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Rodney Punt

Rodney Punt

Posted: October 25, 2010 06:16 PM

When Richard Wagner, a brash young composer of then little distinction, attended one of the first performances of Hector Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette symphony in the Paris of 1839, he was knocked off his feet. It may have been in the work's love scene that he learned tonality could be a sometimes thing, to be stretched almost beyond recognition. It is highly unusual, for instance, to introduce a theme in A Major by setting up its harmony in C# Minor, but then again genius never likes to play by the rules, especially when it sets out to express the searching, irresolvable pangs of love.

Wagner would remember the encounter when he composed his own Tristan und Isolde twenty years later. The arching sixth leap and stepwise fallback leading to the Tristan chord comes directly from Berlioz's opening phrase of yearning in the Romeo Alone sequence of his symphony. When you remember that Wagner borrowed his famous chord from Franz Liszt, you have, in the span of a few measures in Tristan, the conjunction of the three greatest musical proponents of progressive Romanticism in the nineteenth-century.

Although the Los Angeles Philharmonic has never been known as a "French" orchestra, as was Charles Munch's Boston Symphony of the middle of the last century, or Charles Dutoit's Montreal Symphony in more recent decades, the orchestra has always been athletic, quick to learn and perform well in many styles. Under Esa-Pekka Salonen's leadership, it gained considerable skills in executing sharply gauged, pointillistic effects, so important in Gallic orchestral works.

Reports on last week's performance of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie under Gustavo Dudamel confirm the orchestra's superb execution of the twentieth-century French masterpiece. We should not be surprised, then, that it also excelled last Friday under the experienced hands of the Swiss-born Charles Dutoit in Roméo et Juliette. A quintessential conductor of French works, Dutoit had championed Berlioz at Montreal and recorded Roméo, a "dramatic symphony with solos and choruses" a quarter century ago to excellent reviews.

I was as impressed with this performance as I was disappointed 13 years ago in a similar one by the LAPO under the direction of Valery Gergiev. The otherwise fine Russian conductor had a willful, rough way with Berlioz on that occasion, a fatal approach; Roméo positively resists being manhandled. For all of its grand moments, the work is more characterized by a nuanced emotional climate, with subtly balanced colorations, ethereal effects, and quicksilver rhythms that must be finely gauged.

(To be fair and balanced, Gergiev excelled last Saturday afternoon with Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, which I caught in a live national broadcast from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.)

Roméo is a curious work, with operatic or cantata-like elements that can make it difficult to conceptualize and expensive to produce. It only briefly outlines the Shakespeare play's main scenes in vocal and choral statements prior to launching into purely orchestral reflections on its emotional highlights, and closing with a sermon and reconciliation scene between Friar Laurence and the warring Montagues and Capulets that he never engineered in the original Shakespeare.

Some puzzle as to why the work is called a symphony at all. The LA Phil's program booklet does not help matters when it organizes Roméo's sprawling episodes into three parts (as it did also in the program of the 1997 performance under Gergiev). Berlioz himself arranged the work in five parts, which Upbeat Live pre-concert lecturer Daniel Kessner correctly identified, to the confusion of the assembled who saw a three-part description in their programs.

Understood as the composer intended, and clearly outlined in his score, Roméo is a cyclic five-part work, containing a prologue and and a four-movement symphony, as detailed below:

I. Prologue (outlining and commenting on the story)
II. Andante, Allegro (Romeo alone, the Ball at the Capulets)
III. Slow Allegretto (the Love Scene)
IV. Scherzo, Andante, Allegro (Queen Mab, Juliet's Funeral, Tomb Scene)
V. Choral Finale (Families quarrel; Friar Laurence reconciles)

Once we grasp the work's master plan, rather than complain of Berlioz violating symphonic structure as many have in the two centuries since its premiere, we stand amazed that he has so respected the received symphonic tradition.

Laying aside for the moment its Prologue, Roméo's standard symphonic treatment begins with Part II above: a slow introduction with a fast main section looking back to Haydn's London symphony; a second movement taking a cue from Beethoven's Ninth; a third a fast-slow-fast scherzo patterned on Mendelssohn (and where Berlioz out-scherzos him for sheer gossamer grace); and a last movement counterpart in Beethoven's Ninth, even to the shared baritone role preparing the way for the choral apotheosis.

Berlioz's only deviation from the standard four-movement symphonic form is the introductory vocal Prologue that precedes it. Some find this part expendable. I disagree.

Few in early nineteenth-century Paris knew the Shakespeare plays, and the prologue served the practical purpose of introducing the story of Romeo and Juliet. Even with our own full acquaintance in modern times, it is helpful, as Berlioz wrote, to have themes introduced in embryonic states so that their instrumental appearances later can be understood in context. Additionally, by giving us a foretaste of his vocal and choral forces, the composer prepares our ears for their occasional employment in the middle sections and extensive use in the finale.

Most importantly, the prologue completes the work's cyclical aspect. Understood in this context, the third part's Love Scene sits at the epicenter of a five-part work. It should not be forgotten that Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique was also in five parts, unified in a proto-cyclical way by the use of his idée-fixe, its movements even having a similar placement to the five of Roméo et Juliette.

Parenthetically, Berlioz's cyclical inspiration may have come via Beethoven's forward-looking song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) which was to influence many works in the Romantic era, especially those of Schumann, a huge admirer of Berlioz.

Lastly, something extraordinary takes place in the prologue. In the vocalizations of his contralto solo and chorus, Berlioz confesses his credo on Art and Love. The open declaration is all the more touching coming from the vulnerable composer, a religious skeptic who endured much of his life and its cruel whims with an ironically detached melancholy.

Mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese was the warm-toned conveyer of these sentiments, making a convincing case for the Prologue's value. Tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt effectively delivered the Queen Mab vocal scherzetto's tricky rhythms at lightening speed. In the last scene, New Zealand bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu's imploring sermon of Friar Laurence was as dark and resonant as the ocean's reverberations in a sea cave.

The Master Chorale as a whole, and its division into several parts, showed itself to good effect as well: the Capulet men singing farewells after the ball, the combined forces intoning the funeral chant at Juliet's funeral, the warring clans in an agitated fugato at the tomb of the two lovers, and finally the combined oaths of reconciliation between the families.

But the evening was even more Dutoit's and the orchestra's to relish. From the very first viola and cello agitations signaling the rivalries of the two families, Dutoit's tempi, dynamics, and balances where spot on. His allegro fugato intro was deliberately enough paced to clarify textures, making the follow-on trombone entrance to impose the Prince's discipline on the crowd perfectly clear and commanding.

It continued upward from there.

A few highlights of many from the orchestra: the cellos and horns together intoning the love theme; the English horn's version of the same against a downward stepping counter-melody, like vines dipping low from the balcony; the flute and English horn in octaves for a segment of the Queen Mab scherzo with the clarinet and triangle sporting later in the same movement; the infinite colorations of Juliet's funeral music mixing with the choir; the awakening clarinet of Juliet with the violas, cellos, and basses of Romeo in the vault scene, (in the David Garrett version of the play used by Berlioz).

The list could be extended indefinitely.

Like the prologue, the last movement's resolution can seem long-winded when not put across convincingly. On this occasion, it was the catharsis needed to bring us back to reality from such intensity. And its sentiment of reconciliation between intractable camps is a lesson particularly useful in these times, with our nation painfully divided along political lines and world tragically divided along religious ones.