Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, from the 1830s, is a party piece for the concert hall. It’s a narrative, in music, about a callow youth who falls in love from afar, with dreamy visions of his beloved at a bejeweled ball and promenading in the verdant countryside. At first it seems to be love in the tradition of the medieval troubadours, a love so perfect and pure that an actual romantic or physical connection would corrupt it.
It’s the idea of his love, rather than the woman herself, that gets its own musical theme, and we hear this idée fixe, tender and yearning, at the center of each scene.
But like a horror movie, there’s foreshadowing throughout. At the waltzing ball, the music twirling in motion, we come to realize that our protagonist isn’t among the graceful dancers but is standing outside the room, voyeuristically looking in. Later, on the mountainside, as the shepherds sing their lonely pastoral tune, we hear the rumble of thunder in the distance.
Turns out this particular lad is a little manic, a little cracked. His affections are entirely one-sided, with no indication that he’s even stepped up to introduce himself to her. Full of surging Gothic emotion, he tries to overdose on opium, apparently downing the minimum requirement. Like everything about this guy, it’s inadequate. So instead of the sweet release of death he pathetically clings to life. He falls into violent and weird nightmares. Here Berlioz’s genius makes you cheer for this loser: the last two movements of the Symphonie fantastique are about the most original and exciting 15 minutes of music in the orchestral repertoire.
Playing out an incel fantasy, he murders the woman, not as a crime of passion but of revenge. He’s condemned to death by guillotine, and we hear it all vividly depicted in the music: the drum roll as he’s marched to the scaffold and his final, longing memory of the idée fixe – cut short by the swish of the heavy blade as it falls, with his severed head bouncing into the basket. The finale, a witches’ sabbath, reveals his beloved as a grotesque demon, one more soul tormenting him in the afterlife.
Thursday in Symphony Hall, guest conductor Stéphane Denève led the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in this unusual and popular symphony. Music director of the St. Louis Symphony and now artistic director of Miami Beach’s New World Symphony, a top training ensemble, Denève had the ASO at his command and playing with verve and cohesion.
He’s a big man with a big mop of graying red hair. His gestures were at once broad and specific. He’s a bit of a showman, too. If at times it wasn’t clear whether his waving arms and full-body conducting was intended to cue the musicians or instruct the audience what to listen for, the results were thoroughly convincing. He’s one of the few top-tier guest conductors of this ASO season.
Often you hear the Symphonie fantastique interpreted as a serious drama, of a man’s obsession and manic outbursts and moments of despair — emotions we’ve all felt, to varying degrees, as human nature and as part of falling in and out of love. Denève and the ASO took a more stylized, maybe cartoonish, approach. If the opening scenes of longing and innocence were rather pale and underdeveloped in this performance, the monsters and goblins at the end were gleefully brought to life. The dancing skeletons at the opening of the finale, played by slinky clarinets, were a comic portrayal more cute than scary.
There are overwhelming elements, too. The score calls for deep-voiced church bells, off stage, to usher us past the gates of hell. Most orchestras don’t have bells this massive, and even on famous recordings you’ll often hear rather tinny and meek bells in this key moment in the story. But the ASO owns two of these huge bronze bells, a half-ton each — a legacy from the ASO’s late principal percussionist, Gene Rehm; read about it here.
Their amazing power, depth and clarity makes a performance of this crazy symphony sound extra special — like having Quasimodo ring the bell of Notre-Dame into your ears. (For this performance, the ASO tapped other rare instruments to better convey the composer’s intentions. They swapped out the common, elephantine 16-foot tuba for the smaller, six-valved French 8-foot tubas, a pair of them.)
Everything was together in this Berlioz, except a shock of intensity. We might expect them to add that missing element for Saturday’s repeat performance.
The concert opened with Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers.” Its title is a line drawn from The Iliad and found in Beethoven’s private journal. Born in 1986, the son of a pastor, Simon was raised in Atlanta and attended Morehouse College and Georgia State University. He’s now composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center and on the faculty at Georgetown.
In a program note, Simon says this piece is “representative of the unpredictable ways of fate,” with passages that “depict the uncertainty of life that hovers over us. We know that Beethoven strived to overcome many obstacles in his life and documented his aspirations to prevail despite his ailments.”
The five-minute work chugs and churns from the start in a very agreeable, very American post-minimalist style, with jabs and interjections and flickers of melody above a fast, non-stop pulse. Although the soundworld and a few gestures evoke John Adams’ Dr. Atomic and other in-fashion scores, Simon’s Fate Now Conquers (from 2020) is deliberately based on harmonies from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a recognizable hook where the Old Master is turned into pop art, akin to an Andy Wahol silkscreen of a Botticelli painting.
Daniel Laufer’s brief but forlorn cello solo, in the middle of Fate Now Conquers, comes as a stab of genuine emotion. It’s a glimpse into a private drama that the listener didn’t know existed since our attention had been distracted by all the hubbub of activity. At the end, with Simon taking the stage, the audience erupted in cheers. It’s a fun piece, strongly argued, and shows a composer on the rise.
After the Simon and before intermission they performed Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto with German-Italian-American star violinist Augustin Hadelich as soloist.
In 1939, when he wrote this concerto, Britten was in his 20s and still finding his mature voice. (His breakthrough opera, Peter Grimes, premiered in 1945.) The Violin Concerto is rambunctious and melancholy and technically demanding, where often there’s a lot of effort for the soloist and orchestra in passages that, later in his career, he’d express more simply and powerfully. In its best moments, and in a really tight and laser-focused reading, the music sparkles and broods and makes compelling sense.
The concerto is what we might call performer-dependent, requiring a little extra effort and persuasion to make its case. (The Symphonie fantastique, to take a contrasting example, is performer-resistant: it doesn’t matter what you do to it, the music will always blow away an audience.)
Thursday Hadelich and the ASO were perhaps too mild with the concerto, perhaps assuming to play the piece straight was enough. Instead, the tempos felt a bit slow, and Hadelich’s silken and majestic tone, putting a premium on sheer beauty of sound, lacked the grit and raw emotion that would have made it a more three-dimensional reading. It felt like an actor who can play the king with aristocratic bearing but can’t break down for the inevitable mad scene. (Disclaimer: In a previous job, in 2012, I hired Hadelich for this same concerto, his debut performance of the work. He has since played the Britten internationally.)
But as with the Berlioz, all the ingredients were in place if not ideally cooked. Violinist and conductor formed a strong partnership, and Denève seemed to shape inner orchestral phrases with care and understanding of Britten’s style. Saturday’s performance should be sensationally stronger.
Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.