IN: Reviews

Paradise, and More, at Symphony Hall


Was paradise espied within the cosmos? The beloved Charles Dutoit led a BSO augmented by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Voices Boston in an unforgettable journey. Berlioz’s Resurrexit and Dutilleux’s La nuit étoilée: Timbres, espace, mouvement certainly charged the air. Then in the titanic Te Deum, the tenor of Paul Groves shone exquisitely, yet one wondered if there were uncertainty about the sound in the hall among the hundreds of bonding performers.

Resurrexit was the one movement from Berlioz’s Messe solennelle that escaped being burned, not long after the 20-year-old had completed the work. That it was worth saving is undeniable, and that its performance was worth hearing is understatement. The opening crescendo, launched as a shooting star, left this already expectant listener breathless.

There was, though, nothing remotely resembling cold space in Dutoit’s interpretation, or more accurately, rebirth. TFC followed that crescendo with impeccably bright injections, “And He rose again on the third day.” With crystal clarity the BSO brass intoned, “The trumpet, spreading its wondrous sound, calls everyone before the throne.”

Great exhilaration came in the rising joy-filled refrain “Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum,” as the rebirth propelled us higher. Forcefully syncopated Amens, now quickly veering off tonal course then as quickly getting back in the groove with final fanfares, made for a rare paradisiacal voyage.

Further and further beyond now into Nébuleuse and Constellations in Henri Dutilleux’s The Starry Night, performed to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Even without the visual connections, which Dutilleux later makes with stellar phenomena, and even more with Van Gogh’s iconic painting, there was no denying the utter magnificence of this music. Actually, Timbres, espace, mouvement was the original title of the 18-minute work of a mature Dutilleux, the middle movement composed later, renamed Interlude. So much for titles.

Darkly shimmering swirls from Robert Sheena’s English horn stood out. Pulsations beamed from a perfected wind section. Solar winds wafted from the precision-bent microharmonization of the cellos and basses (the violins and violas absented from this score). Dutilleux continued composing his way through deeper and deeper space(s), turning timbres into galaxies, and rediscovering movements, perhaps unsurprisingly, via his predecessor and naturalist Claude Debussy. And with the large percussion section, how more integrated into this space-scape could any such usually noisy entity be! Astonishing uniting tones gave still greater cohesiveness, rooting one firmly in the past and committed to the future—or at least to the present. While this extraordinarily beautiful and dramatic piece tells us what is way out there, way out does not become far out.

The 12 cellists played the Interlude into sublimity. With the ultimate burst of another huge uniting tone, as if we had come upon gravity, the magnificence just could not end, and lingered long after.

Facing captivated listeners, Dutoit seemed to be looking out to the heavens, as if acknowledging the music’s creator, the late Henri Dutilleux. Taking the podium before Timbres…, the conductor blew a kiss to the cello section, or might it have been right at Martha Babcock, associate principal leading the dozen.

One has to wonder about the first performance of Hector Berlioz’s colossal Te Deum. Some 900 participated at St. Eustache, under the composer’s direction. Sadly, given the heavily populated stage, the Te Deum did not fare well in Symphony Hall, at least not at my seat (Or P8). Hopefully, we will receive positive responses from some of those whose resounding bravos were breaking out a nanosecond after the final notes.

Paul Groves and Charles Dutoit (Winslow Townson photo)
Paul Groves and Charles Dutoit (Winslow Townson photo)

Paul Groves’s beautifully spiritualized tenor rang out strongly, he and Berlioz’s setting of Te ergo quaesumus matching up in miraculous style and empathy. You might have thought, as I did, that he was singing right to you.

Outside such moments as the angelic Sanctus in Tibi Omnes and the shouted Christes in Christe rex gloriae, there was a massiveness that had this Te Deum all too often leaning precariously on the brink of unintelligibility. Berlioz’s bigness was too much for the place. What else can I say than that it was a disappointment being unable to discern more fully the wonders of Berlioz, the BSO, and the supreme efforts of the choristers? Could this have been a result of logistics, the spatial arrangement Berlioz intended? Berlioz instructed that the two adult choruses be at opposite ends, with the children’s in the middle. It was even difficult to see the children.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, guest conductor James Burton, and Voices Boston, artistic director Steven Lipsitt, sounded well-prepared.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


11 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I was surprised that the TFC were using scores. Had they done it in an earlier concert this season? It was always their pride that they could learn a piece. This represents a major change from the John Oliver years. It was supremely ironic that the children’s chorus, Voices Boston, had learned their (admittedly shorter) parts and sang without scores, while the TFC, who haven’t needed scores for decades, used them on this occasion.

    Of course, the children’s chorus was visible from the balcony, but there were fewer of them than of the grown-ups, so it took some effort to distinguish their sound at times. I’m afraid Prof. Patterson’s seat, without a direct line from the children’s mouths to his ears did him no favors. Maybe next time the BSO does the “Te Deum” they should shift the children from front and center to rear and center.

    Overall, though, I got what I was looking forward to from the “Te Deum:” lots of loud music with plenty of brass, and enough softer sections to make the climaxes glorious. Maybe, again, being in the second balcony near the stage provided a bit more clarity, but it may also be that Berlioz didn’t care if every line could be distinguished. Maybe the massive sound was supposed to wash over us in a sonic whole.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 27, 2016 at 1:41 am

  2. I went Friday afternoon. I was very happy with the Resurrexit, but I didn’t feel that the adult choristers had been very well prepared for the Te Deum. Their performance of the Te Deum seemed liked exuberant sight-reading. In the Te Deum none of the words were intelligible. It may have been composed so that some of the words are going to be unintelligible some of the time, but I do not believe it was composed so that one would not even be able to infer at any moment what language was being sung.

    Comment by John — February 27, 2016 at 8:59 am

  3. It could be that the Te Deum needed some modulation by Dutoit. When we heard it on Thursday night, it seemed that everybody was at full blast almost all the time, competing with each other. Paul Groves’s great solo was the highlight of that piece for us.

    Comment by John Melithoniotes — February 27, 2016 at 9:31 am

  4. Eichler actually called for Oliver successor asap:

    Comment by David Moran — February 27, 2016 at 12:05 pm

  5. If only the Dutilleux had received the performance described here. It was for the most part dutiful and uninspired. Only in the Interlude did we hear commitment and expression. Most of the rest was just an exercise in getting the notes in place. It’s a far more magical and ecstatic work than we were allowed to experience.

    Comment by Raymond — February 27, 2016 at 1:02 pm

  6. Thank you, Prof. Patterson, for your review. From my seat in second balcony left, on Friday afternoon, the choristers sounded well in the Te Deum. Mr. Groves sang beautifully and listened to his colleagues intently. M. Dutoit kept firm rein on his choral and instrumental forces, and in the concluding Judex Crederis, accelerated into a glorious gallop down the home stretch.

    Comment by Alessandra Kingsford — February 27, 2016 at 1:25 pm

  7. Thursday night’s performance was a treat because you rarely hear the Te Deum live. However, Symphony Hall is the wrong place to perform this piece. It really needs a cathedral – some place where the sound can really bounce around. I agree that the chorus seemed to be looking at the piece for the first, or second time. The solo however was fantastic!

    Comment by Kay — February 27, 2016 at 9:33 pm

  8. My favorite moments were when Dutoit threw his baton into the cellos, and when, as the organ announced the beginning of the Judex Crederis, one of the violinists discreetly slipped plugs into her ears. Sitting in the fourth row, I sympathized. I agree that this is not a piece for the concert hall; in fact it is not really a work to be listened to at all, but to be experienced as part of an enormous, all-encompassing spectacle. It probably helps if you have just won a great battle (though that is an experience that Berlioz can have only imagined).

    I disagree that the Dutilleux was played badly. I found it absorbing, and the high point of the evening.

    Comment by SamW — February 27, 2016 at 11:30 pm

  9. Raymond: “[The Dutilleux is] a far more magical and ecstatic work than we were allowed to experience.”

    I’m with SamW – I thought it was played superbly Thursday night, and I found it utterly magical and transporting. I have to wonder, Raymond, about the acoustics where you were sitting.

    Comment by nimitta — February 28, 2016 at 8:38 am

  10. I drove all the way out from Schenectady for last (Saturday) night’s performance, parked at the Pru Center garage (for $18 with my ticket stub!), sat on the aisle in Row J, and then drove all the way back. It was worth every penny and the seven hours’ total drive time.

    Dutoit has tended to conduct like an old man recently — slow tempi, often, in many works (e.g. the complete “Firebird”, Mahler’s 5 and Debussy’s Images). But not last night. He was a young man again, and the performances, the players, the singers, and even the audience were all top notch. Yeah, there were extremely loud moments, and perhaps even Symphony Hall is too small for the Te Deum. But, still, the work is such a rarity that I was as moved last night as I was when I saw CD do it at Verizon Hall with his Philadelphia Orchestra five years ago.


    Comment by Don Drewecki — February 28, 2016 at 1:31 pm

  11. All that was missing from Saturday nights BSO performance of the Berlioz:Te Deum,was a key light shining from above the stage,to illuminate the almost beatific facial countenance of tenor Paul Groves.One could also imagine-the brass fanfares resounding from the upper galleries,[al la Requiem],at the finale. While the SH stage was packed from front-to-back/side-to-side with choruses,players-it would be hard to imagine-accommodating-the “March”-movement-(normally performed only at military occasions)which throws in 12 harps to the mix! Mention should also be made of organist,James David Christie,who’s playing,from the opening chord to the underpinning of the finale,allowed the Aeolian-Skinner pipes to give a resounding and glorious resonance to the SH acoustic.(Note-to-Charles Dutoit: Please record the “Te Deum”,in Hi-Res/surround-sound,on the new Blue-Ray audio format-for both lovers of Berlioz and audiophiles alike).

    Comment by Ron Barnell — February 29, 2016 at 11:54 pm

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