Sitting at a table in a new Boca Raton diner, Guillermo Figueroa opens his cloth-bound, dark blue Bärenreiter edition of the music and points to a page, marked with various colored pencils.
The score he’s pointing to, explaining the perils of this or that passage, is the playbook for this weekend, when the violinist and conductor will lead the Lynn Philharmonia, the Master Chorale of South Florida, and two solo singers in Roméo et Juliette, a “dramatic symphony” by Hector Berlioz that premiered in 1839.
It’s an exciting and rare event, but it also poses a serious challenge to the young conservatory orchestral players who are tackling it, and not just for technique.
“The difficulty is going to be in understanding it, in getting it, particularly in something like the ‘Adagio,’” Figueroa said. “It’s not something that they’re used to. It’s so subtle. Once you get it, then every single note is unbelievable. But it can easily go over people’s heads.”
He’s not as concerned that his musicians will be able to physically play the music.
“They have good technique. The technical difficulties, they will master. But to get them to understand it, that’s my goal,” he said.
Figueroa, who will lead performances Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, has had a long love affair with the music of Berlioz, ever since first encountering the composer while a student at Juilliard in the 1970s, playing violin in an orchestra taking part in Les Troyens, the French composer’s gigantic Virgil-based opera.
“After a couple of days of rehearsals, the musical mist gradually cleared, and I will never forget the moment when, finally, at the concert, on the stage of Carnegie Hall, the full impact of the music hit me and Berlioz’s intentions became clear to me,” Figueroa wrote in 2003 for an essay he penned for Berlioz’s bicentenary. “I sat transfixed, struggling to play the notes while fighting back tears of profound emotion … From that moment on, life was never the same, as I had found music that spoke to me as nothing ever before, a composer that I had previously not understood and who had now become my artistic goal, and the central passion of my musical life.”
Roméo et Juliette is based, of course, on the play by Shakespeare, a writer who was all the rage in early 19th-century Paris. Berlioz, indeed, fell in love with his wife, an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson, when he saw her as Juliet in an 1827 performance of the play at the Odéon Theater, even though he spoke no English. (He was just one of many young French artists for whom Smithson was the romantic idol of the day.)
For Roméo, he created one of his innovative, hard-to-describe forms, a work that fits into no previous category. It’s a 95-minute choral symphony that charts the entire narrative arc of the star-crossed lovers of old Verona. Unusual though its form may be, Berlioz took his inspiration not just from Shakespeare but Beethoven, specifically the Ninth Symphony, which was a relatively new piece (it premiered in 1824) at the time Berlioz was composing Roméo.
But that doesn’t mean it will be performed like an hommage to Beethoven.
“It’s a matter of acknowledging the link that makes everything possible. Everybody grew out of someone else. Beethoven grew out of Mozart and Haydn, and so on. That just informs the way we think,” he said, likening the piece to an “extended Beethoven symphony.”
“But the qualities of the French music of Berlioz are so particular; that’s why I think it was ingenious that he was able to take a conceptual idea of form and style and develop it with his own completely unique language,” he said. “That, to me, is the miracle of Berlioz.”
Roméo, which has rarely been done complete in South Florida, is in seven movements: An introduction, Capulet’s House (Romeo Alone), Balcony Scene, Queen Mab Scherzo, Funeral Cortège (for Juliet), Tomb Scene, and Finale. It is a score of immense variety and difficulty, with choral writing in 16 parts and an orchestral fabric of beautiful colors and textures. All of this is put to the service of a retelling of the story in which each section is carefully crafted for highest dramatic effect. It is at once a narrative and an interpretation; in the music, we hear Berlioz not just portraying the events, but showing how many influences the story called up in his mind.
For this weekend’s performances, Figueroa said there will be supertitles, and the chorus will wear different colors to distinguish them as Montagues and Capulets. The Montagues will be in standard concert black, while the Capulet men will be wearing red cummerbunds and bow ties, and Capulet women will have red scarves, said Brett Karlin, the Master Chorale’s director.
Joining them will be mezzo soprano Rebecca Robinson (who sang Berlioz’s song cycle Les Nuits d’Été with Lynn two years ago) and bass-baritone Adrian Smith.
The performance is another event in an agreement of several years’ standing now in which the Master Chorale and Lynn trade services. This year, Lynn borrows the Chorale for Berlioz; next year, the Chorale will borrow the Philharmonia for a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem.
“This is our year, and knowing that I have such a fabulous chorus available that’s not going to cost us anything, it’s going to be ‘Damnation of Faust’ or ‘Romeo.’ And ‘Romeo’ is still a symphony, so the bulk of it is still on the orchestra, and I thought it would be the perfect piece to do,” Figueroa said.
“It’s a very difficult piece for the chorus, but I knew Brett would train them well,” he said.
Figueroa, who was concertmaster of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for years and later this spring will solo in the Second Violin Concerto of Bela Bartok with the Philharmonia, led a Berlioz Festival to mark the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2003 while leading the now-defunct New Mexico Symphony Orchestra in Albuquerque.
That festival proved a sensation, with large attendance at its events, and subsidiary activities such as dinners with early 19th-century Parisian menus and a discussion by the Albuquerque fire chief of how firefighting was done in Berlioz’s time.
The appeal of Berlioz remains profound for Figueroa, but somewhat mysterious. Fourteen years after the Festival, he finds his admiration for the composer has only grown.
“It’s even greater because I know it more. Now that I’m really delving into ‘Romeo and Juliet’ again, there are things in there I had never realized before, and how extraordinary it is, especially for the time he wrote it,” he said.
“Why does this music speak to me? I can’t hear three bars of it without” — he makes a gesture with his face and hands like a chef signing off on a culinary masterpiece — “I can’t describe what it is. I’ve tried to understand it: Why does it affect me so much? There’s a lot of music that affects me, but there’s something about Berlioz — I feel like he’s talking to me.”
After a pause, he tries again to explain its appeal. “It has a lot to do with the harmonic language. It’s so unique; it’s so different from anybody else. There’s something about the way he manipulates harmonies. They’re so unexpected, and touching in some way.”
One important thing to remember about this composer is his strong strain of classicism. He fervently admired the operas of composers such as Gluck and the now little-heard Gaspare Spontini, both writers who worked in a deliberately plain harmonic language. Berlioz’s music is far more inventive, but it often has the same kind of grand remove in which you can hear him striving for the big gesture.
“The classical background in him is often at odds with the expression. But the thing that is most distinctly Berlioz … is that he of most composers delved the most into really adapting his music to whatever the material was. That’s why the pieces are so different. [The opera] ‘Benvenuto Cellini’ is wild and crazy, just like those Italians at Carnival. ‘Les Troyens,’ on the other hand, is very serious. It doesn’t sound like ‘Benvenuto’ at all. And ‘Romeo’ is the same — they all have their own style.
“Wagner sounds like Wagner, whether it’s ‘Tristan’ or something else. The subjects are different, but the sound is the same. Beethoven, to a certain extent, as well,” Figueroa said. “Berlioz, no. And that’s why people have such a hard time with him. They hear something of his, and it’s not what they were expecting, and they don’t know how to react. You have to know, intimately, a lot of the music to get to the bottom of the style.”
The Lynn Philharmonia and the Master Chorale of South Florida will perform Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Wold Performing Arts Center on the campus of Lynn University in Boca Raton. Tickets range from $35-$50. Call 237-9000 or visit events.lynn.edu.