Remember when you were 23 and in love? It was pretty intense, right? If your love was requited you were in ecstasy; if it was not, you were in utter despair.
That's how it goes with young love. It's a roller coaster ride: it thrills one moment, provokes nausea the next.
When French composer Hector Berlioz first cast eyes on the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, playing the role of Ophelia in a production of Hamlet, he was smitten. And he became obsessed. To the point of madness.
Three years later, in 1830, thanks to episodes of opium-induced fantasy, the brash young man wrote a very weird symphony. It was so full of untraditional musical ideas, structured unlike anything before it, and driven by an explicit narrative that Berlioz published and distributed beforehand. Audiences didn't know whether to applaud or run screaming.
In a classic case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, Smithson eventually heard the piece and agreed to marry Berlioz. The marriage didn't last; they didn't get along.
But the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and its guest conductor Sean Newhouse got along Friday night. They got along just fine.
Newhouse was in town auditioning for the symphony's music director post, and the program he led went a long way in revealing the capabilities of our orchestra and the tendencies of an emerging young talent.
Newhouse seemed to get what he wanted from the players. His knowledge of Berlioz' symphony was evident, and his indications clear, specific and authoritative. If he turned a page of the score lying open before him, I didn't notice.
He liked to stretch slower passages and quicken speedy sections for effect, but this tendency never came across as extreme. The initial statement of the idée fixe - that long, syncopated, ascending melody representing Berlioz' beloved - was presented with slow deliberation. The dance music in the second movement was instead taken at a vigorous clip.
Newhouse managed to creative an expressive and cohesive whole from Berlioz' variable, irregular phrasing, an intentional elegance that balanced (one might say contradicted) the music's exaggerated dynamics and abrupt changability.
Perhaps Newhouse's careful interpretation softened a little of Berlioz' push-the-envelope shock and awe, though the conductor did let things loose in the fifth and final movement, "Dream of the Witches' Sabbath." Here, the orchestra rose to a feverish pitch and, for the first time during the performance, got my heart beating faster.
Symphonie Fantastique was (we know now) a pathbreaking phenomenon. Written just 80 years after the death of Bach, the symphony was a circus exhibit of innovation. While Mendelssohn and Schumann were busy adhering to standard forms (for the most part) and spinning out their exquisite melodies, an adventurous 23-year-old Frenchman decided to upset the apple cart by writing music that was psychological and self-referential.
Even the movement called a "Scene in the Country" was not really an attempt to paint a pastoral picture; it was more a musical reflection of the landscape of Berlioz' mind as he happened to be wandering down a country path somewhere, thinking, obsessing, fantasizing about Smithson, his longing alternately calmed and provoked by flora and fauna invisible to the listener.
For program music, this is fairly abstract stuff, less pictorial than emotional. Indeed, as the piece proceeds, it unwinds, presenting the idée fixe in different guises and becoming more agitated and unhinged.
In the fourth movement, "March to the Scaffold," Berlioz imagines himself witnessing his own execution - slain by his obsessive love. In the final movement, he envisions ghouls and goblins, swirling spells and the Day of Wrath.
This was pretty progressive for 1830, and it set the stage for the egoism of virtuoso soloists such as Liszt and Paganini, and late-Romantic composers such as Mahler and Wagner, who would later push classical music into the 20th century.
Speaking of Paganini, his 24th Caprice for solo violin was transformed by Rachmaninoff into an incredible showpiece for piano and orchestra. His "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini" was performed by Di Wu, who stepped in for the ill Andrew Armstrong at the last minute. Di Wu recently played the Rhapsody with the Philadelphia Orchestra, so she was ready to go on quick notice - and she nailed it.
Her technique was dazzling, and her musicality impressive. It's difficult to describe in words the fire and beauty of this piece; it must be experienced: 24 variations, each one stunning and inventive. Like Berlioz, Rachmaninoff inserts the "Dies Irae" chant as if to emphasize the devilish, extra-worldly difficulty of the music and outlandish imagination of the composer.
Newhouse occasionally allowed the orchestra to overpower Di Wu, though her clear articulation (perhaps too delicate for this piece) and phrasing were hard to miss no matter the volume of the roar behind her.
Once or twice I thought I noticed Di Wu making tempo adjustments to the orchestra, and the performance never quite achieved that heart-pounding thrill that leaves the listener speechless, but it was a great gift nevertheless to hear such a commanding performance by this talented young player.
The program opened with a superb rendition of John Harbison's "Remembering Gatsby," a work written in 1985 that pays tribute to the jazz era and draws inspiration from the famous novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The foxtrot lurched mischievously between expressive complex harmonies and straightforward dance music, illustrating the destabilizing effect of booze on the dancer (Gatsby one presumes). It was a delightful romp, nicely performed by Newhouse and the symphony.
In brief comments before the Rhapsody was played, Newhouse told the appreciative audience that the theme of the show was obsession - Gatsby's obsessive love for Daisy Buchanan, Berlioz' love for Smithson, Rachmaninoff's love for his own creative talent. But I think there was something more to it than that. The common theme was death. Or, to put a finer point on it, the thin line between art and death, between love and oblivion. What a joy it is to be able to hear this great music, and these wonderful musicians, express these ideas.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.
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