We are going to be treated to a lot of Berlioz at the Lynn Philharmonia over the next year or so, thanks to the championing of the French composer by its director, Guillermo Figueroa.
Truth to tell, Berlioz has already loomed large on Philharmonic programs. Figueroa has presented the song cycle Les Nuits d’Été and the dramatic symphony Romeo et Juliette in previous seasons, and coming up on future evenings will be the cantata Le Mort de Cléopâtre, the viola concerto/symphony Harold in Italy, and the Symphonie Fantastique. And on Feb. 23, Figueroa continued his advocacy for the great Romantic by marshaling about 200 performers for a performance of Berlioz’s Te Deum, a paean to the French state.
He and the Lynn Philharmonic were joined by the Master Chorale of South Florida, the Girl Choir of South Florida, and the tenor Rafael Davila, familiar to local audiences for his appearances in lyric roles such as Don José in a Palm Beach Opera production of Carmen.
With all due respect to Figueroa’s laudable PR work for this singular and innovative composer, Berlioz’s epic manner, even in operas such as Benvenuto Cellini, has a certain stiffness to it, perhaps partly because of his reverence for composers such as Gluck and the now-forgotten Gaspare Spontini. It makes the Te Deum harder to bring off because much of Berlioz’s dramatic music tends to be static. Nevertheless, like Lynn’s Romeo et Juliette, this Te Deum marked an important achievement for the school’s music programs.
In general, the orchestra, and organist Joshua Cessna, who had a key role in the piece, performed admirably well, with good ensemble and a strong sense of commitment. The brasses were reliable, and when Figueroa brought in everyone for one of Berlioz’s all-out climaxes, the effect in the Wold Performing Arts Center was impressive.
From the standpoint of sheer size, the combined choruses made a big impact, but they were less laudable from the perspectives of strength and dictional clarity. It was hard to make out much of the Latin, and the male voices were underpowered. This is a work that requires more rehearsal than the choirs were likely to be able to have given it.
That goes double for working with the orchestra, and so the most telling parts of the performance came in smaller moments of vivid sonic effect, such as the sweetness of the opening of the “Dignare, Domine” and much of the opening “Te Deum,” which had real force; Figueroa’s brisk tempo surely played a part.
The darker coloring of Davila’s voice was much in evidence in his “Te ergo quaesumus,” with its repeated falling scale patterns, and while his appearance was brief, he added the right feeling of piety to the text, which is an earnest appeal for help.
Overall, this was a reading of the Te Deum that would have benefited with more rehearsal, largely because Berlioz’s quirky way of doing things requires a great deal of subtle musical management if the piece is to have any narrative cohesion, as Berlioz clearly intended. When composers such as Verdi and Dvorak write huge works like this, they hang together more naturally because the individual sections are more self-contained. But Berlioz’s big structures follow a much less conventional path, and his melodic material is less immediately compelling. So it’s subtle music despite its gigantism, and that takes time to work out.
Nevertheless, this was an admirable and ambitious night at the concert hall, and one can only wish Figueroa and his students well as they keep taking these big leaps of musical faith in Berlioz.
The Te Deum took up the second half of the concert, but there was a first half: The Clarinet Concerto of Aaron Copland, as played by Lynn instructor Jon Manasse. The mostly unhelpful program notes told us about Copland’s tour of Latin America in 1947, but told us nothing about the concerto: it was sketched during that tour for the jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.
The relatively short concerto is of modest orchestral proportions, being scored for strings, harp and piano, and its two movements are linked by an elaborate cadenza. After about 70 years of exposure, it’s clear that this concerto is a masterwork, and a distinguished addition to the clarinet concerto canon.
Manasse played it beautifully (despite his mugging with Figueroa and the orchestra); he is particularly good at getting the highest notes to sound roundly and in tune, and his virtuosity in the cadenza was considerable. Figueroa and the orchestra proved expert accompanists, and it was a pleasure to hear this fine piece of American music on a Lynn program.