"The French are the wittiest, the most charming and (up to the present at all events), the least musical people on earth," wrote Stendhalin "The Life of Rossini" in 1824.
Boy, let's hope he was exaggerating, or that the trend subsided. If the good baron had it right, it's going to be a long weekend at Maryland Hall, where the Annapolis Symphony is about to present its fourth concert of the season, a program devoted to works by Saint Saens, Faure, Franck and Berlioz, Frenchmen all.
"They make a nice little group," says ASO conductor Gisele Ben-Dor, who will lead the performances tonight and tomorrow night, with a laugh. "But you know," she continues, "I used to think that everything French sounded impressionistic, like Debussy and Ravel. But what this concert shows is the variety of styles within the French spectrum.For some in our audience, it may even sound like the French is missing. That's how different all these composers are."
The cornerstoneof the ASO's program is Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," the five-movement Romantic symphony that set the artistic world on its ear at its 1830 premiere and continues to amaze more than a century and a half later.
This was program music --music detailing a story -- like the world had never seen. Sure Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, with its evocation of the joys of nature, was programmatic to an extent, but Berlioz's phantasmagorial plot line was something else again.
Smitten by his affection for a beautiful girl, a young man takes opium and begins to hallucinate. First, he dreams peacefully about her ("Reverie and Passions"), then envisions her waltzing at a masked ball. After an anxious interlude in the country, he loses control and murders her. He is taken to the scaffold but the execution scene melds into a witches' Sabbath where the artist's corpse is buried as the "Dies Irae" ("The Day of Wrath") theme plays madly to the work's conclusion.
Such a story demanded a whole new sound. The orchestras thatpremiered the symphonies of Beethoven contained perhaps 50 or 60 players. But "Symphonie Fantastique" demanded an unprecedented beefing up of instrumental forces -- trombones, English horn, harp, the ophicleide (a forerunner of the tuba) -- and augmented numbers throughout the entire orchestra.
The breadth of sonority and color called forth by Berlioz's writing is extraordinary. For the music lover who wonders where the grandiose designs of Wagner, Mahler and Richard Strausscame from, "Symphonie Fantastique" is as good a place as any to begin diagramming the family tree.
Wagner, indeed, was a Berlioz admirer, inspired by more than just the size of the "Fantastique's" conception. Another Berlioz innovation, the "Idee Fixe," pops up through the five movements when the hero thinks of his beloved.
Wagner, of course, incorporated this thematic wrinkle into "The Ring" operas, in which characters are associated with melodic leitmotifs that identifythem through the entire tetralogy.
Franz Liszt, the composer and mega-pianist of the Romantic period, was another admirer and went so far as to transcribe "Symphonie Fantastique" for solo piano so he could play it in concerts.
Cesar Franck, the most influential teacherand organist of 19th-century France, is represented on the ASO bill by his "Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra," which will be performed by Ben-Dor and the 24-year-old Israeli pianist, Tomer Lev.
More of an evolving dialogue for piano and orchestra than a straight theme and variations, this is one of Franck's finest pieces.
Lev will also solo in the delicately beautiful "Ballade" of Gabriel Faure. "This is such a tender piece, full of haunting harmonies," says the conductor.
The concert will also include the exotic "Bacchanale" from Saint Saens' opera "Samson and Delilah." This familiar melody (one of those "oh, so that's what that is" tunes) occurs in the operaas the Philistines dance in triumph around the weakened, recently shorn biblical hero. Little do they know that Placido Domingo, or some other first-class tenor, is about to bring down the house -- both literally and figuratively.
Perhaps if Stendhal had experienced theseworks of Berlioz, Franck, Faure and Saint Saens, he might have changed his tune.
Phil Greenfield will be speaking at the Annapolis Symphony's "Symphonic Supper" tomorrow evening before the concert.
For reservations, call 269-1132.