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September 24, 2010

Dreams and patchworks: Berlioz in Chicago

MutiAtCSO.png
I wish you could have heard Riccardo Muti in his all-Berlioz concert Thursday, Sept. 23, to mark his first subscription concert as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Perhaps you can catch it; it continues through the weekend.) There will be many media reports in the hours to come about the Muti-Chicago Symphony match, which even at this early moment, in my mind, promises to be one of the great pairings in the orchestra's illustrious history. 

But on this morning after, I find my mind wandering back to the program itself, which was gutsy and grandly curious. A pairing of Berlioz' great and still wildly popular "Symphonie fantastique" with the semi-staged and narrated "Lélio" (intended as the sequel to the heartbreak and drug-induced hallucinations of the former), this program had all the necessary gala components: It involved legions of performers including the full Chicago Symphony Chorus. It showed off the assembled forces at their virtuosic best. It signaled the Muti era will be something different. And it was definitely something to talk about. 

With apologies to Berlioz scholars who know better, "Lélio" affects me like the patchwork of a writer dealing with an impossibly close deadline -- surely something any journalist can relate to. As I imagine it, Berlioz has this great kernel of a musical fantasy on Shakespeare's "Tempest," but it's only a sketch and he's out of time. So he thinks, What about expanding the Shakespeare reverie? And he borrows bits of Hamlet, although one of them, an allusion to the prince's hilarious remonstrances to a company of itinerant actors, is perilously close to the end of the piece and is always in danger of missing its intended aim for sweet comic relief.

To fill out the rest, our composer plucks a couple of gorgeous excerpts from previous cantatas, scoops up a song for tenor and solo piano that the orchestra sits out, throws in a ribald bandits' number that could play right now on Broadway, and calls it a night. 

I came away with two inclinations. To listen again in their entirety to Berlioz' "La mort d'Orphée" and "La mort de Cléopâtre," from which he borrowed breathtaking episodes, first chance I get. And to accept "Lélio" for the strange work it is.  

Last night, I fell asleep remembering a line uttered by the great French actor Gérard Depardieu, who was in Chicago to play Lélio's role. "Ô Shakespeare! Shakespeare!" Lélio wails, and my mind went straight -- forgive me -- to Pyramus' "O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall."

I returned to life today with Muti and the Chicago orchestra's "Symphonie fantastique" in my head. That memory is, in every way, wonderful.

Riccardo Muti, Gérard Depardieu and the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra take their bow on opening night of the 2010-11 season, Muti's first as music director. 
Photo credit: Chicago Symphony Orchestra
September 24, 2010 12:39 PM | | Comments (0)

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