Monday, April 2, 2012

Romantic Bliss, Sublime Brutality

Romantic Bliss, Sublime Brutality from the Canton Symphony
By Tom Wachunas

If a single concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in the last several years could, beginning to end, embody all of its lustrous, enthralling character and indefatigable energy, I have not the slightest doubt it was the event – the aesthetic phenomenon – that transpired at Umstattd Hall on March 31. And to accomplish such a feat with only two works on the program makes it all the more astonishing.

The evening was billed “A Romantic’s Dream,” and the program selections were a powerful embrace of the Romantic spirit in 19th century European symphonic music: Johannes Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Violoncello, followed by Hector Berlioz’s "Symphonie Fantastique". Brahms wrote his 1887 concerto (the last of his works for full orchestra) in the final decade of his life, while Berlioz was just 27 when he completed his wildly ambitious work in 1830. For both composers, these passionate works were, among other things, innovative combinations of scintillating instrumental textures.

Brahms’ technical challenge was to integrate and balance the differing aural resonances of the solo instruments with the rest of the orchestra. So his writing for violin and cello was an uncanny blending, such that the two instruments become something of a single entity, yet sustain a distinctly conversational relationship between themselves and the orchestra, with no single element overpowering the other.

The two guest artists on this occasion – rising star cellist David Requiro, and violinist Nathan Olson (former CSO Concertmaster and now Co-Concertmaster with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra) – realized their daunting task with endearing panache to deliver a tour-de-force performance in every sense of the word. For all of their considerable virtuosity as individuals, cellist and violinist were clearly concentrating on listening to each other to achieve a sweet, tonal equilibrium between themselves and the orchestra. Neither soloist needed to be - nor was ever - too forced in his articulations. Even their most quiet and intricately tender voicings were audible. Theirs was a seamless, crisp exchange of musical comments that interplayed flawlessly with the work’s luscious, ebb-and-flow dynamics of loud and soft orchestral harmonies. And through it all, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s interpretive prowess was in peak form. At times he appeared very relaxed and confident in ceding control of the momentum to the soloists. But in his thoroughly refreshing reading of this work, he consistently balanced such passages with those of more breathtaking orchestral sonority.

In this same spirit of brilliantly nuanced orchestral assertiveness, Zimmermann led the CSO in what should best be called an unleashing of "Symphonie Fantastique". Berlioz’s original program notes remain among the most articulate expositions of a composer’s intent ever written, and set the stage thus: “A young musician of morbid sensitivity and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of amorous despair…” What follows is the tumultuous story of a narcotic-induced dream (inspired by a Berlioz’s bitter season of unrequited love) in five movements that, when written, was largely unprecedented in structure, thematic methodology, aural effects, and relentlessly agitated drama.

It is indeed the work’s intense emotionality that appears to have been ingested, like a drug (I mean metaphorically, of course), by the CSO for this occasion. Every section of the orchestra played as if driven by a sublimely brutal intentionality, collectively entranced in a contagious urgency to pour out the work’s frenzied fantasy. Strings rising and falling in sumptuous waves, thunderous and deafening brass and percussion, shimmering winds plaintive and ethereal – all were united, startlingly clear and electrifying, under Zimmerman’s transfixing authority.

Many of us are well acquainted with this Berlioz gem and its theatrical facets that include the iconic melody of his beloved 'idee fixe' (an obsessive or delusional idea) threaded through the entire work, the piercing bell tolls, the haunting inclusion of Dies Irae, the suggestions of heavy feet marching up the executioner’s scaffold, or the dull thudding of the guillotined head. Not that familiarity with this masterpiece ever bred contempt on my part, but here the orchestra’s eminently vigorous, impassioned rendering was utterly transformative, imbuing the work with surprising new life. In the process, the CSO has established for itself a soaring new standard for measuring blissful symphonic monumentality.

Photo” “Symphonie Fantastique” by Julio de Diego, 1946

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