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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Concert Review: The Frantic Romantic

Lalo and Berlioz at the Philharmonic
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A man and his Stradivarius: Augustin Hadelich.
Photo from the artist's website.
The Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos opened a two-week stand at the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night. The program played to this conductor's strengths, exploring two intricately connected works of 19th century French repertory: the Symphonie espagnole by Édouard Lalo and Hector Berlioz' evergreen Symphonie fantastique.

Despite its title, Lalo's "symphony" is actually a violin concerto, written for (and premeired by)  violinist Pablo de Sarasate in 1875. Lalo's work falls in with the French craze for music with Spanish seasoning, incorporating the solo violin part in five sunny movements that evoke the most picturesque aspects of Iberian life.

The solo part was played by the talented Augustin Hadelich, a violinist who overcame serious injuries from a fire in his teenage years to emerge as a brilliant artist. Mr. Hadelich played with a clean, rich tone that soared into the highest registers of the instrument before diving earthward in a series of ever-more-complicated runs. Sensitively accompanied by Mr. Frühbeck, this performance made a good case for works by Lalo to be heard more often.


The  genesis of the Symphonie Fantastque (1830) is familiar to most concert-goers: it was the product of the composer's romantic obsession with Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz had seen perform Ophelia in a Paris production of Hamlet. Berlioz channeled his obsession into the work's movements, depicting his love as an ambivalent idee-fixé that permeates the music.

Mr. Fruhbeck took a brisk approach to this familiar score, bringing out clarity of detail but never sacrificing narrative drive. He was helped by superb contribtions from the principal winds, with the principal flute and clarinet sounding out the idée-fixe against a velvet curtain of strings.

The orchestra powered through the first two movements before slowing to a contemplative pace for the third, the Scene in the Fields. This featured a plaintive offstage oboe solo by Liang Wang, answered by English horn and eventually by the violins. Brass and timpani joined as the passions of the central characters came boiling to the surface. The ending, a final, unanswered woodwind solo was underpinned by muffled drumbeats.

The last two movements of the Fantastique are the most famous: Berlioz' depiction of two twisted opium nightmares. The first, a grim March to the Scaffold featured driving drums and percussion. The final rondo, a Dream of the Witches' Sabbath added the tolling of funeral bells (played offstage for balance purposes) and an insane, bacchantic whirl of clarinets, strings and roaring brass. Mr. Frühbeck achieved a finely tuned frenzy in this finale, ending the whole with a burst of energy that would have met with the composer's hearty approval.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.