Lavishing a Berlioz Classic With Love

United StatesUnited States Berlioz: Paul Groves (tenor), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco, Golden Gate Men’s Chorus, San Francisco Symphony / Charles Dutoit (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 4.5.2017. (HS)

Berlioz: Requiem

Although the Berlioz Requiem has a reputation for its moments of loudness, the San Francisco Symphony’s performance led by conductor Charles Dutoit left the opposite impression. It’s extraordinary how gentle the whole thing can be in the hands of a conductor who knows the work inside and out, feels its ebbs and flows, and relishes the gorgeous quiet moments as much as the big, showy ones.

With the exception of the Tuba mirum, Berlioz intentionally goes against tradition in this score. The four brass choirs stationed around the edges of the stage gear up for that moment in Tuba mirum, and it’s a doozy, with oratorical fanfares spreading and soaring around the orchestra. Lacrymosa, in most masses a quiet salve, revs up the brass and percussion again.

But in most of this work, even portions of the mass that most other composers rendered with fortissimo intensity, Berlioz finds an almost tender piety. Where other composers make a joyful outburst of Kyrie eleison, Berlioz lulls us with subtle murmurs. His music sways gently in the Dies irae, which spurred Mozart and Verdi into some of their most dramatic, outsized music. Here it’s the lull before a storm to come, only minutes later, in Tuba mirum.

Dutoit coaxed gorgeous colors from the orchestra and extraordinarily fine singing from both the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco. It’s intensely moving to hear so many voices singing pianissimo, as they do in the Kyrie and later in the Mors stupebit. The hushed beauty of Quaerens me, sung a capella, glowed with peacefulness.

In the Offertorium, the chorus’ stop-and-start phrases evoked halting prayer and expanded seamlessly into six-part polyphony at the finish. Tenor soloist Paul Groves spun vocal liquid into a supple texture in a gorgeous Sanctus, aided and abetted by more finely wrought quiet singing from the chorus.

Dutoit’s command of pace and dynamics felt sure-handed, allowing freedom of expression within a clear framework. The several fugues seemed to grow and flower, expanding organically under his baton. Leading his own reduction in orchestral forces, Dutoit found ideal balances in both subdued and more overt sections. Tuba mirum lost nothing in muscularity for its attention to legato and persuasive momentum, and Lacrymosa similarly made its big statements without crashing, all the more powerful for these elements of restraint.

The final movement, Agnus Dei, wove together richly sustained chords with wisps of material from earlier sections before drifting away to a heart-stopping pianissimo.

Harvey Steiman

7 thoughts on “Lavishing a Berlioz Classic With Love”

  1. One correction: there are three choruses on stage. Golden Gate men’s chorus joined us in the Tuba Mirum and Lacrymosa.


  2. Thank you for the quick response. And the review for sure. I have shared the link of the review with our unofficial Facebook group without the permission. Hope that is ok.

    • We are always very happy for Seen and Heard’s reviews to be shared on social media in any way possible. Jim

  3. What a kind review for such an unmemorable performance. I thought the performance was awful. I thought the score called for placing the brass choirs in the far corners of the auditorium, not the corners of the stage. What’s supposed to be gentle about The Last Judgment?

    • It would amount to censorship if I did not approve comments like this. More details of why exactly you found the performance ‘unmemorable’ and ‘awful’ would have been appreciated though. Seen and Heard

  4. Fair enough.

    I’ve heard this Requiem performed live twice. Once in the late 70’s with Seiji Ozawa at the Berlin Philharmonic. I can’t remember if he came with The Boston or San Francisco Symphony or if he guest conducted the Berlin. The other, 2 years ago in Oakland at the Paramount Theater, Michael Morgan conducting the Oakland Symphony and anyone else he could find. (It may have even been a slightly truncated version using 8 to twelve timpani because he couldn’t get the full 16.) Both were exciting and thrilling. Perhaps the Oakland, even more so, because my expectations weren’t as high and the orchestra played with such enthusiasm! There also wasn’t an empty seat in the theater, for the one night sold out performance. I sat near the front of back balcony, flanked by brass choirs in all directions! In Berlin I was on the main floor with equal effect.

    Imagine my bewilderment when I sat down with my date and saw the placement of the brass choirs in the 4 corners of the stage, when even the program said “4 corners N,S,E,W of the hall! I hyped this concert to my date who reluctantly came, just as the Symphony hyped this performance to the public. I really tried to enjoy this. Yes there were some sweet moments from the chorus. But that’s not what I came for. I came for sustained and prolonged Fire and Brimstone theatrics, which i believe Berlioz intended, and Dutoit completely missed. My 2 comparison performances prove the pointlessness of this one.

    I’m sorry we walked out (with egg on my face) before the “Sanctus” (as did others from our half empty balcony). By that time I couldn’t see the point as nothing could have salvaged my bitter disappointment. It’s that juxtaposition between the Terror and the Sublime that makes this work so great. Dutoit missed it entirely. That the Symphony played well and the chorus sang great is true of any Great Orchestra of the world which we are fortunate enough to have in SF.


    Kirk Essler


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