When Matthew Krause, the actor playing Hector Berlioz in the imaginative “Beyond the Score – Symphonie Fantastique” presentation, emphatically admonishes the conductor Stéphane Denève to be careful with a certain section of the music it no doubt made many in the audience smile. What ensued was an exquisite rendition of that musical line with the nuanced sensitivity that informed the performance throughout. Even perfectionist Berlioz could not help but approve.
Bravo to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Gerard McBurney, the creative director of the Beyond the Score series, for continuing to experiment with new ways to bring each score to life.
In this performance there was no narrator other than the Berlioz character. This allowed for an immersion in the composer’s world as we felt him by our side as he talked to us about his world.
Berlioz was sometimes accompanied by a dancer, Lindsey Marks. Marks performed the role of the woman who inspired the “idée fixe” of Symphonie Fantastique and also the real-life Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz pined for and eventually married. At times we saw Marks’ face in a photo collage projected onto the backdrop of the Symphony Center Terrace seats above. She would surface now and again dancing with big arms as the story told of the tortured artist’s longing for this perfect woman and how that unrequited longing became the five chapters or movements of the symphony. When Berlioz was speaking of something other than this idée fixe or Smithson, Marks would fold herself into the Terrace seats and disappear.
Also on the Terrace were occasional appearances by tenor John Irvin bringing parts of Berlioz’ prior opera score or Dies irae composition to life.
The score was projected in this Terrace area in many colors--golds, purples, greens and red-- interspersed with imagery related to the symphony- -of witches, guillotine scaffoldings and more.
The overall effect was to feel immersed in the character.
Yes, he did down a drop or two of opium as so many associate with Berlioz and this tortured artist tale symphony. However this was not just a tale of a bad drug trip. A much deeper context of the times of Berlioz was drawn, as was his thinking on different aspects of the score.
For example, we heard Berlioz reflect on the duet of oboe and English horn in the earlier movements and the contrast to the later movement’s English horn solo accompanied by four tympanists to underline just how solo and abandoned this voice now was.
Oddly, the success of this Beyond the Score in retelling how Berlioz wrote a story about a doomed artist seemed, if anything, to expose how little the music in itself needs to tell this tale. After intermission when we got to hear the piece uninterrupted, it was newly easy to just hear its complexity and beauty apart from a narrative context or to let your mind dwell on the tortured artist’s story. No doubt the perfection of the orchestra and conductor helped make this dual experience possible.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is playing a full season of concerts until late June at the Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan.
For information or tickets call 312 294 300 or visit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra website.
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Photos: Todd Rosenberg