Berlioz, the Brusque Way

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The New York Sun

The New York Philharmonic season comes to an end this week, and with it, the classical-music season at large. The Philharmonic is unusually generous with its season – beginning in September, ending in June. Next season, it will be fairly late June: the 23rd. This year, they knock it off on the 3rd.

Since becoming music director in 2002,Lorin Maazel has kept a tradition: He ends the season with a Mahler symphony. But not this year, for some reason. The concluding program consists of Carter’s “Dialogues,” Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds (with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist), and Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.”

Odd that Mr. Maazel chose to put aside the tradition – especially considering that there are nine Mahler symphonies to choose from (nine plus a movement). But he will restore the tradition next June, conducting the Mahler Seventh.

Wednesday night afforded a kind of sneak preview of this season’s final concert. This was one of those “Inside the Music” jobs. Peter Schickele came out for a half an hour of explanation/shtick. And then Mr. Maazel conducted the main work on the week’s program, the “Symphonie fantastique.”

As Mr. Schickele – the creator of “P.D.Q. Bach” – told us, Berlioz’s symphony is “one of the most revolutionary pieces in the history of Western music.” (He could have left off the “Western,” but never mind.) Other such pieces are Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Berlioz pretty much introduced the Romantic symphony. It is a piece that goes,”Shazam! Behold something new!”

In the course of Mr. Schickele’s talk, the Philharmonic’s associate conductor, Xian Zhang, led the orchestra in excerpts.After the orchestra played a particular theme, Mr. Schickele said that orchestras in Berlioz’s day couldn’t play the music so precisely, weak as they were. Funny thing was, the Philharmonic had played that theme rather imprecisely.

And I am beginning to think that Mr. Schickele is paid by the phallic joke. He made one of those earlier in the season.And he made another one Wednesday night. (Something about the size of the oboe versus the size of the English horn.) Look, I like a phallic joke as much as the next guy – but geesh.

In any case, Mr. Schickele is a fine entertainer, and a fine music scholar. One of the most enjoyable comments he made was this: The “Symphonie fantastique” is probably the first secular piece in which the Dies Irae is used – and this symphony is “really secular.” (You had to hear the delivery.)

A few minutes after Mr. Schickele’s presentation, Mr. Maazel walked to the podium. This piece should be right up his alley,for it is full of imagination,color, and wizardry. But Mr. Maazel wasn’t at his most wizardly. In the first movement, he was rather straight, brusque, and sober. He moved the music along, which was good – wallowing can be harmful – but he might have savored it more.The Philharmonic sounded like a machine: sort of cold and unbending.

This was odd, especially because they had played another Berlioz piece, “Harold in Italy,” with warmth, beauty, and pliancy a few days before.

The second movement of the “Symphonie fantastique” is a waltz, which you might consider proto-Tchaikovsky. In this, too, the Philharmonic was a little cold, or cool, and tight. I would have liked it friendlier, warmer. But at least Mr. Maazel avoided soup.

And in the third movement – Scene in the Fields – he was simply superb. He calibrated the music unerringly, allowing for tension, wonder, and, yes, warmth.The woodwinds are heavily relied on here, and they proved themselves worthy.The timpani were worthy as well. Berlioz’s whole story was clear before our eyes, or in our ears.

In the fourth movement, our hero marches to the scaffold, and the playing was appropriately impish, Till-like. (If Berlioz anticipates Tchaikovsky, he also anticipates Richard Strauss.) Mr. Maazel imposed excellent rhythmic definition, although his tempo was fast – borderline rushed. Berlioz says “Allegretto non troppo.” Mr. Maazel sort of said, “Nuts to your ‘non.'”

And the last movement – that Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath – could have been more demonic, more wizardly, more exciting. But it was effective enough. As I suggested, Mr. Maazel seemed in a rather hard mood. By Saturday night, when he finishes up, he may be looser, more engaged – and give you a performance to remember.

He is completing his fourth season with the Philharmonic. Like any other one, this season has had its ups and downs.But the ups have been exhilarating (and plentiful). People, especially critics, like to talk about who Mr. Maazel’s successor will be. I’d rather not think about the successor,until I absolutely have to.

The Philharmonic will perform again on June 3 at Avery Fisher Hall (Lincoln Center, 212-875-5656).


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