Thrilling, Irresistible Berlioz “Te Deum” from Dutoit

United StatesUnited States Poulenc, Berlioz: Erin Wall (soprano), Paul Groves (tenor), San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Pacific Boychoir, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 8.2.2013 (HS)

Poulenc: Stabat Mater
Berlioz: Te Deum

It’s almost always a treat when the program includes a work featuring the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, a vocal ensemble able to render any music with clarity, rich sound and stylistic vigor. On Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall, a whole evening of its artistry, coupled with virile conducting and muscular playing from the orchestra in music with an amazing range of color, came off as nothing short of thrilling.

Charles Dutoit, in his second and final week of subscription concerts, kept a tight rein on Berlioz’s unwieldy Te Deum. Somehow, its untamed, wild core burst through anyway. It’s music full of unexpected turns of harmony, bass lines that move in the opposite direction from where you think they will go, and explosions of choral majesty interposed with quiet reflections. The musical gestures are big.

It starts with the full roar of orchestra chords alternating with orotund responses from the organ, played with unalloyed joy (and throughout) by Jonathan Dimmock. Berlioz wrote this music for a performance space that placed the organ at the opposite end from the orchestra and chorus. The position of the Ruffati organ at Davies Hall, behind the orchestra and chorus, loses this antiphonal effect, but that didn’t seem to matter much, as Dutoit drew out plenty of nuances as the piece progressed.

The opening choral fugue that follows these resounding chords felt vital and unusually expressive, moving gracefully, with none of the sense of obligation that goes along with others written in the Romantic era. The first prayer, “Dignare Domine,” came as a balm after the robust colors of the beginning, and the swirl of surprise harmonics in “Christe rex gloriae” set up a fine contrast to tenor Paul Groves’ lithe and expressively devotional rendition of “Te ergo quaesumus.” The finale, “Judex crederis,” built irresistible momentum to a finish of huge chords and a surprisingly reflective “amen.”

In lesser hands, all this could easily go off the rails. For his part, Dutoit let out the reins just enough to let the ardor through without losing the musical line or allowing anything approaching vulgarity—exciting stuff.

On paper, putting Poulenc’s quirky Stabat Mater on the first half of the program seems like a juicy idea. It pales, however, next to the Berlioz. The 20th century composer’s subtle nods to modernity within his primarily Romantic palette can be delightful in his songs and other smaller works, but here, the religious fervor that comes through so tellingly in his opera Dialogues of the Carmelites never quite reaches those depths. In this Stabat Mater, the hymn to Mary that usually finds its musical core in sorrow takes some odd turns, ending up remarkably hopeful and pleasant.

Poulenc divides the poem into twelve sections, some as short as three minutes, each with its own distinct orchestration and feel. “Cujus animam” melds sorrow with the beauty of parallel thirds, but then refuses to wallow in pity and busts out in angry lines for the tenors and divided basses of the chorus. The next movement, “O quam tristis,” spreads balm over the proceedings. “Eja mater,” in which the chorus begs to feel the force of Mary’s sorrow, comes off as almost jazzy. Interspersed throughout are soprano solos, here sung by Erin Wall with lyric sound just this side of the operatic.

In the end this Poulenc oddity—getting its first San Francisco Symphony performances—worked well as an appetizer for the Berlioz, which the orchestra and chorus have not played since 1973 under Seiji Ozawa. The spotlight fell on that majestic Te Deum, and deservedly so.

Harvey Steiman