SF Symphony: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Berlioz, with Sasha Cooke, mezzo, and Jonathan Vinocour, viola

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Sasha Cooke, Mezzo Soprano. Photo Nick Granito.

Sasha Cooke, Mezzo Soprano. Photo Nick Granito.

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Michael Tilson Thomas, Conducting
Sasha Cooke, Mezzo-Soprano
Jonathan Vinocour, Viola

Berlioz, Roman Carnival Overture, Opus 9 (1844)
Les Nuits d’Ete, Opus 7 (1843/1855/1856)
Harold In Italy, Opus 16 (1834)

With the conclusion of last week’s Symphony performances, the official concert year in San Francisco has come to a vivid but unexpected close. Normally, at this time of year, one anticipates listening to a monumental end-of-season work, but logistical difficulties this time prevented the orchestra from putting on Berlioz’s elaborate dramatic symphony, Romeo et Juliette. Not to worry!

The Symphony audience was ultimately none the worse for its finale, experiencing instead Les Nuits d’Été and the still insufficiently heralded Harold in Italy, in fine performances served up by MTT, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and violist Jonathan Vinocour. A snappy rendition of the Roman Carnival Overture began the proceedings, highlighted by Russ deLuna’s unusually characterful English horn.

The works of Hector Berlioz appear eminently suited to the musical personality of Michael Tilson Thomas. There is something almost American in the French composer’s recipe of dash, irreverence, eccentricity and ultimate classicism. And there is an emotional reserve in the music which, despite its wildness, never crosses the line from cooly observed romantic feeling into sentimentality.

Sasha Cooke walked this particular rail beautifully in Les Nuits d’Été. Her delivery of gentle cadences was especially supple, sincere and effective. Many a Berlioz song ends softly on a two syllable adjective, with emphasis on the last syllable, as is common in French. The text of L’Absence is a case in point. In English translation, nouns usually conclude a line of French poetry, and this tends to make of it a blunter experience for the reader than the original. But issues of poetic translation aside, the San Francisco audience was fortunately listening in French—and privileged to hear the artistry of Miss Cooke and her beautifully balanced voice. More, please!

Michael Tilson Thomas often seems uncomfortable in the brooding world of German sonorities, preferring Mahler’s sometimes sarcastic variant of them, but with Berlioz, he can somersault past most such musical expression. Compared with the intimate earnestness of Schumann or the romantic feeling in early Brahms, Berlioz is really in some ways emotionally closer to Mendelssohnian reserve, yet his sparely orchestrated harmonies, irregular phrases and unexpected rhythms seem today to reach far beyond their era, to challenge and prefigure Bruckner, Stravinsky, Janacek or even Webern, whose Im Sommerwind, for instance, makes use of the “dry” cymbal crashes pioneered by Berlioz to begin or end a phrase.

In this sense, Berlioz is like Haydn. Sheer cleverness, innovation and energy make him modern—and substitute for one’s being moved. And high spirits and creatively kinetic technique, more than passionate melody, become the legacy.

Most composers project power by writing music which becomes thicker in texture as it gets louder. Whether we are listening to Beethoven’s Fifth or The Pines Of Rome, we usually feel the weight of a climactic moment by something heavy coming upon us. Artillery barrages rumble underfoot or monolithic phalanxes sweep us away. Berlioz is different. There may be no howitzers to knock you off your feet, but you’d better duck anyway. It is a lighter, more mobile kind of firepower, and just like modern warfare, it can be swift and deadly. Berlioz machine-guns the audience, and the crispness of the trumpet and timpani-fire pretty much determines who dies!

To his credit, Mr. Thomas understands this peculiar combination of nimbleness and power, and the listening public would do well to press him for a recording of Berlioz overtures, not to mention Harold in Italy, so stunningly performed by Jonathan Vinocour in the Wednesday performance I heard.

Every so often, a fine orchestra reveals its potential in the character of one of the principal players. I can only report that, if the violas of the San Francisco Symphony continue to internalize the velvet sonority Mr. Vinocour, its new Juillard and Princeton-educated leader, displayed last week, the potential of the section will be unlimited.

Harold In Italy is a somewhat unusual piece, and a bit prophetic of music to come. It is not hard to hear in its chromatic introduction a dry run for the Cesar Franck Symphony in d Minor, for instance. And I was struck, too, by how the “idee fixe” of the Symphonie Fantastique has evolved in Harold into something closer to Mussorgsky’s “Passepied” from Pictures at an Exhibition. The violist tends to complete phrases and sum things up as he goes along—in the Symphonie Fantastique, the Idée merely interrupts.

Like the Brahms Second Symphony, Harold in Italy has a long first movement with a repeat, but the repeat works, because the music itself is lively. Brahms miscalculated, I believe, in making so much of his repeated music slow and glutinous to begin with. Or, as I’ve suggested in an earlier review, perhaps we simply need to perform it faster!

No such problems affected this performance, however. The last thirty seconds of the first movement were as wonderful a machine-gun burst as I’ve ever heard in Berlioz! Mr. Thomas must have seriously rehearsed the passage to get it so tight. Indeed, this was not Charles Munch at the helm, but one would have almost thought so. Fortunately, the pilgrim’s march did not proceed at Munch’s dog trot, which always seemed a bit speedy for a crusade, but the serenade was beautifully voiced and colorful in the woodwinds, and the finale as filled with explosive mayhem as one might have wished. And as an aside, the offstage string quartet near the end was perfectly judged.

A parting thought about the theatricality of Hector Berlioz’ music. It is noteworthy that Berlioz, unlike some composers, doesn’t really take his musical “programs” very seriously. The Byronic element in Harold is mostly  an excuse for writing colorful music suggestive of crowds, disorder, pillage and rape—all cinematic with moral judgements presumably left out.

We have already pointed to the curiously weightless manner in which this composer projects power and the manic, restless way his music propels itself….. So, if it isn’t that much of a leap to ask, were Berlioz alive today, what sort of music would he write?

Symphonies? No doubt.

Songs? Surely.

Operas? Why not?

But if there is a composer out there who’d compose better music for “Road Runner” cartoons than Hector Berlioz, I don’t know of one!

Look up!  You are about to be flattened by an anvil!

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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