A too familiar 'Fantastique'

 

ISO Classical Series Program No. 11

Hilbert Circle Theatre

Feb. 15-16

It’s only the ninth year into this century/millennium, but already the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has played Hector Berlioz’s (1803-1869) youthful programmatic warhorse, Symphonie Fantastique (1830), three times in its Classical Series. Is it that much more a concert mainstay than, say, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring — absent in ISO programming between 1980 and a few weeks ago? The answer is clearly no, but evidently conductors like to program Fantastique and our performers like to play it. It is certainly the first big Romantic symphonic showcase in history, appearing just three years after Beethoven’s death and two after Schubert’s.

Scotsman Douglas Boyd was on the podium last weekend. He stated he was attracted by Fantastique’s programmatic content, dealing with Berlioz’s intense, neurotic infatuation with British actress Harriet Smithson. Each of its five movements covers an aspect of the projected relationship of an artist — Berlioz’s fictional counterpart — to a fictional Harriet, defining her throughout with a universal theme he termed an idée fixe.

First, “Reveries and Passions,” identifying his initial enchantment with and desire for the “girl.” It is love music with a bit of excitement here and there. Second, “A Ball,” in which the girl appears at a lavish party, a waltz shared with the idée fixe, at which he meets her once more. Third: “In the Country,” which contains over 16 minutes of nearly static writing. The artist, by himself, is deeply reflective while we are busy being sated and bored. Fourth, “The March to the Scaffold,” wherein the artist, having unwittingly indulged in opium, dreams of killing the girl and being condemned to death for it. We’re happy to “hear” the guillotine drop after only five minutes.

Fifth and finally, “The Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath,” a nightmarish visit to hell, filled with demons, witches and various other monsters to punish our poor artist for his misdeed — underwritten by two large bass drums. Even the girl joins the fray, with her idée fixe intermingling with the medieval Dies Irae. Despite this mass macabre scene, Berlioz manages to end in an unconvincing, boisterous C major.

Nicely shaped and well controlled dynamically, Boyd’s account made Berlioz as convincing as it is possible for his over-inflated, hour-long, neurotic behemoth. It’s regrettable that Boyd didn’t do so well with a vastly superior work before the break, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, with 27-year-old native Londoner Jack Liebeck as soloist. Liebeck’s violin work was insipid, displaying an uncentered, inconsistent vibrato. Moreover, the orchestra delivered lackluster playing, with some extreme raggedness in the final movement.

Boyd began the program with Mozart’s Overture to Così fan tutte, a routine reading, meaning better than lackluster.

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