Hector Berlioz was one of those ornery figures who wrote music that doesn't fit into neat little molds. Perhaps operating in that spirit, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Berlioz Festival seems to be trying to break some predictable patterns of the typical festival experience.
For a start, 2004 isn't even the Berlioz Year -- the bicentennial of his birth occurred in 2003 -- so these concerts proclaim that we need not be chained to the calendar in order to celebrate this fascinating composer. Next week, "Symphonie Fantastique" will undergo a theatrical metamorphosis, preceded by excerpts from its strange, rarely heard sequel, "Lelio."
And the opening shot of this festival Friday night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall was a diverse jumble of Berlioz, symphonic and not, loosely held together by an overriding theme of doomed love.
Part of the rationale must have been to work mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, one of our leading art song exponents, into the entire program instead of being confined to the usual one-work guest star turn. She certainly took the measure of "Les Nuits ete" ("Summer Nights"), a deceptively sunny title for a mostly downcast song cycle about a promising love stilled by death.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 21, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Song cycle -- In a review of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Berlioz concert in Monday's Calendar, the song cycle "Les Nuits d'ete" was misidentified as "Les Nuits ete."
With Von Otter skillfully pointing out each word, phrasing languidly and changing vocal colors at every turn of the text, with Esa-Pekka Salonen mostly letting the lightly scored accompaniment flow naturally, it was a delectable yet oddly restrained way to open this festival.
After the break, Von Otter emerged with her pianist, Bengt Forsberg, on an otherwise unpopulated stage. She offered "Le chant des Bretons," which could have used a more swaggering rhythm in the accompaniment, and then a lingering, exquisite "La mort d' Ophelie."Rather than do the complete "Romeo and Juliet" -- that would have required a chorus, two male vocal soloists, and an entire evening -- Salonen cobbled together a collection of excerpts.
Pruning the score down to about half its length, Salonen kept most of the orchestral sections and the "Strophes" for Von Otter, scrambling the order of the movements a bit, and dividing the "Strophes" into two entirely separate parts -- a postlude to Part I and a prelude to Part IV.
When heard all together, the fragments formed a conventional four-movement symphony of sorts -- with a combative opening movement, the Love Scene as the slow second movement, the Queen Mab music in the traditional Scherzo slot, and a rousing finale at the Capulet Ball.
Salonen isn't one for gushing lyrical sentiment; he identified with Berlioz's classical groundings, colorful scoring and blaring gusts of sound, reveling in lean-textured detail that came through with startling clarity in this hall.
The Queen Mab Scherzo may have sounded a bit too careful -- it is a difficult wisp of a piece to pull off -- but the Ball kicked in with an almost brutal energy, developing without anticlimax toward a razzmatazz coda. In this work, the music, Salonen's temperament, and the high-definition sonic properties of Disney Hall came together beautifully.