The music of Berlioz is worth getting up early for on a Sunday. That said, I nearly did not – a cough lingering from a cold earlier this month made me anxious about attending a concert, and has been interrupting my sleep, so I thought I’d make the call this morning. Then I overslept and did not think: only had time to race into town (and I managed to stifle my cough, at least during the parts when the orchestra was playing).
I’m glad I did. I did not renew my Mozarteum Orchestra subscriptions this year (neither Sunday nor Thursday series) because there were concerts in both that really did not interest me, so instead I decided it was better to get two mix-and-match subscriptions with the Mozarteum Foundation, throwing in those orchestra concerts that most appealed. This was one. Berlioz does not get performed frequently enough (beyond the Symphonie Fantastique) – he was quite innovative for his day, and indeed his consistently good output puts every other French composer to shame. He brings a sense of drama and passion to music, sounding perhaps a tad warped. Today’s selections included Harold in Italy (with solo viola – originally written on commission for Paganini, who wanted to try out a new viola; Paganini rejected the score, but upon hearing it performed several years later broke down in tears, dragged Berlioz back on stage, and wrote Berlioz a large check) and the overture to Le Cousaire, although it was never quite clear what it was an overture to (usually assumed to be a play by Byron, but it was actual the overture’s third title added after several performances, none connected with Byron’s play). Actually, despite its title suggesting Byron, Harold in Italy is not a setting of Byron, but a setting of Berlioz’ own travels in Italy reading Byron. In other words, a lot of Berlioz’ drama does not actually dramatize anything – it’s drama for drama’s sake without a plot. This fact contributes to what makes Berlioz so bizzarre.
Guest conductor Antony Walker (an Australian who leads the Pittsburgh Opera) clearly understood and channeled this composer – Berlioz was very touchy about letting others conduct his music, but I think he would have been most satisfied this morning – with the orchestra showing great comfort and enthusiasm. For Harold in Italy, local star violist Veronika Hagen joined in idiomatically and warmly.
The concert ended with Tschaikowsky, but not a standard one of his works – rather his Francesca da Rimini tone poem (written after returning from Bayreuth, influenced by Wagner’s operas and Liszt’s tone poems). There is a plot here, but Walker and the Mozarteum Orchestra captured the Berlioz-like drama, making it feel like a natural progression.
The Great Festival House is undergoing renovations this winter, so concerts have found other venues. Today’s concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra moved next door to the stupidly-named House for Mozart (although more than Mozart gets performed there, and it has no connection to Mozart other than the name – one wonders why this venue in the Salzburg Festival complex could not have just been named the “Mozart Hall” if they really wanted to name yet another thing in Salzburg after the composer). The hall also does not have great acoustics – I have sat in different seats before, and then today got to hear from two different vantage points (running late, I stood in the standing room in the back before the intermission as there was no way to get to my seat when I arrived; and then my seat was the very first one over the stage on the first balcony, with the poorly-designed layout of the hall meaning I essentially had to be the first person to take my seat or else have to climb over everyone else).