Perhaps it is as simple as the old adage that opposites attract. But whatever the reason, the Russians, passionate as ever, and the French, always so formal and logical, have been fascinated with each other for centuries, and that mutual attraction has had a significant impact on the music of both cultures.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Russia's most persuasive conductor, a conductor with a second sense for the sheer power and sweep of his native music, would be magnetically drawn to the utter Frenchness of Berlioz. It shouldn't even come as a surprise that he finds something feverishly earthy in music one tends to think of as elegant, elusive, neoclassical and, above all, brilliantly colored.
But never underestimate Valery Gergiev's ability to astound. He returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Friday night to begin the second of his two subscription series of programs as guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Berlioz's "Romeo et Juliette." It was a magnificent performance that captured something essential in the character of an unconventional work and elusive composer. But it did so in the most untraditional of ways.
Berlioz called his work a "dramatic symphony." He had to call it something, and it fits no model. It takes up the length of a full evening, and contains in its many sections, everything from elegant chanson for solo mezzo-soprano to a majestic cantata for bass soloist and chorus. The orchestra follows Shakespeare's drama sometimes directly, comments upon it other times, and at its greatest moments, as in the opulent music for the Love Scene or the Queen Mab Scherzo, uses Shakespeare as starting point for Berlioz's own fanciful invention.
If one were to look for a modern equivalent to this remarkable and prescient symphony, which was written a century and a half ago, it would have to be the recent popular film "Romeo + Juliet." Like the movie, the symphony evokes Shakespeare in a riot of color and a contemporary perspective. For Berlioz, it was his own romantic obsession with the British Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson that colored how he envisioned the drama.
Much of what makes Berlioz remain extraordinarily fresh today is his sound, his care with putting unlikely orchestral combinations together. And Gergiev is, if nothing else, a conductor with a idiosyncratic sense of orchestral sonority. He has a sense of volume, of how to fill a space, at what level and with what balances, equal to no one else in the business.
There is always substance to Gergiev's sound. The foundation is from the bass instruments. The middle instruments also have more body in the balance than normal. And for the top, he flutters his hands (a gesture said to drive his flocks of female admirers at the Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg wild) to create a kind of ethereal shimmer. It is an inescapably visceral sound that creates an immediacy to everything he conducts. And it is even more impressive that a guest conductor can figure out how to make such a visceral impact with sound in the reserved acoustic of Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Gergiev gets a richness of sound from the Philharmonic, moreover, that is almost the opposite of the transparent one favored by Esa-Pekka Salonen or Pierre Boulez. And that is also what made his Berlioz so vivid. Berlioz can take, and maybe should take, more sonic substance than some conductors dare give him. But this is also ecstatically unpredictable music that requires both quicksilver responses and the ability to sustain the longest of melodic lines. Both qualities are exactly what makes Gergiev the theatrical opera conductor he is.
Unfortunately, though, the Philharmonic did not invest enough vocally in this performance. The soloists are important but not crucial, and soprano Claudine Carlson, tenor David Gordon and bass Alastair Miles were forced to make up in musicality in what they lacked in abundance or sufficiency of sound.
The chorus is, however, crucial, and the William Hall Chorale did not have the necessary security for a performance of this caliber. And the caliber achieved by Gergiev and the Philharmonic happened to be of a class not to be found anywhere else in America at the moment, since this was the conductor's only visit to America this season.
Impossible as it surely is, given Gergiev's increasing renown throughout the world and his already overbooked lifestyle, a more regular relationship between the Philharmonic and this extraordinary conductor would make the perfect complement to Salonen, his stylistic antipode. In the meantime, we can take heart that Gergiev finds a great deal of time to spend in the recording studio, and his latest Philips opera set, that of the seldom-heard early version of Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," is as vibrant as the music making he has just left behind here.