H International Concert Review
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
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
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.