Felix Mendelssohn: The Hebrides
Hector Berlioz: Les Nuits d'ete
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony # 41
Susan Graham (mezzo)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Donald Runnicles (conductor)
“…one has to wash one’s hands after reading one of his scores.”
Mendelssohn on Berlioz
To my everlasting regret, I missed most of the ceremony surrounding the American bicentennial, the Statue aglow in the wash of fireworks. As an inveterate record collector, I still revel in that great von Karajan set from the 200th birth year of Beethoven. But, for a man of my particular sensibilities, probably the most enjoyable celebration of all will be the upcoming honoring of Hector Berlioz.
What makes Berlioz so special for a German trained music listener? I think that it is his total independence from the revered tradition. His music is not that of a keyboard musician, his own instrument of choice the guitar. His melodies tend to be modal, his phrase lengths asymmetrical, his colors Mediterranean, his forms horizontal rather than vertical, his classical models fragmented, more alive once in a state of ruin. All of his work is conceived on a grand scale; there is no chamber music. Berlioz is our cicerone to an age of grandeur now only a mystical memory. To those of us who spend our lives in the bosom of Bach and Beethoven, but who also ask “Is that all there is?”, Berlioz is a beacon.
The highly anticipated yearlong birthday party is only a few weeks away and New York will be saturated with events. Sadly, Borodina has already bowed out of the Troyens at the Met, although I had not thought of her deep voice as ideal for Dido, but otherwise everything seems in readiness. We will even be graced with the presence of that signature Berliozian Sir Colin Davis this winter. As an hors-d’oeuvre, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s presented those wonderful songs so evocative of languid nights at the seashore to help put us in the mood.
But first, a splash of Mendelssohn. I often think of the eminent founder of the Gewandhaus when hearing this fine ensemble. St. Luke’s smallish size allows them to recreate the lightness of the Biedermeyer era without resorting to “authentic” instruments. Their opening overture was sprightly and energetic, however new conductor Donald Runnicles did little to evoke the mystery of the inspiring locale (what does a Scot know of the Hebrides?). Ms. Graham was also a bit of a disappointment. Apparently fighting a cold, she impressed unconditionally with the power and shape of her voice, her ability to form the loud, high note without audible intake of breath quite remarkable, the resulting tones ripe and juicy pears. However, she did little to put over the emotion of the half dozen songs and left me feeling hungry rather than drained. Compared to Suzanne Mentzer’s performance of these same pieces in Houston a few seasons ago, this was a full-bodied, but oddly pallid and wan reading. Additionally, the orchestra did virtually nothing to help out. St. Luke’s makes a good part of its living by serving as the back-up group for various Broadway and cabaret style singers in this town and last evening’s performance was so self-effacing as to reduce them, when this is least appreciated, to a strictly accompanist role.
Mr. Runnicles redeemed himself a bit with a solid rendition of the ”Jupiter”, that most foursquare of essays serving as the thesis to which Monsieur Berlioz is the antithesis (in fact, Anton Bruckner modeled an entire mature symphony on this particular work from the mathematical Teutonic tradition). An interesting juxtaposition which left us all leaving reasonably satisfied, but did little to quiet that voice in my inner ear that misses Charles Mackerras.
Frederick L. Kirshnit