Much of Berlioz’s orchestral output is ‘program music,’ that is, music that purports to describe something or to tell a story. Some people loathe this kind of thing, and I understand why. Depending on how you like to listen to music, being asked to imagine a little story while you’re listening can be irritating. My solution to this problem is often just to ignore the ‘program.’
I always forget how much depth live performances have, just in terms of the spacing of the sound. In this instance there were also a few extra sounds that I could have done without, e.g. all the people clapping between the movements of Harold in Italy. On the other hand, Chicago’s symphony hall managers did something very clever which was to place a large container of cough drops in the foyer. Have you ever noticed how there is always, always someone who basically coughs up a lung either between movements of pieces or during the applause? I have no idea who these people are, but they appear to be over-represented in concert audiences. Or perhaps as a perennially healthy person I am being unfair. Anyway, handing out free cough drops is actually a very good idea and the managers of the theater are to be commended for coming up with it.
The Corsair overture, Op. 31 is not something I have heard before. What struck me about it — what usually strikes me about Berlioz — is that you get these little melodic patterns in his various pieces that are very distinct and very Berliozy and don’t sound like anyone else. I like them.
This was followed by two sections of Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17. Here is where I have to put my foot down and state that I loathe actors. This is relevant to Berlioz because whoever did the programming for this concert decided to inject some extra background information by way of having two actors read sections of Shakespeare’s play so as to provide the program for the program music.
On the face of it, this makes a certain sort of sense. Not all of us do the reading beforehand. I will admit that I did not do the reading beforehand – I have not read Romeo and Juliet since high school. But I was punished for this by being made to sit through not only Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab (for the ‘Queen Mab, the dream fairy’ section of the piece) but also some dialogue that wasn’t even by Shakespeare, specifically a re-write of the tomb scene by an individual named Garrick who decided it would be really brilliant if Romeo and Juliet got to have a little conversation before their deaths about how sad it all was. It is on this re-write of Shakespeare that the ‘Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets’ section of Berlioz’s piece is based.
Now, I am not anti-Shakespeare. I think Shakespeare is great. I like to see his plays performed. I have taught some of them to undergraduates and we had a pretty good time. But I do not want snippets of them in my orchestra concerts. Especially if they are snippets of material that is not actually by Shakespeare in the first place.
So. Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17.
I liked the ‘Queen Mab’ bit — there were some nice sounds with the harps (Berlioz had it on for harps in a big way) and the percussion. It’s fairly typical Berlioz orchestral writing: it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of intellectual depth, but it has a lot of charm and expressive force and it’s terrific fun. Berlioz has this way of coming to a balance on a single note and then leaping onward that always makes me smile.
What I noticed about ‘Romeo at the tomb of the Capulets’ was a series of exposed sections of one or a few instruments (e.g. a clarinet solo near the beginning) that have some significant space between them. This is something that if not put together right in terms of conducting is going to sound disjointed and fairly strange. This performance of it did not sound either disjointed or strange, but I would have to hear the piece a few more times to say anything more specific than that.
I am more familiar with Harold in Italy, Op. 16. This sounded pretty good (the violist is Lawrence Power). It is not the best performance of it that I have ever heard in my life, but I certainly enjoyed it. I always forget how distinct the tone quality of a viola is, and Power got some nice sounds out of his. The intonation wasn’t always perfect, and in the second movement (the ‘march of the pilgrims’) the arpeggios were not perfectly even — but then again, a section of perfectly articulated arpeggios that are also expressive and in conversation with the orchestra is a fairly tall order. The beginning of this second movement placed a lot more emphasis on the plod of the march than I’m used to – you could hear very clearly the pilgrims putting one foot in front of the other. It got more elegant as the piece went on, though, and that final tone from the orchestra with the harmonic on the viola was perfect.
Power got a standing ovation at the end, but this doesn’t actually tell you much because I have noticed that pretty much everyone gets a standing ovation all the time. I try not to bow to social pressure and stand up unless I really think the performance was stunningly wonderful, but I may have to end my one-woman campaign against ovation creep so as not to look like a jerk.