Orchestra's brilliant take on Berlioz

Posted: October 18, 2008

A friend and I were having our usual Berlioz argument.

His charges involved something about bizarre orchestrations; a strange sense of musical form; and melodies that drifted off, incomplete, into nothingness.

I was still waiting for him to get to the bad part.

The friend then spat out something about the composer being a crack addict, though here I felt compelled to defend my poor, maligned Berlioz and was glad to have scholarship on my side. It was opium, not cocaine.

But even he, my friend with otherwise flawless taste in music, had to concede that Berlioz was a genius. And what was clear Thursday night, when Charles Dutoit led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a stunningly well-conceived performance of Romeo and Juliet, was how many others would eventually stand on the composer's unconventional shoulders.

Berlioz was doing Wagnerian things long before Wagner. When a brooding melody accompanies Romeo at the tomb of the Capulets, it is a moment of pure Verdi, though even Verdi might not have attempted a tune wrought in triple-dark colors of bassoons, English horn and French horn.

About that Romeo, not to mention another character I vaguely remember being in this story, Juliet: They hardly appear in this version, at least in vocal form. Listen for them in the orchestra and they are everywhere. The piece is scored for mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone and mixed chorus, but only the low-voice soloist develops into a fully formed character, Friar Laurence. He's there to lead the story, believe it or not, to a happy ending (I won't give it away here). Along the way you're left guessing at developments, though here's more genius. Berlioz gives you plenty of clues about what's happening, but he is ever the musical anti-cliche.

In the end, Berlioz is more concerned with atmosphere. And sensuousness. Which is the main reason (though not the only one) that Dutoit towers over this score. I wasn't here for Riccardo Muti's performances of Romeo and Juliet in the 1980s, but I wonder how many other conductors could match Dutoit's attention to instrumental color while maintaining the fresh sweep of this performance. On this night it ran 100 minutes (no intermission) but never flagged in emotional interest.

Dutoit must have smartly guessed how lovingly this music would fit on the orchestra's ensemble personality. The group's deep well of resonance lent expressiveness. A section-cello solo was so homogenous it sounded like a single instrument. The violins found a sound that was, miraculously, both highly blended and vulnerable.

Oboist Richard Woodhams was superbly musical, almost vocal in his solos. Dutoit rendered the love scene's melody with urgency rather than the kind of false sentiment that sometimes creeps in.

The most famously excerpted part of this work is the "Queen Mab Scherzo," and here I couldn't help mourning the fact that the orchestra has expended so much energy in the last few years willing borderline performances onto disc, and this one was apparently dissipating, unrecorded, into the atmosphere. This is an especially slippery patch of music, prone to rushing and dissolving into disorganization. But here it was not just absolutely controlled, but also full of light and shadow and dreamy moments.

Its perfection was in fact emblematic of the entire work, which was fully put together in a way that these complex works with big forces often aren't until later in the string of performances. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, prepared by David Hayes, was wonderfully full and confident. Mezzo Ruxandra Donose and tenor Gregory Kunde projected lushness. And in his happy-ending moment, baritone David Wilson-Johnson as Friar Laurence managed to keep his taxing role both above the volume of the orchestra and full of subtle manipulations of color.

You can't explain away the precision and euphoria of this performance with the idea that it's familiar music; the group has no institutional memory of the score. Rehearsal time is clearly achieving important ensemble refinements. Here, not even a month into the Dutoit era, was another great week at the orchestra.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch.

Romeo and Juliet

Tonight and Tuesday at 8 at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $10-$140. Info: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

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