One of the world's great orchestras came Nov. 6 to the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and gave a splendid program of symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven and Hector Berlioz. The Philharmonia Orchestra was founded by famed record producer Walter Legge in 1945 and intended to be a virtuoso recording orchestra. With a series of records in the 1950s, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer and others, it became world famous for the excellent level of its playing.
I admire smaller orchestras for the clarity of their playing of Beethoven's symphonies with reduced forces, but I sigh with pleasure at the sound of "big band" Beethoven.
The Philharmonia fielded 30 violins, with other string sections of relative size. And the disciplined unity of these sections made their reading of the Beethoven Second Symphony an utter delight. Their maestro of the evening was Esa Pekka Salonen, born in 1958 in Helsinki, Finland, and world renowned — especially in the U.S. for his dynamic leadership of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years.
Beethoven's Second has many passages of abrupt dynamic contrast, and Salonen led this fine ensemble in quicksilver attacks, building to mighty climaxes. Salonen is an exciting figure to watch on the podium. His signal for the ultimate sonic punch from the orchestra is an overhead stroke of the baton. When he walks offstage through the orchestra, he carries his baton with the care usually given to a rare Stradivarius violin, and to Salonen that baton is probably just as precious. During the Beethoven, Salonen turned mostly left to the violins, hardly looking at the cellos and basses. Later, during the Berlioz, the lower strings were given more attention, as indeed they deserved.
The Beethoven reading gave great pleasure, especially the lovely "Larghetto" movement, but the big triumph of the night was Berlioz's trailblazing "Fantastic Symphony." It is one of the wonders of musical history that this daring work was premiered three years after Beethoven's death. This symphony is a master class, if not a doctoral dissertation in orchestration which took the musical world 50 years to fully assimilate.
For the Berlioz work, the orchestra assembled mighty forces on stage: five horns, five trumpets, four bassoons, four tympani, two bass drums, two harps and augmented cello and bass sections.
The "Fantastic Symphony" is the ultimate Romantic musical work. It has a program about an artist, driven half mad by unrequited love; this artist has overdosed on drugs, and has a series of dream visions, ranging from ethereal beauty to violent death and diabolical orgies.
One might call this symphony a preview of "Berlioz's Greatest Hits." There are passages that prefigure his "Romeo and Juliet," his "Damnation of Faust," to say nothing of "Harold in Italy." Berlioz's genius blossomed full grown, like Athena from the head of Zeus.
I have been listening to recordings of the "Fantastic Symphony" for over 60 years now, but I had never heard it played live by a superb virtuoso orchestra such as the Philharmonia. It blew me away. As this mighty work unfolded, let me mention some delights along the way; the harps in the Ball Scene, the English horn solo by Jill Crowther as well the four tympani players in the pastoral scene, and the outburst of trombones and the other brass in the March to the Scaffold movement.
In the Witches' Sabbath scene, the parody of the beloved's theme in the woodwinds, the double bass drums, and the marvelous playing of tubas and other brass in the "Dies Irae" chorale were outstanding. Salonen led this thrilling performance to a breathtaking conclusion. A feral howl erupted in Foellinger at the end of the Berlioz, and just about everyone rose amid the cheers.
As encore, Salonen made an announcement of which I caught two names, Luigi Boccherini and Luciano Berio. What was played was Berio's modernist variations on Boccherini's 1790s piece, "The Return of the Night Watch in Madrid." Berio's take involved a snare drum bass, and a splendid crescendo of most of the orchestra, dying away to a whisper. Then, amid more applause, Salonen waved goodbye, and the Philharmonia, like the Night Watch, faded away.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.