A bull market for Berlioz

Times Staff Writer

At the United Nations last week, the Americans and the French bickered over the situation in Iraq, but across town, a lot of American music fans couldn’t get enough of France’s most extravagant 19th century composer. Sunday afternoon, a standing-room crowd packed a Lincoln Center penthouse for a pre-concert talk on Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust.” Those still hopeful of squeezing in were turned away with the words “The Fire Department won’t have it.” Outside, in front of Avery Fisher Hall, a sign read: “Seeking Damnation tickets. Willing to sell soul for the right offer.”

Berlioz madness is upon New York, where the composer’s bicentennial has begun with a bang -- he was born Dec. 11, 1803. The New York Philharmonic recently performed his spectacular Requiem. The hottest ticket at the Metropolitan Opera is his epic “Les Troyens.” The “Damnation” was part of a Lincoln Center Berlioz festival, “Fantastic Voyages,” that featured concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra under Colin Davis and talk by some of the biggest names in Berlioz scholarship.

More is on the way here, there and everywhere. April and May in New York bring concert and staged performances of the opera “Beatrice and Benedict,” an underwater puppet show set to “Symphonie Fantastique” and two all-Berlioz programs by the Met orchestra. New Mexico inaugurates a Berlioz celebration later this month. A radio station in Istanbul is in the midst of a 26-week Berlioz broadcast special. On the West Coast, San Francisco Opera closes its season in June with a new production of “Damnation”; Los Angeles Opera opens its season in September with yet another new “Damnation.” And Berlioz will be the composer most played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic during its first season at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Long held to be a composer of much genius but little talent, Berlioz once said, “If I could only live until 140 my musical life would be interesting.” He was wrong, at 140, he was still neglected in 1942. But at 200 -- he’s big.


Radical ... and then even more radical

For Berliozians, the Lincoln Center festival was notable for two reasons. First, it surveyed what Katherine Kolb, a French literary scholar, called Berlioz’s “heroic cycle,” or what Berlioz authority Ralph P. Locke dubbed the “symphonies plus.” Performing the four works Berlioz called symphonies, Davis showed how the composer began with a radical idea in 1830 -- a programmatic, or narrative, symphony -- and got more wildly radical as he went along.

In “Symphonie Fantastique,” Berlioz revealed more of himself than any composer before him had ever dared, from his erotic passions to his opium deliriums. Four years later, his Byronic “Herold in Italy” transformed the symphonic form into a programmatic viola concerto in the process. With “Romeo and Juliet,” Berlioz next expanded the symphony into a dramatic oratorio using vocal soloists and chorus, and in essence cast himself as Romeo. Finally, in the “Damnation,” Berlioz’s symphony comes so close to opera that it is easily staged.

The other notable aspect of “Fantastic Voyages” was Davis’ presence on the podium. With music writers David Cairns and Hugh Macdonald, he formed a kind of London Berlioz cabal promoting the composer’s work in the late 1950s. The three of them like to take credit for the Berlioz revival that soon followed. Cairns, who recently published a monumental two-volume Berlioz biography, was the moderator of Lincoln Center’s “Fantastic Voyages” symposium, and Macdonald a participant.


For the past 40 years, Davis has been more closely associated with Berlioz than any other conductor. His 1960s and ‘70s recordings helped introduce Berlioz to a generation of listeners. And he has been getting kudos all over again for his latest Berlioz CDs, especially the Grammy-winning “Les Troyens,” taken from live performances by the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he is music director.

There are no more expert or experienced guides to Berlioz’s fantastic symphonic voyage than these three Englishmen. Berlioz composed as if intoxicated by sound, and Davis explained his attraction to Berlioz very simply: “I just like way his music sounds.”

Those sounds can be flamboyant or just plain unusual. Audiences and critics in Berlioz’s day, and long after, didn’t always know what to make of his weird instrumental effects -- honking bassoons, ranks of timpani and masses of brass, in unusual ranges and even stranger combinations.

That was only the start of Berlioz’ strangeness. He had visions. The pandemonium of sound in the “Damnation” must be heard to be believed. But back in the 1950s, Davis’ conducting and Cairns’ writing set out to show that there was method to this madness, demonstrating the classical structures that underpin the sounds and visions. And they made it their special mission to convince the French, who have a history of suspicion about Berlioz, that the composer was as logical as Descartes.


It took time. Years ago, Cairns jokingly told the New York symposium audience, one noted British cultural critic wrote that Berlioz was “someone invented by Cairns and Davis just to annoy me.” But for most music lovers, Cairns and Davis made Berlioz not just acceptable, but almost normal, a patient, rational craftsman, a great composer like any other. So much so that when a critic these days decries “Damnation” as a “feverish ramble through Faust,” Cairns’ reaction is an eye-rolling “ho-nest-ly. Not again!”

Certainly the safe and sane Berlioz was the theme of the Davis concerts I heard in New York. His performances of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Damnation of Faust” were impressive and the audiences were enthusiastic. The London Symphony, well-schooled in Berlioz, plays the music with thrilling mastery. Davis connects it all; there is plenty of thrust; he gets on with it.

Sometimes that’s exciting, even brash. But his “Romeo” burned out long before the work’s end. The love music was flat, analytical. The only sexiness was supplied by the wonderfully smoky singing of contralto Sara Mingardo. Stuart Neill was the one-dimensional tenor here, and he was a one-dimensional Faust as well, stentorian from beginning to end. Alastair Miles did not have the authority to match the Dalai Lama spirituality written into Berlioz’s Friar Lawrence, but he was a riveting Mephistopheles in the “Damnation.” Petra Lang was a striking Marguerite.

Davis conducted the “Damnation” with more flair than he did “Romeo,” but after a while the idea of a feverish ramble through Faust began to seem like it could have been a lot of fun.


Berlioz and the Pantheon

Oddly enough, the only feverish ramble the weekend provided was a tour through French reaction to Berlioz, courtesy of the Davis and Cairns crowd. There was more than one moment when I felt that I had inadvertently wandered into the U.N. Peter Bloom, an American Berlioz scholar with a withering wit, described the machinations that have prevented Berlioz from being moved from his resting place in Paris’ Montmartre Cemetery to the holy of French holies, the Pantheon, as had been promised for the composer’s bicentennial. French President Jacques Chirac rescinded the order. Among the reasons cited were the lukewarm French reception of Berlioz and Chirac’s resentment of his predecessor, Socialist Francois Mitterand, who suggested the Berlioz apotheosis. (Alexandre Dumas pere was a last-minute substitution.)

It’s true that French academics have been slow to mainstream Berlioz, but some French conductors championed the composer before Davis took up his cause. Recordings in the ‘50s by Alsatian Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, or wonderfully idiosyncratic recordings made in Paris by Igor Markevitch, Rene Leibowitz and Gabriel Pierne revel in Berlioz, and they don’t suppress the eccentricities. And a glance at the concert, opera and academic calendar in Paris this year reveals plenty of Berlioz on the schedule.

In fact, Chirac’s obstinacy -- a Berlioz quality if ever there was one -- should probably be applauded. By the end of the New York festival, the mainstreaming of Berlioz had nearly turned a visionary into a functionary. It may be time to revise the revisionists: Berlioz was a maverick, a glorious outsider. I’m not unhappy Berlioz isn’t moving into the Pantheon anytime soon.



Mark Swed is The Times’ music critic.