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A Concert Review

Berlioz: Romeo & Juliet (excerpts); Ives: Symphony No. 4
Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco SO
February 1, 2002

The Berlioz was lovely. I would have loved to hear the work performed complete. You definitely lose a great deal of impact without the soloists and chorus. Regardless, it was an excellent performance.

During the intermission, my wife and I watched the "subterranean percussion battery" gather below the stage (these represent the ticking of the universal clock) and the "Star of Bethlehem" / "Halley's comet" grouping (a few string instruments and harp; also, a beacon of the transcendent) sitting above and behind the orchestra to the right of the chorus in the loge seating. (If I recall correctly, Ives called for them to be suspended from the ceiling!)

MTT gave an informative synopsis of the work before starting off with a series of hymns which are embedded in the texture of the work. (He also does this on his recording of the Fourth with the Chicago SO.) I was also surprised to hear MTT lead directly into the 1st movement without a pause after the hymns. The approach certainly helps contextualize the symphony in light of earlier, more traditional music, but it also seemed to change the work slightly. Honestly, it was no big deal to me, but I'd be interested to hear what critics say about this approach. It also made me think that it would be interesting to hear ALL of the works that Ives incorporated into the Fourth--and then hear a performance of the symphony. Perhaps an idea for an Ives Festival some day?

The performance itself only raised my estimation of the work. It was shattering. I'd say that MTT's reading was very similar to his Sony recording. Only it was much, much more impactful live. The conductor Joel Lazar has mentioned the importance of space and the different groupings in his recent performance of the Fourth with Leonard Slatkin and the National SO. Having heard the work live, I completely agree--although I dearly loved the work BEFORE hearing it live. Now, in retrospect, compared to the live performance, all of the recordings sound flat! I heard tons of details in the hall that I'd never heard on record. Perhaps this work is a good candidate for a 5.1 "surround"-style recording. Perhaps it just cannot be captured on a recording.

The opening movement was ominous, with the "subterranean" percussion sounding particularly otherworldly. The "comic" second movement was a whirlwind, a parodistic knock out, simultaneously both serious and jokey. MTT actually shouted in exhortation to orchestra as the movement reached it's climax. (My wife turned to me after the movement and asked, "Is that grunt in the score?") After the caucaphony of the second movement, the third was glorious, dignified and stately. But the best part of the performance was the final movement. Ives himself declared that this was the best work that he'd ever done--even though he never heard it. It's not hard to understand why he felt that way. When the chorus re-entered near the climax of the work, it killed me. As the work ended, the only players left were the percussion and the "Star of Bethlehem." It was unbearable. The sound kept getting softer and softer, quieter and still more quiet. I was holding my breath, until at last it just faded away.

I literally couldn't speak without getting choked up for a long while. I just sat down while other folks were streaming out of the hall. I'm certain that I've never experienced anything else like that in my life, ever.

Somewhere in his writings, Ives describes the experience of hearing an imaginary chorus. At first, the chorus sings the words of a choral song. But, as the music carries them away, words cannot contain what they are expressing. So they begin to sing wordlessly. (And this very thing happens in the first and final movements.) But that's not the end of Ives' vision, even though the symphony literally ends there. Ives goes on to describe the chorus caught up the rapturous, wordless song. As they rise even further, eventually even sound itself cannot contain the music that they are making. (Ives once sagely remarked, "What does sound have to do with music!") So they sing their song, and they stand there with their mouths open, singing, with no words, no sounds coming from their mouths. This is music so transcendent that it surpasses sound itself and becomes something inexpressible.

That's what this performance made me think of.


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Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2002-2006


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