By Rodney Punt
SAN FRANCISCO — Performances of Hector Berlioz’s Requiem are rare and special events. This masterpiece has a huge yet mysteriously elusive score whose noisy flirtation with chaos in three of its ten sections has typecast it as mainly a work of temple-bursting grandeur. Between those moments, however, it conveys far quieter meditations on human vulnerability, with gentle supplications tinted in the strange primal sounds of antiquity.
It took until 1950 for Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony to attempt the work here in the city that has since that era become the de facto capital of Silicon Valley start-ups. Word must have gotten around on the internet, because there were more than a few of the younger set in the audience at Davies Hall when the work was presented on May 4 for the first time since 1988. Herbert Blomstedt was then on the podium. This time around, conductor Charles Dutoit was the work’s able, if subdued and controlled, champion.
Born in Lausanne and trained in Geneva, Dutoit inherited dual traits of Gallic passion and Swiss precision almost as birthright. Long the chief conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, he earned his mantel as a French music specialist, rivaled in the works of Berlioz only by the late Colin Davis. Since departing Montreal in 2002, Dutoit has toured the world, guest conducting heavy doses of the French composer. His 2010 rendering of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette symphony at the LA Phil was revelatory. Now 80, Dutoit shows no sign of slowing down, but, based on this performance, he does seem to be mellowing.
The Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts) was commissioned in 1837 for a public occasion in Paris at the massive Chapel of Saint-Louis des Invalides. The unwieldy space was later divided into two chambers, one of which, the Église du Dôme, now houses Napoleon’s tomb. Over 400 instrumentalists and singers participated, with four supplemental brass bands at the stage corners. Contemporary critics, often hostile to Berlioz, were dazzled and tamed by the work’s effective novelty. An unqualified hit at its premiere, it remained a popular success for the rest of the composer’s lifetime.
Because the Requiem is what we would today call a “site-specific” work, it needs modification in scale when performed in modern concert halls. Dutoit has fashioned a practical touring version of it, slightly reducing its original size. The forces on this occasion numbered a total of 330, still a mighty collection on any night.
Choral specialist Adrian Horn tinkered further with the score, “correcting” Berlioz’s omission of alto singers. The composer’s aversion to the voice type reportedly stemmed from his disappointments in two early love affairs; one assumes both ladies in question were altos. Horn pulled notes from the second soprano and first tenor parts to construct a new, independent part for altos. No new notes, just reassigned ones, making it more practical with the usual voice complement of today’s choruses. (I detected no damage to Berlioz in the performance.)
The combined singers and orchestra, augmented with those four brass bands, were arrayed in the generously proportioned semi-circular area defined by the Davies Hall stage and organ choir loft behind it. The 130-strong San Francisco Symphony Chorus, prepared by Ragnar Bohlin, was complemented in the Lacrymosa and the Dies irae-Tuba mirum segments by Susan McMane’s Young Women’s Choral Project and Joseph Piazza’s Golden Gate Men’s Chorus. At this performance, Dutoit’s way with the Requiem was never bombastic or forced. Establishing a deliberate, natural pace from the start, he brought the work in at 87 minutes, somewhat longer than the program booklet estimate of 80 minutes. With orchestra, choirs, and extra brass ensembles in the extended Davies stage sightlines, there was never a moment when any elements fell out of sync with each other or with Dutoit, who had cannily gauged the work and its hall.
The resulting aural landscape – ranging from cataclysm to depictions of human frailty and entreaty – registered orchestral and choral shadings warmly, text articulations somewhat less effectively. Sonorities were secure, precise, and beautifully projected.
Highlights were many: The choir’s trailing-off of dynamics in their Requiem chants, the tenors’ sweet supplications of Sion, the anxious cries of the Kyrie, with its ascending string tremolos, the Dies irae’s brass and bass drum outbursts, the Quid sum miser’s tenor and English horn interactions. Dissonances reigned in the Rex tremendae, purity in the a cappella, overlapping choral lines in the Quaerens me, obsession in the appoggiaturas embroidering single choral notes in the Offertorium, unintentional humor in the later tuba-characterized “bottomless pit.”
The trombone contingents, placed high in the rear balconies during the Hostias, were particularly effective in contrast with the flutes in the front-of-hall orchestra, their aural separation and distant timbres emphasizing the distance between earth and heaven.
Only the Lacrymosa, with its seasick-like syncopations that make of human tears an ocean of sorrows, disappointed. Here, Dutoit’s deliberate pacing just missed capturing the existential crisis that Esa-Pekka Salonen’s more urgent strokes effectively caught in the LA Philharmonic’s 2004 outing of the work at Disney Hall.
Tenor Paul Groves’ pleas in the penultimate Sanctus were bright and resonant, once the long-waiting singer took a few measures to center his voice. He sailed through the punishingly high tessituras with ease, and his well-projected articulation overcame the general limits of the hall.
If the smiles on the faces of departing patrons were any indication, the years have not tarnished the dazzle factor of the Berlioz Requiem.
Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.