Thursday, March 29, 2012

Columbus Symphony: Spotted Snakes and Summer Nights

The Columbus Symphony performs the incidental music to a A Midsummer Night's Dream, Berlioz song cycle Les Nuits d'ete and his three choruses, Tristia March 30 and 31 at 8 and Sunday, April 1 at 3-Southern Theater.

Saturday night's performance is broadcast live over Classical 101. FM, on line

Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Alisa Jordheim, soprano and Michele Losier, mezzo-soprano

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

I first heard the Berlioz six songs for voice and orchestra, Les Nuits d'ete about 175 years ago during my college years. One fast song, four slow ones and a fast finale. Complicated French poetry. One voice. no chorus, no blood, no splash and dash. I was unimpressed.

Oh to be young and stupid! Oh to be (much) older and less stupid! The Berlioz cycle has become an obsession in recent weeks. I welcome the chance to hear it live--again.

Berlioz was in his thirties when he prepared these songs for voice and piano. The orchestration followed in 1856. Jose van Dam made a fine recording of the set with pianist Jean-Phillipe Collard. I'd like to hear these sung by Bryn Terfel or Juan Diego Florez or Jonas Kaufman. But the women have truly owned the cycle. Odd, since Berlioz initially wanted at least four different singers and voice types to share the wealth.

Theophile Gautier's poetry is rich, hedonistic, suggestive and more than a little perfumed. Literally. The second song Le spectre de la rose is a narrative by the ghost of the rose "you wore last night at the ball." Said rose so rich, so glorious, good enough only to adorn "her".

Upon the alabaster where I rest
A poet has written with a kiss:
Here lies all rose
Which kings could envy

In the final song, L'Ile inconnu, The Unknown Island-she (the eternal she?) is offered a boat with sails of pure silk, to sail to Java, or the coast of Norway, or the Baltic, or the Pacific, or to the coast of love-a coast still unknown

Berlioz liked it big. He was no minimalist, not even in his many melodies. (Zaide is practically a mad scene.) The combination of Berlioz' grandeur and Gautier's sensuality is, well...let's just say its a borderline healthy obsession I'm having with these songs, and if you think Le spectre de la rose is about a flower, think again.

We have the bonus this weekend of hearing the three choruses making up Tristia (sadness is not suggested). Berlioz published this collection in 1852. The three were written separately, between 1831 and 1844. There's a wordless song inspired by the final scene of Hamlet, a setting of Gertrude's lament for the drowned Ophelia, and the opening Meditation religeuse to poetry by Tom Moore. Why don't we hear Tristia more often? Especially the Mort Ophelie with its long melodic lines and dark harmony, this music doesn't try to be grand and operatic, but simple, direct and heartfelt.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Mendelssohn's name was made by his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream written at age 17 when the young man was well into his career as a pianist, conductor and composer. Eventually the young man landed a prestigious gig as musikdirektor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. He came to the attention of the King of Prussia, who loved music and Shakespeare. The Bard had already infiltrated the opera house with Bellini and several lesser lights-Verdi was to come, so was the young Wagner (Die Feen) and more Berlioz. His Majesty wanted music for a production of Shakespeare's Sommernachtstraum to be staged at his palace.

Felix Mendelssohn obliged with music that almost-I said almost-eclipses Shakespeare in its humor and seductiveness. Mendelssohn added the overture he had written fifteen years earlier and his success was complete. The strings and high winds prance for Puck and his cohorts-and we all know the sumptuous march at the heart of the score:

Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts these concerts, with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Ronald Jenkins, conductor)

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