by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hector Berlioz (center) and his muse Harriet Smithson as depicted on the poster for
the 1942 French film Symphonie-fantastique.
The evening opened with the four orchestrated movements of Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin, the Swiss composer's tribute to departed friends and the artistry of the French baroque master François Couperin. Originally written as six movements for piano, this version was later orchestrated by Ravel himself. It is an orchestral favorite of some conductors, albeit one that requires clockwork precision and close attention to detail from the players. Mr. Nelsons drew light, precise sounds from his wind players, putting a zoom focus on the fine fabric of Ravel's silky orchestrations.
George Benjamin's star has risen to the constellation of important contemporary composers, gaining in magnitude with the 2015 New York premiere of his opera Written on Skin at the Mostly Mozart Festival. Here, the BSO was joined by countertenor Bejun Mehta and an eight-part ensemble of female sopranos for Dream of the Song, the work which follows that opera in the Englishman's catalog. Mr. Mehta, who rose to fame singing Handel at the New York City Opera, still has a bright, slightly dry timbre, suited for Mr. Benjamin's athletic vocal writing.
These songs are settings of poetry in English and Spanish, translations of works by the medieval poets Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Jews living under the Muslim government of medieval Spain, their poetry searches and soars, buoyed by Mr, Mehta's stratospheric instrument. The most memorable part of this work, however was the antiphon created between Mr. Mehta, singing English texts and the eight sopranos singing against him in Spanish. This was profound and eerie, a crossing of cultures nearly a millennium after these original texts were written. This is an unforgettable work that bears further hearing.
"Unforgettable" is the word that Hector Berlioz may well have used to describe Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress whose appearance as Ophelia in an 1827 production of Hamlet touched the the composer's heart. He wooed her (though she spoke no French and he, less English) and upon being rejected, placed his would-be inamorata at the center of his first great compositional success:the Symphonie-fantastique. This work, with its five movements and elaborate, written program detailing the "artist" and his ever more nightmarish obsession with his lost love broke new ground, forever blurring the line between tone poem and formal symphony i na way that had never been done before. Berlioz was just 26. Later, he married Ms. Smithson, although it didn't last.
In this performance Mr. Nelsons conducted this great work with the ferocity and boldness of a young man who has only just started to accomplish great things. The mighty first movement, which moves from tentative whimpers in the violins to a surging Allegro had the right mix of formality and madness, as did the following dance movement. The great slow third movement, with its distant, calling shepherd's pipes (a device later borrowed by Wagner for the third act of Tristan) was atmospheric, slowed to almost a crawl as time seemed to stop for the lovestruck hero.
The symphony accelerated again, as the orchestra launched into the muffled, shuffling drumbeat of the March to the Scaffold. The first of two phantasmagoric movements was a successful coup d'orchestre, with roaring, snarling brass and taut lockstep playing from the strings. Then Mr. Nelsons released the metaphorical hounds with the finale the Dream of a Sabbath Night with its chivvying, phantasmagorical chords in the strings, eerie tolling bells and at its height, the descending Dies Irae theme roared out in the solo tuba. What can sound cheesy in the wrong hands was here both thrilling and genuinely beautiful, as the orchestra, happy with its new chief whirled to a demonic close.