Conductor: Marin Alsop
Daugherty: "Red Cap Tango" from Metropolis Symphony
Liszt: Totentanz - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14
Whoever thinks that classical music is a high-brow hobby for some stuck-up elite was obviously not at Strathmore last night where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its audience had a field day with their “Demons, Drama and Dance” program, which included three works featuring the famous medieval funeral hymn “Dies Irae”. Hearing my fellow Lyonnais Jean-Yves Thibaudet is always a treat, and even though I had heard him tackle Liszt’s Totentanz a mere six months ago with the National Symphony Orchestra, there was no way I was going to miss a repeat performance of one of my favorite musical pieces by one of my favorite pianists. Berlioz’s ground-breaking Symphonie Fantastique has proven time and time again that its title is no unfulfilled promise but an accurate description of its core quality, so I went all the way to Strathmore full of anticipation on an appropriately miserable, rainy November evening.
Daugherty's "Red Cape Tango" was an eclectic mix of musical styles unified by the "Dies Irae". While I found all those darn recurring castanets quite grating after a short while, some of those variations were unusual and pleasant, if not unforgettable.
Probably one of the most thrilling musical rides I’ve ever been on, Totentanz ("Dance of Death”) was my first introduction to Franz Liszt and hooked me up right away with the ferocious virtuosity and the devilish fun it so brashly exudes. After a rhythmically suspenseful opening, the piano unleashes freely rushing flows of daring stylistic innovations totally befitting the Hungarian composer who was, let's not forget, the most accomplished pianist of his time, if not all times. Even in the quieter moments, diabolical intensity menacingly hangs in the air and never gives the listener a full break from ghoulish evocations of marching corpses and dancing skeletons. Apparently more than eager to jump right in, last night Jean-Yves Thibaudet stylishly mixed Catholicism, Romanticism and macabre in a wickedly delirious recipe, and the resulting dish was hot, hot, hot.
But no matter how satisfying Totentanz was, the high point of the evening had to be the Symphonie Fantastique, which also has its own Dies Irae-driven passage during the orgiastic witches' sabbath. One of the most important and highly regarded works of the early Romantic period, Berlioz's An episode in the life of an artist is still widely performed all over the world. The magnificent score and the story it accompanies are in fact based on the composer's originally unrequited love for the English actress Harriet Smithson and each movement has a descriptive title and clear purpose. As the plot and the music unfold, his beloved reappears sporadically as the idée fixe, driving him to despair and eventually to a bad opium-infused trip that will not end up well. But all was well indeed for the audience yesterday as Marin Alsop assuredly led the orchestra into Berlioz's sumptuous fantasy. The "Passions" were dreamily melodic, the "Ball" both festive and contemplative, the "Scene in the field" harmoniously impressionist, the "March to the Scaffold" grandly alarming and the "Dream of a Witch's Sabbath" frightfully grotesque. More than worth metro's uncooperative schedule and the thunderstorm pouring on me on my way home.
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