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S & H International Concert Review

Beethoven, Berlioz, Manoury, Orchestre de Paris, Esa-Pekka Salonen, December 11, 2003 (FC)

The noted music critic Norman Lebrecht wrote recently, "Bad critics go to a show eager to fawn or find fault. Good critics rush to judgment before the curtain falls. Great critics take their seats prepared to fall in love." However ready I was to swoon for this major world premiere by Philippe Manoury, one of France’s most respected composers, I have to confess to reservations about the project that set in well before the lights went down.

The 51-year-old Manoury composed "Noon" for soprano, chamber choir, electronics and orchestra, in his words, "in the spirit of the dramatic symphonies of Berlioz." It was part of a program which includesda work by the master himself and fell on the very date of his birth, 200 years before. In addition, this work, a bit less than one hour, sets to music a series of poems by Emily Dickinson. A work which associates Berlioz and Dickinson - two of the astonishing original geniuses of their century - as inspiration for a mainstream composer of well crafted compositions, which seldom engage the listener, was not a happy prospect.

The performance, conducted with skill and commendable energy by the highly regarded young music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, found the Orchestre de Paris on their best behavior. Soprano Valdine Anderson demonstrated a uniformly impressive talent in performing the musical settings of Dickinson poems. The electronic obbligato heard from time to time was the product of the IRCAM studios at the Pompidou Center, as was, for the most part, the composer himself. IRCAM is the underground temple of modern composition, the denizens of which recognize the sovereignty of Pierre Boulez and his school of mid-20th Century neo-atonal music. It is already showing a rusty obsolescence; younger French composers brag that they have never been inside.

On first hearing, Manoury’s complex, polyphonic waves of sound seem, after a while, all the same. The music accompanying the poems make them indistinguishable from one another, even though the soaring flights of the poet are as different in mood as inspiration can make them. The standard modernist sing-song delivery (i.e. very high note, very low note, even higher note) make hope of discerning a single word unlikely. The overlay of percussion and all the bells and chimes added a certain lightness but little charm. The choir, grouped throughout the large orchestral forces, had a wordless contribution. The relentless unpredictability of the music - the ultimate ironic sameness - makes it hard to understand what connection it all has with either the red-headed iconoclast Berlioz or the unique elegiac universe of Emily Dickinson. In any case, the hall was swathed in darkness to prevent any in the audience from trying to follow the texts with translations which were helpfully provided in the program.

The evening began with an over-analyzed performance of the second of Beethoven’s Leonore overtures. The "Tristia" which followed, seemed to be Berlioz’s contribution to the genre of works for chorus and orchestra of the heavy Romantic school. These are usually morose, slow works of inexpressible beauty which are almost never programmed in the concert hall. The remarkable choir from Amsterdam was unfailingly precise and passionate and Salonen caught the tone and imagination of these graceful gems. The 1838 "Religious Meditation", after a work by the poet Thomas Moore, was followed by a setting of "The Death of Ophelia". The latter, dating from 1848 as is the final section, could have been a flight of fancy after the failure of his marriage to the great Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson. In the final part, the "Funeral March for the Last Scene of Hamlet", the puckish Berlioz fired off two rifles to punctuate a fortissimo passage - as if to wake up even the most resolute dozer. Manoury could have used some of the same instrumentation in his work.

Frank Cadenhead

 


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