Romantic Bliss, Sublime Brutality from the Canton Symphony

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Berlioz: David Requiro (cello), Nathan Olson (violin), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 31.3.2012 (TW)

Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Violoncello in a minor, Op. 102 (1887)
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830)

If a single concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in the last several years could, beginning to end, embody all of its lustrous, enthralling character and indefatigable energy, it was the event – an aesthetic phenomenon – that transpired at Umstattd Hall on March 31. And to accomplish such a feat with only two works on the program makes it all the more astonishing.

Billed “A Romantic’s Dream,” the evening was a powerful embrace of the Romantic spirit in 19th-century European symphonic music: Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Violoncello, followed by Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Brahms wrote his 1887 concerto (the last of his works for full orchestra) in the final decade of his life, while Berlioz was just 27 when he completed his wildly ambitious work in 1830. For both composers, these passionate works were, among other things, innovative combinations of scintillating instrumental textures.

Brahms’s technical challenge was how to integrate and balance the differing aural resonances of the solo instruments with the rest of the orchestra. So his writing for violin and cello was an uncanny blending, such that the two instruments become something of a single entity, yet sustain a distinctly conversational relationship between themselves and the ensemble, with no single element overpowering the other.

The two guest artists on this occasion—rising star cellist David Requiro and violinist Nathan Olson (former CSO Concertmaster and now Co-Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra)—realized their daunting task with endearing panache to deliver a tour-de-force performance in every sense of the word. For all of their considerable virtuosity as individuals, both cellist and violinist were clearly concentrating on listening to each other to achieve a sweet, tonal equilibrium between themselves and the orchestra. Neither soloist needed to be—nor ever was—too forced in his articulations. Even their most quiet and intricately tender voicings were audible. Theirs was a seamless, crisp exchange of musical comments flawlessly interwoven with the work’s luscious, ebb-and-flow dynamics. And through it all, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s interpretive prowess was in peak form. At times he appeared very relaxed and confident in ceding control of the momentum to the soloists. But in this refreshing reading, he consistently balanced such passages with those of breathtaking orchestral sonority.

In this same spirit of brilliantly nuanced orchestral assertiveness, Zimmermann led the CSO in what should best be called an unleashing of Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz’s original program notes remain among the most articulate expositions of a composer’s intent ever written: “A young musician of morbid sensitivity and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of amorous despair…” What follows is the tumultuous story of a narcotic-induced dream (inspired by Berlioz’s bitter season of unrequited love) in five movements that when written, were largely unprecedented in structure, thematic methodology, aural effects and relentlessly agitated drama.

It is indeed the work’s intense emotionality that appears to have been ingested, like a drug (metaphorically, of course) by the CSO for this occasion. Every section of the orchestra played as if driven by a sublimely brutal intentionality, entranced in their urgency to pour out the work’s frenzied fantasy. Strings rising and falling in sumptuous waves, thunderous and deafening brass and percussion, shimmering winds plaintive and ethereal—all were united, startlingly clear and electrifying, under Zimmerman’s transfixing authority.

Many of us are well acquainted with this Berlioz gem and its theatrical facets: the iconic melody of his beloved idée fixe threaded through the entire work, the piercing bell tolls, the haunting inclusion of Dies Irae, the suggestions of heavy feet marching up the executioner’s scaffold and the dull thudding of the guillotined head. Not that familiarity with this masterpiece ever bred contempt on my part, but here the orchestra’s vigorous, impassioned rendering was utterly transformative, imbuing the work with surprising new life. In the process, the CSO has established for itself a soaring new standard for measuring blissful symphonic monumentality.

Tom Wachunas