By Kelly Dean Hansen
June 25, 2016
Director relies on French repertoire with Berlioz standard 'Symphonie Fantastique'
The Colorado Music Festival opened its 2016 season Thursday night at Chautauqua Auditorium, launching the second summer of symphonic concerts under the festival's third music director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni.
Last year, his debut program culminated in a warhorse for a massive orchestra, Respighi's "Pines of Rome," and featured a masterwork of French symphonic music, Debussy's "La Mer." For Thursday's concert, the array of orchestral sound was even more impressive, and the featured work was both French and a warhorse, the "Symphonie Fantastique" by Berlioz.
By today's standards, the "Fantastique" is modestly scored, but in 1832, a mere five years after Beethoven's death, its two harps, two tubas (Beethoven never asked for even one of either in a symphony), two large bells, and the almost scandalous E-flat clarinet, were daring indeed.
Zeitouni excels in the French repertoire, and this was a "Fantastique" to remember. The work is perhaps the most famous example of so-called "program music" in the repertoire, and the orchestra shaped the narrative in a compelling way. The first movement, in which the so-called "idée fixe," the melody representing the protagonist's beloved, is introduced, was especially well-shaped. Zeitouni made the wise decision to take the oft-omitted exposition repeat, which helps to cement the "idée fixe" in the listener's consciousness.
The second-movement waltz, with its brilliant writing for harps, was also exhilarating, as was the heart-stopping "March to the Scaffold" in the fourth movement. In the fifth and final movement, the depiction of a "Witches' Sabbath," the two bells, unusually placed in front of the stage, reverberated through the barn, and the buildup to the always-thrilling finish was expertly paced.
The movement that most ties the "Fantastique" to the rest of the program, indeed the rest of the CMF opening weekend, would be the slow middle movement, the "Scene in the Fields." It is also the portion of the symphony that best shows off Chautauqua's unique qualities. For the opening English horn/oboe dialogue, the placement of the responding instrument outside the hall created an effect not possible in more standard venues.
And then there is the famous "thunder" music, written for two timpani players, another striking expansion for 1832. That (and the bells) connected the piece to the "percussion" theme Zeitouni wanted to create for opening weekend.
And that leads to the other "big" work on the program, the 2009 Violin Concerto by Finnish composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Violinist Jennifer Koh made a welcome return to Boulder. She played the Sibelius concerto with the Boulder Philharmonic three years ago, and in 2008, she performed the Beethoven concerto at Chautauqua under previous director Michael Christie in a concert that launched Christie's now-legendary Beethoven "mini-festival" that year. Thursday's piece was vastly different from those repertoire staples.
The Salonen work has overwhelming aspects, especially the vast array of instruments asked for by the composer. The percussion section alone is dizzying, with a prominent "log drum," both marimba and vibraphone, a full jazz/rock drum set, and most visually (if not aurally) arresting, the set of 14 pitched gongs, hanging from a large apparatus at the back of the stage. The rest of the orchestra doesn't lag far behind, and even the exceedingly rare contrabass clarinet is present.
How is a mere violin supposed to assert itself as featured soloist against such forces? That is where the concerto succeeds. Salonen does not deploy everything all at once, and in fact the work begins with the violin alone making an almost imperceptible entrance. Even when the drum set was unleashed in the third movement, the violin was easy to hear. Koh, who has a friendship with Salonen, gave a devoted interpretation, and Zeitouni handled the big orchestra in such a way that virtually all the violin notes were clearly audible. The part is by turns violently aggressive and almost painfully understated, and Koh negotiated all of it with confidence.
The piece is by no means especially melodic, but it is exceptionally colorful, and the packed Chautauqua audience responded with unbridled enthusiasm.
Zeitouni opened the program with Beethoven's heroic 1810 "Egmont" Overture, always an effective curtain-raiser with its joyous closing "victory" music.
This season, the CMF has largely dispensed with the traditional Friday repeats of large Thursday orchestral programs, but a full weekend is still in store. So Percussion, a guest quartet, performs an intriguing program tonight at 7:30 p.m. and joins the orchestra at 10 a.m. Saturday for the Young People's Concert. The "Patriotism" and Pops" program, this year featuring only the CMF brass, follows Sunday at 4:00 p.m.
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