Berlioz masterwork gets the North State Symphony off to an excellent start
I can’t think of a more difficult piece to pull together and perform over a couple of weekends than Belioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Not only is this hour-long work technically challenging, with its bursts of speed, its abundance of isolated solos (especially in the winds), and its need for rhythmic and tonal togetherness, it is dramatically challenging as well, as it works to pull exterior scene painting and the sketching of interior psychological moods into a coherent whole.
And this is what the new North State Symphony Orchestra, a semi-professional reformulation of the old Chico and Redding symphonies, managed to pull off this past weekend—under the superb direction of conductor Kyle Pickett.
As a scene painter and as instance of the Romantic artist as hero, Berlioz can be said to pick up where Beethoven leaves off. Where the older man is able to create beautiful scenery, as in his Sixth Symphony, and work with a kind of dialectical view of societal progress, as in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, the revolutionary French Romantic pushes still further. Not only does Berlioz paint nature (in Part III, “In the Country") and society (in Part II, “A Ball"), he also moves inside the mind of a Romantic artist—a version of himself—to depict that artist’s dreams and melancholy yearnings (in Part I, “Reveries and Passions"), his nightmares (in Part IV, “March to the Scaffold"), and his brush with universal madness (in Part V, “The Witches’ Sabbath").
Each of these movements is a totally engaging symphonic study in itself, each a small universe set against the large one; and both Chico and Redding audiences were totally justified in their urge to applaud them individually. The soloists—especially flutist Heidi Pintner, oboist Susie Lundberg, clarinetist Russell Burnham and bassoonists Barbara D’Augelli and Bruce Finch—were wonderfully able to shift their tones in ways appropriate to what they were helping depict. And, finally, Pickett’s ability to keep the orchestra appropriately restrained and contemplative where it was meant to be so was excellent.
It’s unfortunately misleading that Debussy, whose Première Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra (splendidly performed by Russell Burnham) concluded the concert’s first half, is generally referred to as an “impressionist.” In truth, Debussy’s art is much closer to the fantastical, turn-of-the-century symbolist artists like Böcklin, de Chavannes and Klimt than to the more analytic impressionists like Monet and Renoir.
His picture-making is also different from that of the more romantic Berlioz, in that, where Berlioz strives to paint real scenes and real psychological states, Debussy’s scene painting is more open-ended, conveying a sense of mysterious possibility, rather than a sense of “if you listen very carefully, you’ll see just what I’m getting at.” Burnham and the symphony achieved this sort of scene-painting-without-a specific-objective-correlative, and did so beautifully.
In truth, the concert’s two other first-half pieces were just as good—the swirling, Mid-Eastern-flavored “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saëns’ Sampson and Delilah and Fauré's jewel-like Pavanne for a Dead Princess.
Both concerts—Chico on Saturday evening and Redding on Sunday afternoon—were polished, professional, and graciously sponsored and presented. The only significant difference between the two was that Redding’s Shasta Learning Center Auditorium is a slightly better listening space, with the musicians thrust farther toward the audience and less sound lost in the rafters above the stage. Would that a couple of Chico State’s renowned structural engineers could devise a better sound shell for Laxson Auditorium.
Despite the differences, however, both concerts drew standing ovations, and both proclaimed a future season well worth supporting and attending.