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If This Be Madness

Photo courtesy of L.A. Philharmonic

The sounds of Hector Berlioz and the shape of Walt Disney Concert Hall are a perfect match. It was fitting, therefore, that the Philharmonic’s three wondrous weeks celebrating this most certifiably mad of certifiably sane composers should thunder to their close last weekend with a dizzying photomontage: a 90 or so seconds’ sweep across the two centuries since Berlioz’s birth that took in the invention of the railroad and a few other gadgets, a couple of world wars, Adolf Hitler, Marilyn Monroe and the building of Disney Hall — a proper visual counterpart to the comparably dizzying final pages of the Symphonie Fantastique. Alors!

The celebration of Berlioz’s 200th birthday, which involved our two major performing forces at the top of their form, was an altogether creditable event; I don’t know of a better parlay of Berlioz celebration and top-grade performance anywhere else, here or abroad. At the Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen was the hero of heroes, beginning with his glowing reading of L’Enfance du Christ two Christmases ago and continuing this past month with three programs that mingled familiar works with valuable, less-known music, and also with intelligent parings of “problem” scores with which, it pains me to inform you, the Berlioz legacy teems. (Still to come, in late May, is the mighty Requiem, the Grande Messe des Morts. Its scheduling collides with the Ojai Festival, but it is an inevitable event even so. You have to believe that our new concert hall was conceived with the sound and shape — four brass bands! four choruses!! drums as far as the eye can see!!! — of this Berliozian lollapalooza in mind.) Alongside these Philharmonic wonders was the L.A. Opera’s spectacular treatment of La Damnation de Faust, all aglow with director/designer Achim Freyer’s proof — above evidence clumsily proffered at San Francisco and at other companies here and there — that Berlioz’s quirky concert piece can work brilliantly onstage. The L.A. Opera, by the way, is supposed to be readying a DVD of that terrific achievement; watch the skies.

Disney Hall, as I was saying, was put on Earth to house the sound of Berlioz. Here was a composer, after all, who knew the value not only of the grand roar but also of the near-silence. The sad shepherd’s piping in the slow movement of the Fantastique seemed encased at Disney in a silence you could caress. One of the great Berlioz silences comes at the end of the “Funeral March for the Last Scene of Hamlet,” which concludes the little suite called Tristia (“sad pieces”) that Salonen revived out of nowhere on the second program: solemn brass and a wordless chorus retreating upon Horatio’s “Go, bid the soldiers shoot . . .” Alas, on the first night, a medical occurrence in a balcony ruined part of the moment; friends who were there the next night reported the “silence” as awesome. It’s a wonderful eight-minute piece, by the way, surely the best “unknown” work brought out of obscurity for the festival.

But then there were the racketings that the new hall’s welcoming spaces made clear as I had never heard them made clear before: Romeo screaming his song of sorrow in rude counterpoint against the Capulets’ party music in the nicely rearranged pastiche that Salonen had made out of Roméo et Juliette; the tocsins of doom at the end of the Fantastique, with not just dinky chimes but huge, hall-shaking brass bells perhaps swiped from some nearby cathedral. Harold in Italy is one of those “problem” pieces, rather given to chasing its own tale at times, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard so exquisite a balance as Salonen achieved this time between its viola soloist — the splendid young Nokuthula Ngwenyama — and Berlioz’s bulldozer orchestra.

Anne Sofie von Otter was radiantly on hand for the Nuits d’Été song cycle, the one work of Berlioz that nobody doesn’t like; she also sang the long solo in the Roméo, where Salonen had the good sense to separate the two alike stanzas with other music from that difficult work. Another intelligent touch was the inclusion of the lovely Mort d’Ophélie in its two versions, the one as sung by von Otter as a solo with piano, and the other, a week later, by a women’s chorus as part of Tristia. And another smart move was to include Berlioz’s essay on the Beethoven Ninth in the program book for a concert the week before the festival. It certainly cast a stronger light on that masterwork than did the performance under Zubin Mehta.

 

By now you may be wondering about that photomontage, and well you might. It happened at the third and final program of the Berlioz wingding, when Salonen joined forces with the excellent British media group Complicite (spelled without the accent but pronounced “complicity”; those Brits!), who had created a marvelous theater piece around a Shostakovich quartet at UCLA in 2002. With Complicite’s narrators, singers and filmmakers in tow, the matter at hand was not only the Symphonie Fantastique — for which Berlioz had, after all, spelled out a grandiose scenario involving drugs, demons and diverse dalliances — but also Lélio, the sequel, in which the “hero” returns to life, metamorphoses into a narrator and an MC for a concert program with singers, chorus, piano and orchestra, and has further hallucinations, mostly involving himself as Hamlet. Okay so far?

Well, now, it has been the pleasure of Complicite’s Simon McBurney and his troupe to turn things upside down, starting with the order of events itself — Lélio being, at best, rather weak tea to follow the wild churnings at the end of the Fantastique’s Witches’ Sabbath. Musically, therefore, the reversal worked just fine: The collection of Lélio’s small pretties — a fisherman’s ballade here, some jolly brigands there — were soon dashed from the memory by the surging, marvelously colored Fantastique that has now become one of Salonen’s great properties. Visually, however, the reversal process didn’t work so well. The stage pictures for Lélio were okay, sort of, although McBurney’s painstaking delivery of Berlioz’s words — one of those superheated Romantic “Who am I who seeks and doth not find?” affairs — could have used the pruning shears. (I’m probably spoiled by the old Jean-Louis Barrault recording, with Boulez conducting, a doozy!) The projected imagery for the Fantastique seemed to consist mostly of one man fighting off sleep. He couldn’t have been listening to the Salonen performance.

But then, at the end, there came that grand whoopee, wherein sight and sound did for each other exactly what each has needed lo these 200 years, superfast and superswell. Who’s crazy now?


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