There is nothing like a little terror to make you feel alive, as producers of horror movies have long known. Berlioz knew it as far back as 1837, when, as a young man with a flair for special acoustical effects that remains unsurpassed, he wrote his Requiem.
The composer intended his Mass for the dead for a monumental space and forces. Besides calling for a huge chorus and orchestra, he stipulated that the audience be surrounded by four brass groups. He used enough timpani so that listeners would feel chords vibrating through their bodies. When he wanted a quaking effect at the Day of Judgment, he made the ground shake.
This conceit might seem almost quaint today, when movies and rock music are amplified to unnaturally loud volumes and surround-sound systems are commonplace in living rooms. But the Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of the Requiem on Thursday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall, which also included the Los Angeles Master Chorale, proved that Berlioz can still teach filmmakers and rockers a thing or two about the art of goose-bump production.
The Requiem, which will be repeated Sunday afternoon, was selected by the Philharmonic to serve several programming imperatives. It culminates a number of Philharmonic Berlioz performances this season, the tail end of the celebration of his 200th birthday last year. It also fits in with this week’s Building Music project, in which the orchestra and the Getty Research Institute are jointly examining the role that various sites have played in the creation of music. Berlioz wrote the Requiem to be performed in St. Louis des Invalides, the capacious church in Paris where Napoleon is buried.
But mainly the Philharmonic needed ever bigger thrills to keep the momentum going as it approaches the end of its eventful first season in Disney. It’s nice to cruise around town in a Ferrari, but sooner or later you want to get out on the open road and drive fast.
And that is exactly what Esa-Pekka Salonen did Thursday. In a swift performance that never appeared in danger of veering out of control, the Philharmonic’s music director pushed the hall further than it had yet been pushed. In the Dies Irae movement -- with the brass coming at you from all sides, the timpani on stage unleashing their thunder chords, the orchestra and chorus surging as if all hell definitely were breaking loose -- the hall itself seemed to expand and contract with the swells of sound. For a listener, the physical sensation was not unlike that of riding a roller coaster.
Who knew that the ear is so closely connected to the stomach?
The brilliance of this imposing score is not simply its acoustical thrills and chills, however, just as the brilliance of Disney’s acoustics is not merely that it can take anything an unamplified orchestra can throw at it. Berlioz was a delicate colorist and a complicated contrapuntalist. There is more soft than loud in the Requiem. The composer can stun you with isolated chords spaced in high flutes and low trombones -- standing out as they do in Disney with crystalline clarity -- just as readily as with a wall of sound.
The climaxes, in fact, are effective precisely because they contrast with the quiet, vividly otherworldly bits. And that kind of seemingly superhuman punch coming from natural acoustic means in a great space has a power far more thrilling than the artificial might of gigantic loudspeakers and zillion-watt amplifiers.
Still, Salonen took full advantage of modern instrument technology and virtuosity. Disney is a hall with a quick acoustic response, and modern brass instruments are far more flexible than their early 19th century counterparts. A performance in a resonant church could never proceed with the momentum and drive that Salonen exulted in Thursday (though in the Sanctus, he did supply breathing space for the operatic singing of tenor Eric Cutler).
For some, Salonen’s approach may mean not quite enough stopping to smell the exotically colored musical flowers or letting ringing climaxes rattle the rafters. But the advantage of his interpretation was that it made Berlioz sound so ahead of his time it seemed almost as if the Requiem had been waiting all along for Disney.
The momentous performance Thursday also served an unexpected purpose -- as a farewell to a great musical benefactor. Earlier in the day, Richard D. Colburn died. The performance was not dedicated to this generous patron, without whom the Philharmonic and musical life in L.A. would be greatly diminished, because his death had not yet been publicly announced. But the spirit was unmistakable, and the scale exactly right.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: Sunday, 2 p.m.
Contact: (323) 850-2000