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February 1, 2004 - Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" Goes Hollywood

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The Los Angeles Philharmonic's new home, Frank Gehry's newest building, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, finally opened late last year after twenty-six years of arguing and odd fund-raising and various disputes.  A discussion of the place with photographs is here: October 26, 2003 Photography.


Well, it's getting all broken in now.  Take last Thursday - a Berlioz concert with floating instruments, projected images and musicians rising to face the audience.


Say what?


Our music director / conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen decided Berlioz needed to be, as one might put it, goosed up.


He turned to British theater artist, Simon McBurney who has done such things before.  But he had done them with a string quartet at UCLA, not with a world-class orchestra at a major new hall.


Here's how the Los Angeles Times explains what this was about:


As the composer Gerard McBurney - the director's brother and a collaborator on the project - explained at a talk Thursday before the concert, the whole thing seemed, at first thought, undoable.  Working intimately and rehearsing extensively with a string quartet was challenge enough.  It is another level of difficulty to slip a theatrical concept into standard orchestral concert life.  Still, the idea of putting the "trip" back into the first psychedelic symphony - and in a trippy concert hall - proved irresistible, he said.


Well, I guess Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique could be called the first psychedelic symphony, but that term would have meant little when it permiered in Paris in 1830 - but it did confuse and anger a lot of people back then.  The term will do.

The Times explains it this way:


Intoxicated by the fervor of French Romanticism and infatuated with an English actress, Berlioz intended his symphony to reveal the state of delirium this overeager young artist might attain were he to smoke too much opium.  Premiered in 1830, only three years after the death of Beethoven, it heralded a whole new kind of Romanticism.  Leonard Bernstein called it a portrait of a nervous wreck.


Then there was the odd sequel, "LÚlio," in which the artist, now Hamlet-obsessed, returns to life and tries to write a masterpiece.  An actor declaims long, flamboyantly bad speeches while performers hidden behind a curtain offer a miscellany of short works - songs and choral and orchestral pieces.  Not a great Berlioz work.


And the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed them both this week, together.


I missed the performance but here's what the Times says:


McBurney's interesting conceit was to turn everything around by beginning with "LÚlio."  After reciting a short reverse timeline from the present to the birth of Berlioz (with dutiful acknowledgments of Philip Glass, Jimi Hendrix, Freud and the first X-ray of a woman's hand), McBurney recited shortened English translations of LÚlio's speeches along with some Berlioz letters that further revealed the composer's attractively excitable nature.  Orchestra, chorus, soloists and piano accompanist did their business behind a scrim on which were projected art-class slides of gargoyles and paintings by Delacroix.  The result was a sonic and visual mess.


No kidding.


As for the "Symphonie Fantastique that followed, actors were seated among the players and occasionally stood and drew attention to themselves.  Instruments floated into space.  Throughout, an Andy Warhol-like film showed the artist asleep, dreaming his nightmares.  And a device was borrowed from the Big Band era - having the players turn forward and face the audience as they played (which required them to memorize passages of the score - and they didn't like that at all). Yep, orchestra members stood to play solo passages, just like in the Harry James band.  Whole brass sections stood for loud passages - and I think I remember that from the old Woody Herman band.  Of course for the "Witches' Sabbath" movement we got real bells - big ones.


All in all, an amusing event.  I guess Berlioz would have liked it.


This is a fun place.