New York Philharmonic – Inside the Music with Peter Schickele

Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Peter Schickele (host)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 31 May, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

This was the last of three “Inside the Music” concerts, a series introduced by the Philharmonic this season, hosted by composer-humorist Peter Schickele, who is best known as the creator of P.D.Q. Bach and as the master of ceremonies of the syndicated public radio programme “Schickele Mix”. As the centrepiece of the concert, music director Lorin Maazel conducted a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, the featured work on the programme that is to be performed by the orchestra on June 1 and 3. It was preceded by an introductory commentary by Schickele, with illustrations provided by the orchestra, led by associate conductor Xian Zhang. The evening concluded with a demonstration by principal timpanist Joseph Pereira, who, along with Schickele, answered questions from members of the audience.

The first part of Schickele’s illustrated talk was devoted to the idée fixe – the recurring melodic theme representing the beloved of the lovesick musician whose dream-episodes the symphony portrays. This was aimed principally at those unfamiliar with the work, but there were a few points of interest even to old Berlioz hands. Schickele pointed out the different ways the theme is treated in each of the five movements. He first noted how the minimal accompaniment to the theme’s initial appearance on the flute and first violins gives the listener a clear opportunity to become familiar with it, and thus able to recognize it in its many guises throughout the work. He then demonstrated how the theme undergoes rhythmic alteration as it blends with the waltz theme in the second movement, is cut off suddenly as the guillotine falls at the end of the fourth movement, and is twisted into the witches’ dance in the final movement.

Most interesting was Schickele’s discussion of Berlioz’s orchestration of the symphony. He illustrated the subtle, but significant, contrast between the cor anglais and oboe by having both instruments play the cor anglais part that opens the third movement, commenting that the cor anglais’s bulb creates a “covered” sound much as a trumpet mute does. (“Mute”, he pointed out, literally means change, not softening.) Schickele also presented an interesting demonstration that contrasted the sound of four cellos playing a chord with the sound of distant thunder the same chord produces when played by four timpani players as in Berlioz’s score. He also discussed and illustrated the difference between the valve-less trumpet and the then-newly-developed valved instrument, the ‘cornet au piston’, and demonstrated the effect that Berlioz created by combining both types of instrument.

Maazel’s reading of the symphony was quite romantic in spirit and showed off the full orchestra and many of its principals to great advantage. Particularly vivid were the last portion of the first movement, from the entrance of the trumpets and cornets to the concluding ‘religiosamente’ ppp tutti passage, and the dizzying conclusion of the second movement’s waltz. In the third movement, principals Thomas Stacy on cor anglais and Sherry Sylar on oboe excelled in their duet, piping the ranz des vaches (the tune used by the Swiss shepherds to call their flocks together), and the effect of the already mentioned four-timpani thunderstorm was most impressive.

In the fifth movement’s “dream of a witches’ sabbath”, Maazel and the orchestra produced a dazzling array of tonal colours, including Mark Nuccio’s jaunty E-flat clarinet solo, the macabre col legno string passages, and the powerful playing of the brass and percussion sections, particularly the combination of the tubas and church bells intoning the ‘Dies Irae’ theme. The orchestra’s G and C bells, which sound so loudly that they have to be played offstage, provided the low sonority specified by Berlioz. (Before 1990, when the Philharmonic commissioned these bells, chimes were used instead, but they sounded a full octave higher than the pitch called for in the score.)

Joseph Pereira’s post-performance demonstration of timpani old and new was quite enlightening. Even Schickele admitted to having learned some things about this instrument that he had not known previously, for example that Pereira prepares the hides used as drumheads by soaking them in his bathtub and drying them slowly to ensure a uniform surface, and that a drumhead breaking is a fairly common event. Pereira contrasted how an older, chain-tuned timpani and a modern, pedalled timpani are tuned, and demonstrated some effects that modern composers have called upon the latter type of instrument to produce. He also showed how sticks of varying hardness are used to produce very different sounds – a technical innovation of which Berlioz was an early pioneer. Those in the audience who remained for this demonstration were invited to ask questions of Schickele and Pereira, almost all of which concerned the timpani rather than the Symphonie fantastique.

The “Inside the Music” concept is an interesting one that in the hands of someone as knowledgeable and humorous as Schickele can entertain and inform both experienced and inexperienced concert-goers, although it is the latter group who will benefit most. Next season, Schickele will tackle Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Debussy’s Images, and Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto.

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