Saturday, February 8, 2020

Stature over statuettes: ISO guest conductor generates a mighty 'Symphonie fantastique,' rising soprano is illuminating

How far in advance a Classical Series program dominated by Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique" was scheduled on Oscar weekend isn't known to me, but it was a masterstroke on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra season.

The work carries a scenario of cinematic breadth and intensity. It's a landmark in the repertoire, an amazing composer debut in the symphony form, which Hector Berlioz shattered here and subsequently. In the same decade Berlioz departed this life, another norm-busting French composer entered it: Claude Debussy once said there was no excuse for the symphony after Beethoven's Ninth. At the tender age of 27, Berlioz anticipated that sentiment, embodying it uniquely in "Symphonie fantastique."

The imaginative transformation of a love affair suffused with idealism (and eventually to result in a disappointing marriage), the Fantastic Symphony set the stage for a host of "symphonic poems" and more formally conventional works that fulfilled the promise of romanticism throughout the 19th century. Narratively scrupulous pieces of minor importance, such as Dvorak's "Noonday Witch" and "The Water Goblin," are still worth hearing, and for even more literalism, sometimes overstuffed and vaunting, there's a host of viable Richard Strauss pieces.

Marc Albrecht makes his ISO conducting debut this weekend.
The Berlioz stands out not only for its pioneering status, but also because it seems to predict cinematic techniques, from panorama to close-up. It is both a character study and a fever-dream, and that's how it came across Friday night. It goes beyond the picturesque, and it overmasters any conceivable movie version. It subsumes the very idea of representation that movie scoring must serve.

It was last heard here nearly five years ago, in a dramatically highlighted interpretation led by Jun Märkl. Friday night's was under the baton of an ISO-debut guest conductor, Marc Albrecht. It had a somewhat more introspective cast and broadened its horizons almost hesitantly in approaching the tumult of the last two movements, "March to the Scaffold" and "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath." "Scene in the Country," a slow movement that can seem finicky and tedious in uninspired hands, held the suspense that had been generated by the first two movements; much of the credit must go to Roger Roe's plaintive English-horn soloing.

Is there to be fulfillment of the lover's irrepressible passion? Well, as just about everyone knows, the upshot is conclusively the opposite – a hell of murderous rage and nightmarish retribution. It's movie music avant le lettre — movie music that doesn't need a movie, whose sound blends both visual and psychological components.

Berlioz himself might be the subject of a biopic, but it probably wouldn't be a good one. How many of them are? I can see an actor capable of rendering outward a clutch of internal torments, someone like Jude Law, who was so good as Thomas Wolfe in "Genius." It would have to be an actor capable of making the composer's outbursts believable, someone who could put genuine passion into such incidents as the time Berlioz, in the audience for a performance of "Der Freischutz," stood up and shouted: "You don't want two flutes there, you brutes. You want two piccolos. Two piccolos, do you hear? Oh, the brutes!"

Julia Bullock got inside the Rimbaud/Britten mystery.
Harold Schonberg relates the tale in his "Lives of the Great Composers," along with Berlioz's account of the difficulty of writing prose, which he did superbly, yet often staring at a blank sheet of paper that seemed to refuse his every effort to begin: "I felt simply overcome by despair. There was a guitar standing against the table. With one kick I smashed it in the center." Two pistols hanging on the chimney seemed to tempt him to a final rash act, Berlioz goes on. "At last, like a schoolboy who cannot do his homework, I tore my hair and wept with furious indignation." Berlioz was someone who wrote his life, while living it, in lurid colors. Fortunately, he was able to render some of that in music that has captured imaginations ever since.

Not being subject to an editor's deadlines or the rages of genius, I will press on here, wanting to recommend tonight's repeat of the program, especially for the performance of Julia Bullock in Benjamin Britten's song cycle, "Les Illuminations." This song cycle, an ingenious setting with string-orchestra accompaniment of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud, brought from the young American soprano an interpretation that seemed to make the weird imagery sensible and emotionally compelling. Just as he would in the Berlioz, especially with the strings, Albrecht showed a knack for drawing out significant phrasing. The accompaniment thus became as expressive as the vocal line, which Bullock projected with clarity and urgency.

The program opened with "Le Tombeau de Couperin," a masterpiece for small orchestra by Maurice Ravel. Its four cunningly shaped movements are notable for the sonorously noble and vivid wind writing (chiefly solo oboe, beautifully played by Jennifer Christen). It was as if Albrecht was able to present as a calling card his careful but lively ability to manage how instrumental choirs balance and offset one another in well-designed music. Ravel was a more polished craftsman than Berlioz, but the interpretive elan so useful in the later work was not out of place in rendering the special, red-carpet Fantastic Symphony that followed intermission.

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