John Nelson and Hector Berlioz. The two fit like a hand in a glove, like waffles and syrup, like tax breaks for the rich and George W. The serious, strongly religious former Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra music director and the flamboyantly neurotic French Romantic composer seem to have developed a sufficient bond across the centuries for superlative interpretations of the latter’s music.
Nelson’s relationship with the orchestra during his ISO tenure (1976-1987) was cool at best, and it certainly had a negative impact on many of their collaborative performances. However, Nelson’s Berlioz was the exception that, as they say, proves the rule. And with his guest reappearance, Nelson’s Berlioz was all we heard in last weekend’s 10th ISO classical program.
-Former ISO music director John Nelson conducted an all-Berlioz program last weekend.- Mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer joined Nelson for the composer’s well-known six-song cycle Les Nuits d’eté (Summer Nights), Op. 7 (1843). Mentzer’s voice is a rich, well-seasoned instrument capable of conveying all the wistful nuances of Berlioz’s “endless melodies.” Moreover, Nelson’s scaled-back orchestra blended perfectly with the singer, revealing both richness and restraint in a composer noted for pulling out all the stops. Which Berlioz does in spades in the overture to his three-act opera Benvenuto Cellini (1838), with which Nelson ended the program. Orchestration is paramount, and Nelson delivered a well-honed reading of a piece strongly Romantic in all ways that matter, but with vestiges of the leaner, Classical “sound” remaining.
I don’t find the overture especially ingratiating. Nelson began his program with its biggest selection, five orchestral excerpts from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette Dramatic Symphony, Op. 17 — a work which shows both his greatest strengths and weaknesses as a composer. Attempting a literal depiction of the progressive events in the Shakespeare play, Berlioz sacrifices too many musical elements, preventing the ambitious score from standing on its own (you can’t follow it without a scorecard).
This is somewhat true in the first two excerpts, “Introduction” and “Romeo Alone” — but especially so in the conclusion, “Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets,” in which every sound is signaled, whether making musical sense or not. The two remaining excerpts, “Love Scene” and the “Queen Mab Scherzo,” show the Frenchman at his musical best. And his American interpreter delivered the full measure of the lyric beauty in the former and a feathery, fairy-like fleetness from the latter.