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Chorales to Sing Berlioz’s Requiem at Center : Music for 1837 Funeral Chosen as 200th Anniversary Salute to the French Revolution

Times Staff Writer

Visual artists had been depicting scary scenes of the Day of Judgment for centuries before classical composers got into the act.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel shocker, “The Last Judgment,” was finished in 1541. But it was not until 1837 that the tradition of apocalyptic music got a proper launch with Berlioz’s Requiem.

Berlioz scored the work for 210 voices and 190 instruments--along with four separate brass choirs and 16 kettledrums--all to scare the dickens out of his listeners.

John Alexander will conduct the work Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, and, yes, there will be four brass choirs and 16 timpani.

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The occasion for the premiere of the Berlioz work was a pumped-up state funeral for a certain General Damremont, who had been killed in a French assault on an Algerian city.

Berlioz’s music was played after a long state procession that was accompanied by muffled drums, and the music was interrupted by the chants and responses of the church service.

According to historians, the windows of the church, the Invalides in Paris, were boarded over and the walls draped in black. Eminent historian, educator and Berlioz scholar Jacques Barzun described the scene further: “Around the coffin flickered 600 candles and incense boats. One thousand other pinpoints of light dotted the gloomy shell.”

Voila! Theater.

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Berlioz had placed his four brass choirs at the cardinal points of the compass, in effect surrounding the audience.

The listeners had never heard anything like it, and because applause was not permitted at a church service, their response at the end was not registered in that way. We can surmise that when it was all over, though, that they probably looked as dazed as moviegoers stumbling out of “The Exorcist” or heavy metal rock fans leaving a Black Sabbath concert.

The critics approved. The German poet Heine was moved to hyperbole, although today his words might sound more like an insult than praise. As a maker of music, Heine wrote, Berlioz was like “an antediluvian bird, a colossal nightingale or a lark the size of an eagle.” (Critics wrote like that in those days.)

Because of the asymmetrical design of the Center’s Segerstrom Hall, Alexander will put one brass choir on the third tier and one on the second tier and put one on each side of the orchestra seating.

“That’s for the big ‘Tuba Mirum’ section, where the brass first really show off,” Alexander said.

Not that all of the work is loud. Of its 100 minutes, probably only 20 use the full artillery, he said.

“There is an extraordinary amount of diversity in the scoring,” he said. ‘The pianissimo sections are as extraordinary as the large sections, and probably over the half of the work is very serene and quiet.”

Two such sections are:

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--The “Offertorium,” in which the choir sings only on two notes a half step apart-- until it breaks into a rainbow chord at the close--as the orchestra weaves an increasingly elaborate and poignant accompaniment around the singers.

--The “Hostias,” in which Berlioz experiments with thin orchestral textures, sending the flutes into their high range while taking the trombones to their lowest notes.

Alexander said that this will be the first performance of the work in Orange County and that he chose it to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.

“It’s being celebrated all over the world,” he said, “but we aren’t doing much in the United States.”

John Alexander will conduct the Pacific and Valley Master chorales and the Pacific Symphony in Berlioz’s Requiem at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Featured soloist will be tenor Paul Johnson. Tickets: $12.50 to $35. Information: (714) 542-1790.


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