of a full orchestra (with plenty of harps), the Kotzschmar Organ, played by Ray Cornils, and three large choruses-—the Masterworks Chorus of the Choral Art Society, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and members of Shannon Chase’s Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

The Te Deum begins with orchestra and organ exchanging fortissimo chords like the blows of heavyweight boxers at the beginning of a bout, and continues that way until all parties, including the audience, are exhausted.

There are a few respites, most notably the great tenor solo in Te ergo quaesumus, but for the most part Berlioz simply tries unsuccessfully to outdo, in volume and cataclysmic dramatics, his opening passage.

The composer gives the organ every opportunity to demonstrate its magnificence—the first performance, in 1855, commemorated the installation of a new organ at the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, during that year’s World’s Fair—but is much less successful in the few pensive moments of the score, when the chosen organ stops sound like background music at a funeral parlor. An organ always sounds like an organ, no matter what its maker is trying to imitate.

There is not much attempt to differentiate the choruses, although the children’s voices and Vox Nova stood out at times, and there were some characteristic Berlioz effects, such as an unusual interaction between the brass choir and the basses. There was also a fine, distinctive Latinate chant in the Christie, rex gloriae.

The entire Te Deum was beautifully performed, by all parties, but as Ravel said of his Bolero, ”unfortunately, it is not music.” Still, like a performance of the Bolero, the audience, this writer included, enjoyed it immensely, as evidenced by a prolonged standing ovation.

I urge anyone who can do so, to get a ticket for Tuesday night’s (Oct. 13) performance. This is music that can only be experienced live, and it will probably not be heard again in Maine for a very long time.

Music director Robert Moody paired the Te Deum with a charming performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, emphasizing its similarities with the work of his predecessors. The minuet movement, which is supposed to mark Beethoven’s break with tradition, sounded like something straight from the pages of Haydn.

I mention this about the symphony only because it was so odd: a pizzicato note from the violin section before Moody indicated the downbeat. The first time was merely a regrettable error, but it happened again before the minuet. Not enough to spoil anything, but a little intrusive nevertheless, and perhaps rattling to other musicians.

A Spectacular Opening for the Portland Symphony Season

The first concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Oct.11 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, promises to be a study in contrasts. The two major works on the program will be the Beethoven Symphony No. 1, another in the complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies now being performed by the PSO, and the Berlioz Te Deum, a study in gigantism that makes Louis Moreau Gottshalk’s concert piece for 64 pianos seem like child’s play.

The Beethoven, while it appeared to contemporaries a wild departure from the norms of Haydn and Mozart, has more similarities with than differences from the classic style. Like the first Beethoven piano sonata, it is a delightful piece, clearly in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, with just enough innovation to presage what would come later. Both works are characterized by delicacy and refinement, two adjectives not generally applied to Beethoven.

One wonders why Maestro Robert Moody decided on what seems to be an arbitrary sequence of the symphonies, instead of presenting them in chronological order to trace Beethoven’s evolution as a composer. He did not spring full-blown from the brow of Minerva.

The motivation behind the selection of the Berlioz Te Deum is clearer—the success of last year’s performance of his “Symphonie Fantastique.” There is also the completion of the multimillion-dollar restoration of the Kotzschmar organ.

Berlioz dreamed for two decades or more of a gigantic military symphony to celebrate a coronation, or a wedding, or a victory over the Prussians, but eventually had to settle for the opening of a Paris World’s Fair in 1855, complete with the christening of a new organ. (Hence the prominence of that instrument in the score, which might have influenced Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3.)

The sequence of movements more or less follows the form of the Latin mass sung on special occasions, with the composer’s own alterations. The orchestra and chorus at the premiere numbered either 900 or 950 (accounts vary).

Berlioz had the odd notion that a melody which might be rendered ordinary by a single voice would become sublime when sung by 50. He had been intrigued, during a visit to London, by a work sung by 6,500 “children of the poor,” and the Te Deum includes three distinct choruses—one a large children’s chorus— plus a tenor soloist.

For the PSO performance, the orchestra will be joined by tenor René Barbera, the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Choral Art Society and members of the Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

It should be quite a spectacle, enough to hold one’s interest for 45 minutes (even without the two sections reserved for military performances).