Hector Berlioz and his hair.
  • Hector Berlioz and his hair.
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Brahms once again proved to be the go-to composer for Maestro Ling and the San Diego Symphony. I can’t think of another composer whose music has been so consistently excellent within the confines of the Jacobs Music Center (Symphony Hall).

This time around it was Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello with the symphony’s concertmaster Jeff Thayer on the violin and visiting cellist Alisa Weilerstein. We may never hear a more musical collaboration at the San Diego Symphony than this performance.


Elgar: Cello Concerto

Weilerstein · Barenboim · Berliner Philharmoniker

Weilerstein · Barenboim · Berliner Philharmoniker

A “musical” performance is difficult to define but suffice it to say that being “musical” is what becomes available when one’s technique is such that it can’t be done wrong. As Maestro Eduardo Mueller used to say, “You do not practice until you get it right. You practice until you can’t get it wrong.”

Jeff Thayer and Alisa Weilerstein have done some practicing. The musical element is the ability to not just play the notes correctly but to feel where the music wants to go and then go there together with the other performers. That “going there” happened from beginning to start of the Brahms.

This musicality could be why Weilerstein’s 2013 recording with Daniel Barenboim was awarded the “Album of the Year” by BBC Music. It could also explain why she was one of four musicians invited, by the First Lady, to play a special event at the White House.

Of the Te Deums in this world I think it goes Bruckner, Dvorak, Puccini (from Act I of Tosca), Charpentier — oh wait — Berlioz wrote a Te Deum? Indeed he did, and it’s definitely a Berlioz Te Deum.

What is a “Berlioz” Te Deum? Well, it has two tubas, four trombones, five trumpets, bass drum, and organ along with the rest of the orchestra and a big ol’ chorus with a tenor soloist. The only thing grander than Berlioz’s music is Berlioz’s hair.

The performance was good but didn’t climb to the heights of the Brahms. Part of that was the music itself. Berlioz is not a very reverent composer of sacred music and there is always an element of spectacle to his music. It’s what makes Berlioz Berlioz.

This Te Deum is twice as long as Bruckner’s or Dvorak’s. Who double’s Bruckner in length? Berlioz, that’s who. Let’s not forget his opera Les Troyens can come in at six hours given the right situation.

The Te Deum starts with the tutti orchestra and the organ having a shouting contest. I loved it. It lacks refinement and all that nonsense but then again, so do I.

Looking at the vocal score after the concert I was surprised at how straightforward it is compared to the Berlioz Requiem. The vocal range rarely gets above the staff and looks to be well written for the human instrument. Although the alto line, which technically doesn’t exist in The Requiem, is absent from some of the movements.

The tenor solo, performed by John Russell, is in a comfortable tenor range and gives the singer a chance to rest and recover between phrases. This is not the case with the tenor Sanctus solo from the Requiem. Mr. Russell’s tone was even and consistent from top to bottom — you may recall this is a hallmark of good singing — and was the picture of refinement.

The downside to this refinement was that the dynamic range was limited. In 19th-century music I always want the soloist to tee off on at least one of the high notes, but that’s just my preference. I’m more Yang than Yin when it comes to that.

The Master Chorale performed well and their tuning was solid throughout. The consistency of the vowel production was better than in Carmina Burana last season. What was most impressive was the chorus’ ability to keep the chorale texture present in the midst of Berlioz’s orchestral tsunami.

Five trumpets...smh.

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clavessin Dec. 18, 2015 @ 3 p.m.

If I read correctly (wikipedia), Berlioz only asks for 2 trumpets, but adds 2 cornets and 6 (!) trombones. I didn't check how many the SD Symphony had that night. In the 'marche' that concludes the piece, he asks for 12 (!) harps though and probably rightfully so as the unique harp we heard (or couldn't hear rather) was completely overwhelmed by the rest of the orchestra. Not that there was much space left anyway in the hall to fit many more...


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