NSO’s Berlioz Bash

Two things:

  1. Olesya Petrova is a phenomenal, breathtaking, delicate powerhouse.
  2. Simon Rattle sat (a few rows) behind me tonight (in the next section over).

I’m not ashamed of the fact that I’m familiar with (very) little of Berlioz’s music aside from Symphonie Fantastique, which is perhaps a bit shameful.  I own Sir Colin Davis’ box set of Berlioz’s work, with the Concertgebouw. But I haven’t touched much of it, even though the Symphonie is a phenomenal accomplishment.

I walked into this concert with zero knowledge of the works on the program, or even what was on the program:


But I’m a proud supporter of my NSO, and the compelling nature of his Symphonie was more than a plain old nice work of a composer; it’s almost a command to give his other works attention, which I did tonight with mezzo Olesya Petrova joining the NSO.

I feel like I am coming down with something, so I was feeling a bit bleh, and need to get plenty of rest to go see the Berlin Philharmonic Sunday (hence the White-Haired Wizard himself in town), but the overwhelming takeaway from the evening is that Berlioz’s music is passionately colorful, influential, more than just worthy of attention, and I might reorganize a month of the blog to give him some more time on the blog. We’ll see.

I must say Les nuits d’été is one of the few vocal works I’ve heard live, song cycles and all the rest. Well, I should say live with orchestra instead of piano accompaniment. In any case, phenomenal. The first person I thought of, whether due to the paucity of vocal music here or the genuine likeness (intense, colorful, impassioned) was Mahler. While they’re obviously not the same, and are separated by more than just a few decades.

However, a search for Mahler’s name on the Wiki article for Berlioz’s op. 7 says thusly, citing Rushton’s The Music of Berlioz, p. 45 as a source:

Berlioz’s innovative creation of an orchestral song cycle had few successors until Mahler took the genre up in the late 19th century.

So there’s that.

The overture that opened the work was overture-ish. I’ve never met an overture I hated, but this one was Berlioz-esque-ly colorful. The real gem of the evening, though, was the song cycle, op. 7.

I genuinely began to believe at some points that there was a slight and very tasteful use of amplification, if there is such a thing, because Petrova’s voice filled the hall with a delicate, rich power, and it sounded, even at her fortissimos, like she had miles more to give. She’d go, go, go, and just when you thought she’d maxed out, she’d give some more. Not the slightest tinge of piercing or astringent sound, even at her pianissimo she filled the hall as if whispering in your ear, not speaking from a distance. Her sound was supple and nothing short of mesmerizing. I asked at the half of an orchestra employee, and she seemed (perhaps rightly so) offended at the very thought. Brava, Petrova. Incredible.

The second half began with excerpts from Roméo et Juliette, and I’m not one for excerpts, for many reasons, but there’s nothing like hearing music live to compel you to give it more attention, and to experience it in the way it was meant to be experience. I’ve gotta get through that box set.

La Damnation de Faust was a more engaging endeavor, to me at least, and featured Petrova once more, in a different gown, looking far more elegant but sounding a bit more aggressive. Perhaps it’s suitable. In any case, she has poise and power and pretty for days, and the concert wrapped up with the Hungarian March, a raucous, chompy, crunchy piece that felt, after Petrova had accepted her applause and a bouquet, like an encore.

Sir Simon Rattle snuck into the second half late, after the first R&J movement. Hard to miss that coif, but I believe I and a few other audience members (sitting much closer to him than I was) nearly soiled ourselves. He was discreetly ushered in, protected by staff on either side, and they stayed long enough to be respectful and give their applauses, but slipped out and made it for the elevator before anyone could accost him for an autograph or photo.

The Berlin Philharmonic will be playing two all-Beethoven programs this weekend, 7-8 May, and it will be Rattle’s last time with the orchestra here in Asia before he returns to London, at least for a while. Looking very forward to that.

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