Sunday, December 09, 2007

Fantastique Friday 2: Hector Berlioz

The greatest autobiography written by a musician has to be "The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz," which were first given a good English translation in 1969 by David Cairns, who went on to write a recently published, massive two-volume biography of the composer's life.

The autobiography's first paragraph is as follows:
"I was born on 11th December 1803 in La Cote Saint-Andre, a very small French town. During the months which preceded my birth my mother never dreamt, as Virgil's did, that she was about to bring forth a laurel branch, Nor, I must add--however painful the admission to my vanity--did she imagine she bore within her a brand of fire, like Olympias the mother of Alexander. This is extraordinary, I agree, but it is true. I came into the world quite normally, unheralded by any of the portents in use in poetic times to announce the arrival of those destined for glory. Can it be that our age is lacking in poetry?"

The 600-page tome just gets better, and funnier, from there.

In the last San Francisco Symphony concerts before Davies Hall turns into a Christmas Factory, Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra, chorus and three male soloists in Berlioz's early works, the 1830 "Symphonie Fantastique" and the rare, incidental music from 1832 to "Lelio," which is a play about the artist going from The Abyss to Transcendence through love.

For some reason, they played the two pieces ass-backwards with "Lelio" first and the "Symphonie Fantastique" after the intermission.

The soloists were wonderful, especially tenor Stanford Olsen, whose Fisherman's aria at the beginning of "Lelio" was so beautiful that the audience applauded the singer before MTT had a chance to move on to the next movement.

Also fun was Dwayne Croft, last seen as Robert E. Lee at the San Francisco Opera in "Appomattox" singing a "Brigands' Song" over a huge male chorus and orchestra.

After the intermission, where everyone wandered around ogling the giant Christmas trees in the lobby...

...Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in the famous "Symphonie Fantastique" (you know some of the music whether you're aware of it or not).

Unfortunately, I had forgotten how much I hate most of MTT's conducting of Berlioz. He smooths out all the weird parts, gets lost in the details, and doesn't seem to follow any overall structure. In other words, he does the unforgivable, which is to make Berlioz boring. I feel rather bad about writing this, since my free ticket was provided by the press department at the symphony, which is rather like being invited to someone's home for a lovely dinner and then spending the evening talking about how bad the food is. So take this curmudgeonly minority opinion for what it's worth, and since the
performances were being filmed for the "Keeping Score" PBS series, you can make up your own mind when it's released on DVD.


Lisa Hirsch said...

You had a press ticket? Wow - as a blogger? I had no idea that could be done.

Civic Center said...

Dear Lisa: The fabulous Cedric Westphal over at the SFist blog has been getting press tickets for at least a year. There's no set policy with any of the cultural groups right now as we seem to be in a transitional moment of shrinking newspapers and blossoming online networks.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'm (still) reading the Cairns biography, which I recommend very highly. I probably should have read the memoirs first and then read the bio as sort of a corrective, but such was not to be. I was at Thursday's concert, so I'll post on it in, oh, a month or so, at the rate I'm going, though my severe cold does seem to be going away. I think I liked the Symphonie better than you did. They crammed us all in for the filming in the front row, but I doubt I was looking appropriately enraptured enough to end up in the film, but we shall see.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Mike, WOW, and thank you!!

jadesnow said...

Hi Mike, My friend and I attended the Saturday performance so we missed all the hoopla of the robotic camera, etc.
Your comment about MTT not following overall structure strike a chord with me...I have been listening to Sir Colin Davis version of Lelio with Jose Carreras. In the last movement of Shakespeares "The Tempest", the music ends with a roaring finale and then there should be a moment of silence before the idee fixe comes back in. Did you noticed that it was left out? Was that intentional because MTT thought that most people would clap andd therefore eliminated it altogether?

Civic Center said...

Dear jadesnow: I have no idea because I'd never heard the "Lelio" music before (which I loved), and can't remember the finale from the one performance I saw. I did know the "Symphonie Fantastique," however, and it was just all wrong.