Hector Berlioz: La symphonie fantastique
Conductor: Kazuki Yamada
Vilde Frang: Violin
I had occasionally wondered over the past three years or so how come I had, as far as I could tell, been spared by the coronavirus and the dreaded disruption it leaves in its wake, despite my regular traveling and mingling with other people. And then I stopped wondering a couple of weeks ago, when my luck ran out abruptly, but at least conveniently enough just as I had a little lull in my cultural calendar. One has to be thankful for the small favors sometimes.
Eventually, once the worst of my COVID episode as well as the risk of infection were over, and I was slowly regaining my physical strength and mental acumen, not to mention my sense of taste, which is without a doubt the most terrible thing to lose in Italy, I figured that it was high time to treat myself to the ultimate pick-me-up to fully get back on my feet: a healthy dose of live music.
As luck would have it, last week the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia seemed to have just what the doctor ordered with a program featuring Alan Berg’s violin concerto, a work I had never gotten around to hearing before, but which had been on top of my list of priorities for years. The second part of the program, on the other hand, was an old friend, but I was still very excited at the prospect of hearing Hector Berlioz’s La symphonie fantastique one more time because, really, why wouldn’t I be?
And that’s how last Saturday I resumed my sporadic new Saturday evening routine consisting of heading to the Auditorium Parco della Musica Ennio Morricone around 5:30 PM for the 6:00 PM concert, after enjoying one of those gorgeous fall days in Rome that made me beyond grateful for being able to safely step outside again.
When distinguished American violinist Louis Krasner first approached him to write a violin concerto using the 12-tone technique, one-track-minded Berg was focusing his undivided attention on his opera Lulu and turned him down. But then Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler, widow of Gustav Mahler, and Walter Gropius, died of polio at the young age of 18, and the tragedy spurred him to feverishly compose what would be his one and only violin concerto in over just a few months and dedicate it to “the memory of an angel”. And then he died too.
On Saturday evening, ever-rising Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang made her Rome debut with Berg’s poignant tribute to his young friend, which he incidentally never got the opportunity to hear live. If he had been in the auditorium with us though, chances are he would have been as impressed as we all were by Frang’s technical and emotional command over his piece. In less than half an hour, she eloquently evoked life in all its innocence, fun and seemingly irrepressible force, the inescapable nature of death through an ominous macabre dance, and the transcendental beauty that comes with eternal peace.
A lovely picture of youth herself in a simple pale-yellow dress, Frang proved to be a particularly nimble musician too. Exuding grace and lightness during the first two movements, she seamlessly switched to a much darker mood as she was battling the fatal illness in the unforgivingly intense third movement, before reaching the radiant light of transfiguration in the final one. Although the auditorium kind of felt too vast for such an intimate composition, Frang’s riveting performance, solidly backed-up by the orchestra, certainly made up for it.
There was an inexplicably high number of empty seats in the audience, but that did not keep us from making sure to express our bottomless admiration loud and clear, which earned us a mysterious encore that ended up extending the blissful after-life state of grace we were all in.
After intermission, the orchestra and visiting conductor Kazuki Yamada finally grabbed the spotlight for Berlioz’s La symphonie fantastique, efficiently taking us through the highly dramatic epic with infectious enthusiasm and razor-sharp precision. A few moments inevitably had to stand out, such as the hypnotic waltz during the ball and the exquisite pastoral duet, with the oboist playing from the top row of the audience, but the whole performance was generally well-paced and constantly engaging, so much so in fact that a few people felt the urge to clap at the end of the second movement. But even that small interruption did not manage to break the spell of our evening.