It’s something of a cliché to say that music “transports” us—but like most clichés, this one has lasted because it contains a kernel of truth. Tonight’s all-French program—bracketed by two popular orchestral spectaculars especially suited to launch the season—confirms music’s power to take us on a journey. In fact, the three works take us on three (or perhaps four) very different kinds of journey.
We open with an instance of musical time travel: the Bacchanale by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). An excerpt from the third act of the opera Samson and Delilah (completed in 1877), it represents the celebration of the Philistine priests after Samson has been seduced, betrayed, and captured. Saint-Saëns didn’t engage in historical research to assure that his score reflected authentic musical techniques from biblical times; but from the sinuous opening on the first oboe, he did employ a series of stock “orientalist” gestures that, for European listeners of the time, evoked both the ancient and the Near Eastern. Because of this conventionalized exoticism, the Bacchanale is sometimes charged with being tawdry—but those accusations quickly pale as we are swept away by the music’s sheer intoxication. As conductor Larry Loh puts it, “It’s a perfect curtain-raiser. It begins so mysteriously, without tempo, and ends so far in the opposite direction.” This performance will make the most of that intoxication. “Although it’s not indicated in the score,” says Larry, “there is a natural acceleration that just happens when you let it go, and that’s something that I absolutely encourage. It gives it a Where the Wilds Things Are kind of feeling.”
If the first work offers time travel, the closer offers what we might call psychological travel. Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote the Symphonie Fantastique simultaneously as a love letter and as an act of revenge. He had fallen in love with Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson after seeing her play Ophelia in 1827, but she refused to answer his impassioned letters. In the semi-autobiographical Symphonie Fantastique, he describes, musically, the state of mind of a love-sick man: his initial obsession, his attempt to commit suicide by taking opium, and the resulting delirium during which he imagines being executed for murdering her and dreams of attending a witches’ sabbath over which she presides. (The full details of the music’s program are printed in an insert). You might not think such a work would fuel an effective courtship, but when Smithson heard the symphony in 1832, she was so taken with Berlioz’s genius that she agreed to marry him. A happy ending to the story? Hardly. The marriage failed, and the couple split up.
The Symphonie Fantastique stands, with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, as one of the most radical works in the 19th century. In part, that’s because of the programmatic element. There had been program symphonies before (for instance, Beethoven’s Pastorale), but nothing with the density of detail of this one. The Symphonie Fantastique inaugurated a whole new way of thinking about musical representation, a way that led to Liszt’s and Strauss’s tone poems. This programmatic aim had major formal consequences. To represent his protagonist’s romantic obsession, Berlioz unified his work with a thematic obsession, using he called a musical “idée fixe”—a long and searching theme, with irregular phrase patterns, representing the beloved. It first appears in the opening allegro, but it shows up in altered forms in all five movements. Thus, in the second movement, it appears as a feathery waltz vision as the hero glimpses her at a ball; in the fourth, it appears as a brief memory just before the hero is executed. Most striking, and most spiteful, is its distorted, ugly appearance— initially screeched out by EI clarinet and piccolo—in the finale. Here it comes up against a parody of the plainchant melody for the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), part of the Catholic Requiem Mass—providing what Larry calls one of the repertoire’s most exciting and terrifying conclusions. (The Dies Irae theme, by the way, was taken up by many other composers as well. It is especially important in Rachmaninoff’s music, including the Symphonic Dances, which will be featured on our next Masterworks concert).
More influential than the Symphonie Fantastique’s program and its formal innovation, though, is Berlioz’s daring orchestration. No previous symphony in the repertoire used such massive forces, not only in the brass section (more than a third again as large as that in the Beethoven Ninth) but also in the percussion. Until then, orchestral color had generally been at most a decoration; for Berlioz, color—and that includes off-stage placement of instruments at key moments—takes on an importance equal to melody, harmony, and rhythm. The score is filled with all kinds of timbral effects, both splashy and subtle. The most grotesque sounds are heard in the riotous finale—but the most haunting is arguably the evocation of distant thunder by four timpanists at the end of the slow movement. The score challenges orchestra and conductor with its tricky balances—and not always in the most evident places. Larry points to the second movement, “A Ball,” which has two independent harp parts, but is otherwise modestly scored. “It’s one of the hardest things for an orchestra to play well: to have the right spirit, to have the harps in perfect sync.”
In between these two sonic spectaculars is a piece with a very different ambience: the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), which gives the concert what Larry calls some “modernity, a feeling of diversity of sound.” It’s a more lighthearted piece, reflecting a more literal kind of musical travel. Poulenc wrote it in 1932—and part of his inspiration, most evident at the end of the first movement, was the Balinese gamelan he had heard at a Parisian exposition the year before. Yet this piece offers more than mere geographical musical tourism. As our soloists, twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton, point out, it’s a stylistic trip, too, as the music “travels all around” from Mozartian melody to Prokofiev to that gamelan music. The results, they say, capture the composer’s personality more than many pieces do—in particular, the way his “sense of humor is combined with sophistication.” And the spirit of the piece—the “witty conversation, the humor of the dialogue”—is liable to be especially evident tonight. Because the Naughtons have played the piece so often, and because they know each other so well, they can tease each other with a kind of “in-the-moment spontaneity.” Larry has conducted them in this work before, and he’s in awe of their teamwork: “It’s astounding how perfectly they communicate.”
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org