Until a run this week-end, the SF Symphony had not performed Berlioz' Requiem in almost thirty years. Part of the reason is logistics: it requires an expanded orchestra and three choirs, for a total of 300 musicians on the stage at Davies Symphony hall. You don't pull off that kind of feat on a whim. In performances led by Charles Dutoit, the orchestra gave an impressive performance that highlighted the unbridled creative genius of Berlioz.
Berlioz was uncompromising, and didn't care much for ease of staging. In the case of the Requiem, he asks for four groups of brass to be split up in four directions, and a fifth one in yet another! That last group plays for only a few bars over the eighty minutes of the piece, and, okay, these trombone do bring in an eerie quality, but it's quite a hill to climb to achieve the desired outcome. He experimented a lot, and not just with the spatial placement of the orchestra. His Requiem premiered in the Hotel des Invalides (where Napoleon was eventually laid to rest), a cavernous building noted for its architectural influence on ... San Francisco City Hall. It was a royal cathedral with 350ft ceiling under the dome, which is why Berlioz needed a huge orchestra and could spread his musicians apart for effect. He was inventive with the orchestration, and created astonishing textures and effect. He played with the form of the Mass as well, condensing some sections of the traditional liturgy into one of the ten movements, while spreading some other over several.
Our maestro for this week (and the next, in a different program!) was Charles Dutoit. At eighty years of age, the Swiss conductor was provided with a stool to lean on the podium. The Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra ignored it for the whole hour and a half, preferring to conduct with his whole body, also known as: dancing. He had a well tuned affinity for Berlioz' rich orchestrations. Berlioz ranges from the intimate and minimalist to the brash and outsized. Dutoit seemed to prefer the more intricate details of the former, and let the latter speaks for itself. When you have literally ten drummers banging, as in the Dies Ireae, you don't aim much for subtelty.
Dutoit highlighted these textures for all they were worth: the flutes along with the cellos and basses in the Dies Irae bookend the voices, before the violins glide in as in a THX sound effect. The lilting pace of the Lacrymosa seemed almost too waltzy, as if out of place. Dutoit played off that syncopated 9/8 beat to better to set up the contrast with the orchestral explosion that concludes this movement. The Hostias sets the voices against a bare, almost minimalist background of flute and growling trombone. The Offertorium has the voices mostly oscillate on two notes a half-step apart, while the orchestral provides the harmonic and melodic material, until the final resolution. These were crazy heretic moves to pull out in the 1830s and still sound astonishingly modern: the sound color at one point in the Agnus Dei made us think of a slowly opening squeaky creaky door, not the first thing that comes to mind for that period. Berlioz was ahead of his time, you hear it in how the Agnus Dei could have influenced Wagner (who admired Berlioz and saw some of his worked premiered in Paris when he lived there for a few years in the 1840s), with one of these meaty brass sunrises that you would now associate with the German composer.
One move did not pan out perfectly, when the cymbals and the bass drum could not find the proper synchronization in the Sanctus. Either a clearer gesture from Dutoit, or placing the cymbalist on the side that could see the drummer's mallet could have helped. It's an irregular rhythm, that seems disconnected from the melody, so maybe it sticks out like a sore thumb no matter what (it should not: it's supposed to be played "as weakly as possible").
Among the other gutsy moves from Berlioz: the a capella Quaerens me, letting us fully appreciate the polished, rounded sound of the SF Symphony chorus (the other choirs, excellent as well, participate only in the loudest movements). And the intervention of the tenor soloist for the Sanctus only - in this case, Paul Grove - with a sweet, delicate voice raising up to heaven, supported only by the women chorus, flutes and the first chair violins.
Berlioz complained at the premiere that the trombones in the Tuba Mirum missed their entrance. They slowly arpeggiate a G-major chord on the lyrics of a "wondrous sound." Because they are supposed to surround the audience on four sides (they were on different levels at Davies, but all in front), G-Major indicates the omnipresence of God. The brass had it figured out by Friday night. The Requiem ends on another G-major chord, arpeggiated down again and again by the violins, but preceded on the way up six times by arpeggios in different keys. It's astonishingly modern to shift tonality so much in such short span. Contemporaries (and for a while later!) would stick to a key and end on a dominant-tonic cadence. With this harmonic chaos, Berlioz is telling us that humanity, in all its shapes, forms and imperfections, journeys towards this wondrous transcendent harmony. And Dutoit and the SF Symphony followed Berlioz' meandering path, but they got us there.