IN: Reviews

BSO Berlioz Catharsis


How is memory enlisted for the purpose of catharsis? Friday’s Henry Lee Higginson Memorial Concert at Symphony Hall featured Andris Nelsons leading the BSO in Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus prepared by James Burton. Inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and by Shakespeare’s poetic genius, a still youthful Hector Berlioz at the height of his creative powers in 1839 boldly pioneered an expanded form of symphony that he termed symphonie dramatique, hoping to purge us and every new generation of the propensity to form warring factions and fall into civil war.  Friday’s performance achieved Berlioz’s goal thanks in large part to the exceptionally coherent merging of richly contrasted instrumental and human voices into a palpable and thrilling structure. The choice of the three soloists made a huge difference. As though channeling Berlioz’s own theatrical flair, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges appeared dressed in flames of fiery red, like Life Herself, effortlessly filling Symphony Hall with her beautiful rich, wise, and stirring voice. Tenor Nicholas Phan, in turn, with punchy articulation, alerted us to the constant undercurrent machinations of Queen Mab, while bass John Relyea rose spectacularly to the difficult task of embodying Father Laurence with a force and gravitas superior to any worldly prince.

Berlioz’s surprising Prologue prepares us to hear the work as a whole, even as it reflects critically on its methods and purpose. From the start, Nelsons infused the score with nervous energy and excitement, nicely contrasting the dangerous feuding of enemy rivals with the bright, powerful trombones of the prince seeking to contain it. Interrupting the narrative told through instrumental color and orchestration, J’Nai Bridges, heralded by the poetic purity of Jessica Zhou on the harp, magnificently lifted us to a metaphysical level, asking: What Art can tell of the divine flame of youthful love? Shakespeare has taken his unique poetic gift up to heaven with him. Will music succeed in expressing the ineffable? The point is, Berlioz does not propose “program” music (young Wagner, who attended the premiere in Paris on November 24, 1839, will do this, with extra staging and props) but proposes to replace poetry with music. Berlioz’s gambit is that music has the power to move and have its being where words fear to tread. By surpassing the meaning of her words with the soaring mystery of her voice, J’Nai Bridges brought the question to perfect acuity: music expresses subjective states of soul that elude the reductive precision of words. (Both the philosopher Thomas Reid and Darwin agree with Berlioz.)

Indeed Part II, entirely orchestral, plunged us into realms of subjective feeling more vague and unstable, more nuanced and complex than words can “say”. In Roméo seul – Tristesse, John Ferrillo on the oboe and Elizabeth Rowe and Elizabeth Klein on flutes made us hear how solitude transforms into yearning — especially when it is interrupted by the jaunty, carnavalesque outside world of merriment and crowds, entering perforce into dialogue and superimposition rather than “resolving” into a stable state. Nelsons did not hesitate to use dynamics, but also pacing and silences to shape the score for maximal expressiveness, making Berlioz’s own point both convincing and satisfying. The ensuing famous “Scène d’amour – Nuit serene” bolstered the point. The choir off stage bid the fair women of Verona to “go dream of love,” but the orchestra conveyed the waking-dream of love itself, expressing the miraculous, divine subjectivity-à-deux that emerges from the loosened ego-boundaries through which young lovers become “one flesh.” Nelsons urged the music to heave with emotion, well up to heaven and swoon back to earth before ascending again (anticipating Mahler).

Like Shakespeare, however, Berlioz sensed that ideal love is infused with libidinal vitality. Nelsons gave the “Queen Mab” scherzo – the place of dreams, of uncensored wishes — all of the airy mischief and ironic restlessness of Mercutio’s speech, enhanced by raucous timpani, French horns and skillful crescendos.

Andris Nelsons, J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano,  Nicholas Phan, tenor, John Relyea, bass. (Winslow Townson photo)

Having explored both the ideality and libidinal vitality of eros, Berlioz now confronts us with thanatos: psalmodic, irreversible, sounding its one dreadful note again and again, relentlessly, the Convoi funèbre de Juliette, mingling full choir and orchestra, engulfed us into a sym-phony of “sym-pathy.” Borrowed from Garrick’s modification to Shakespeare’s ending, the Funeral procession as well as the madly experimental subsequent Invocation, in which Juliette wakes up before Roméo dies, allowed Berlioz to emphasize the contrast between thanatos and eros musically. The burst of ecstatic joy, with its bright brass and throbbing timpani and earthy oboes and breathy flutes, featured a brief incandescent solar feast before death took over, inexorably, through halting silences ending in absolute repose. Quel est c’est affreux mystère? asked the choir. Only after music had expressed the full finality of death did Father Laurence resort to words to “clarify” the narrative. Bass John Relyea perfectly counterbalanced J’Nai Bridges. He emphasized the purely musical expressiveness of his allocution over its verbal content. Where J’nai Bridges had told of “happy children” in love, John Relyea now spoke of “unfortunate children” in death, transforming the lovers into martyrs in a voice so deep that it seemed to come to us de profundis. Slowly growing from lament to righteous anger, Relyea elicited remorse in the choir of Montagus and Capulets — but also, more importantly, in us, the audience (composed, like them, of eros and of dust/ Beleaguered by the same negation and despair — Auden). Berlioz’s artful use of musical and verbal parallels shaped the final Oath of Reconciliation into a celebration of catharsis, to which Nelsons gave the full unleashed but marvelously controlled power of the BSO.

Swearing to forsake enmity and to cultivate “brotherly love” in memory of the doomed lovers of Verona, the audience rose up in applause, purged of dangerous divisiveness, committed anew to eros “in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?” Or so Freud asked about the struggle of eros and thanatos in 1931, when Hitler was coming to prominence. And so we might ask in 2024, as we fear upcoming election violence and await a lasting peace in Gaza.

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.


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

  1. I attended the Friday afternoon performance and listened to Saturday evening; in-between, I listened to my 33rpm recording with Munch,the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and soloists. (I was present at the 1953 and 1954 performances.) There was no comparison. The Munch recording is driven, intense and full of excitement and urgency. There is sharpness to the attack of the strings and the brass and woodwinds have the “French” timbre to them. But this is from a conductor who had a life-long affinity to Berlioz. Nelsons seems to be learning the work as he conducts it. The brass overwhelmed the orchestra at times, the love scenes were elegantly played, but lacked passion. All in all, it is a work in progress for Nelsons. For those who had not heard this piece before, it must might have seemed wonderful; but for those who heard it under Le Beau Charles, . . .

    Comment by RB19 — May 5, 2024 at 11:30 am

  2. Why was J’Nai Bridges placed to sing her solos from behind the orchestra? This placement was awkward and made her part seem like an afterthought, at least visually. She sang beautifully nonetheless and could be understood better than the other soloists, despite them singing from in front of the orchestra. The chorus was as good as (or maybe better than) I have ever heard them, displaying lovely moods and contrasts. They made the piece! I felt their diction (especially consonants) could have been brought out more.
    I found the piece lagged quite a bit in spots. Why no intermission?

    Comment by BonPom — May 5, 2024 at 4:19 pm

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with RB19. The performance was basically flawless but the dramatic intensity I had personnaly anticipated was missing. In other words it lacked the “pathos” this work deserved. I also feel an intermission could have made the performance more palatable.

    Comment by David M. Grahling — May 6, 2024 at 10:05 am

  4. Romeo and Juliet is set as a four movement dramatic symphony with voices and chorus. Munch had an intermission after the Queen Mab Scherzo and before the Funeral Music for Juliet and the Friar Lawrence appearance. You will have to ask Nelsons why.

    Comment by RSB19 — May 6, 2024 at 2:52 pm

  5. Thanks for the comments above. I heard this on the webstream and am glad I didn’t drive out from Albany, which is what I did 30 years ago when Ozawa did this very work, and I feel he did a better job than Nelsons, to say nothing of the great man at NBC in 1947, of which this is just a portion:


    Comment by Don Drewecki — May 6, 2024 at 3:33 pm

  6. I am glad I drove from Brattleboro Friday. I parked illegally one minute from the stage door and lucked out – no ticket! I am well aware of Munch’s legacy with Berlioz. I heard him in the 60s and remember his flair for everything, especially French. Of course he owns this piece. But yes, for me this was my first full hearing, and I thought it was fabulous. The message from the friar at the end was so powerful as it relates to today’s frightful condition — I was fighting back the tears. If our 45 year old maestro is learning this stuff on the fly, so be it! Kudos to him and the orchestra. I am glad he will be around for a while.

    Comment by Moby Pearson — May 7, 2024 at 8:38 pm

  7. I do think that it probably was wise that Mr. Drewecki chose not to travel all the way from Albany to attend this concert. I myself have misgivings about the trip I made from West Hartford, Ct. For me personally, it was a rather disappointing ending to what I feel was a somewhat lackluster 2023-2024 season. I was hoping that next year the programing would be more creative and captivating. However, as much as I love Beethoven, hearing Nelsons conducting all nine symphonies isn’t all that exciting and given all the Shostakovich we’ve recently heard at Symphony Hall doesn’t offer much innovation. I know there may be many out there that disagree with me, but I personally feel the BSO has gone somewhat overboard with all the ” new” music recently commissioned and performed. Not that it doesn’t deserve its proper place in the ” World of Modern Music” but let us not forget or neglect all the great orchestral music that we don’t often hear and would like to hear and music that would ordinarily fill the Hall which, for many reasons, is a serious concern all Symphony Orchestras are confronted with.

    Comment by David M. Grahling — May 8, 2024 at 9:34 am

  8. Kudos are due Ms. Davenport for this high-minded and beautifully written review of what was, ultimately, a somewhat disappointing evening (I was in the Hall for Thursday’s first performance). The extraordinary music Berlioz penned for this radical experiment of its time never quite cohered as a whole for me, though its innate “disjunctiveness” certainly makes this a problem for all but the most deeply-seasoned Berlioz-fluent conductor. Nelsons had the formidable memories of Charles Munch’s superbly idiomatic readings hovering over him, and that didn’t help his cause. Seiji, indeed, also handsomely had the measure of this music, as I recall from my own BSO concert attendances. No complaints about the superb playing of our BSO, nor of the vocal contributions of all the singers on-stage. John Relyea was particularly impressive, filling the hall with his gloriously plush and pointed Basso. I thought also that the TFC, in this outing, were really at the top of their game, adding luster to the evening whenever they sang. Yet what lacked overall, as I said earlier, was a coherence, an overall arc to the music and drama, such that at the end, while one was once again stunned by Berlioz’s unique originality and by the many felicities of the BSO’s apropos and idiomatic playing – wow, that Queen Mab Scherzo! – that I left the hall feeling a bit undernourished for so long and rich a repast. Thanks to Don Drewecki for reminding us of Toscanini’s rightly renowned essay of this wonderful score. That unique recording, melding two live NBC radio broadcast performances from February, 1947, is an important lodestar of remarkable drama and insight.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — May 8, 2024 at 8:01 pm

  9. I attended the performance on Friday, May 3. I don’t understand why it was necessary to perform the entire Berlioz work without an intermission. The seats in Symphony Hall are cramped and uncomfortable for longer than 30-40 minutes at a time.

    From an artistic point of view, an intermission between Parts 3 and 4 would have worked well. Not only would it have given the audience a break from sitting through this very long work, but the Tanglewood chorus could have taken the stage during the intermission instead of during the performance, shortening the length of the concert by as much as 10 minutes.

    Comment by Craig H Maynard — May 12, 2024 at 12:02 pm

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