Some people loathe going back to work. I relish it, especially when it entails conducting one of the biggest masterpieces in the repertoire.
Performances of the Berlioz Requiem are still a relative rarity. It turns out that even in Lyon the work has never been performed at the orchestra’s home auditorium. This was the season opener and you could not ask for much more in the way of a spectacular start.
Usually the symphonic beginnings take place a bit later than the first week in September, but an important summer festival proved the ideal venue for this performance prior to going home. In fact, we actually started with an altogether different program at another place.
La Chaise Dieu is one of about fifty cities that boast a festival in France at this time of year. For two weeks this charming town in the south central part of the country hosts a number of musical events, including several orchestral performances. Originally we were scheduled to perform the Requiem but fortunately someone realized that accommodating the forces required simply would not work
When we first contemplated the Berlioz it was envisioned that choruses from all over the Rhône-Alpes region would take part. This proved impossible, as most people were just returning from long summer holidays and the groups could not be properly put together much less prepared. We decided to combine three organizations for these performances, including the Choral Arts Society from Washington, the Philharmonia Chorus from London and the Bernard Têtu chorus from Lyon, at least those 40 members who were available.
Since the stage dimensions prohibited this mass of vocal humanity, we decided to use only the DC group for this concert.
The program needed to be comprised of works familiar to the orchestra, as rehearsal time would be limited. I had the idea to utilize the chorus in three pieces more frequently heard without the vocal lines. The Polovetsian Dances of Borodin, Fauré’s Pavanne and the Second Suite from Daphnis and Chloé made up the final part of this concert. Two works by Mussorgsky, the Khovantschina Prelude and Pictures at an Exhibition were the openers. This was the only time I had performed the latter on the first part of a program.
The Abbey where the concert took place is a 15th century cathedral, boasting the original wall carving of Danse Macabre. Seating capacity is around 1000 listeners, many of whom cannot see the specially constructed stage. They sit and watch the performance on television monitors, a strange sight to behold. At first I was concerned that the acoustics would prove too reverberant for the faster portions of the program, but it turned out to be ideal. What a pleasure to do the Ravel with this orchestra, who have the work inside their core and play it with incredible beauty and color.
At a reception following the concert, an interesting piece of gossip emerged. It is rumored that Ravel had an illegitimate daughter, around 80 years old now, who lived a reclusive life in this small city. No one could substantiate this but it is certainly possible. She did not attend the concert as far as we knew.
The director of the Choral Arts Society, Norman Scribner, was making his final appearance as leader of this fine ensemble. He is 80 years old now but still conveying the skill and energy he brought to the group when he founded it. Bringing Norman on stage was a moving moment for many that night.
It was a two and a half hour drive back to Lyon, and with the concert starting at 9, we did not get back to the apartment until 2:00 in the morning. Fortunately, the rehearsal for the Berlioz the next day did not commence until the afternoon.
When I arrived onstage, the orchestra oboist sounded the tuning “A” and then launched into “Happy Birthday” as my 68th was on this day. With a chorus of 350 singing lustily and the orchestra playing full blast, it was quite a greeting.
I was reminded of a John Williams quip at his birthday celebration last month.
“80 is the new 79 and a half.”
It also struck me as slightly ironic that I would be rehearsing a Requiem on my birthday.
These performances required a massive amount of organization. The chorus masters had to be in contact with each other for months so there would be coordination on matters such as phrasing, pronunciation and dynamics. Even the edition being used had to be dealt with, as there were discrepancies between the various texts.
We had spent a great deal of time deciding where the four brass bands would be placed. The premiere took place at “Les Invalides” in Paris, with the instrumental groups placed in different locations. There was no question that the antiphonal effect had to be achieved and with our fairly large auditorium, that would not be a problem. However, being able to keep them together was another matter.
When the placement was agreed upon, we also thought that in addition to watching me in person, the groups would benefit from having television monitors large enough for each musician to view. This worked very well and the spaciousness of the auditorium made for a cathedral-like sonic environment.
The tenor soloist was the Australian Steve Davislim. I had never worked with him but am sure that this will not be the last time. His rich, sonorous voice was very well suited for the “Sanctus “portion. Again, the matter of placement was crucial. In the auditorium, we placed him in the balcony, dead center, which gave the appearance of a dialogue with the female members of the chorus.
Having solved the logistics in our home, we headed out the next day for a performance at the Festival Berlioz in the town of La Côte Saint André. Born in this small town, the festival celebrates its most famous citizen with performances taking place over two weeks. The concerts are held in a former castle. Since 1979 devotees of this composer come to pay tribute as well as presenting other composers influenced by Berlioz.
I was not sure what to expect upon arrival. A stage was constructed in what was the courtyard, with chairs placed on the lawn. I was told that some of the public simply sits on the grass. Altogether about 1,300 people can be accommodated. Placing the brass was not so easy as there was no balcony. We decided to put them at four corners on the audience level, thereby creating a quadrophonic experience for the listener. Again, as with the Auditorium, television monitors were used.
It was another matter altogether for Steve. There was no place for him behind the audience. Eventually we found a spot in a window frame, on the fourth floor of the castle and to my left. During the rehearsal, which took place in daylight, it was hard to tell what kind of effect this would make. For the performance, Steve stood at the window in the dark and one bar prior to his first entrance, a light came on, making him appear like an angel. It was both theatric and moving.
We received a standing ovation from the audience and I was very proud of all the performers. It is impossible to overestimate the genius of this piece. Predating the Requiem of Verdi by almost 40 years, its daring use of orchestral devices is extraordinary. Each of the 10 movements contains surprises and revelations. Who else would have thought of having the three flutes on stage playing in a high register with the trombones located elsewhere growling out the low notes? Or the timpani ending the work with the pizzicato strings? And the incredible moment when the six cymbals and bass drum gently play during the “Sanctus?”
Now it was time to bring the production back to Lyon. There were two performances, with the first televised via the Internet. Because of the complications of camera angles we had a true “dress rehearsal,” with everyone attired as they would be that evening. There was also the thought that if decent audio could be obtained from this rehearsal, we might be able to release either a CD or DVD. I wound up treating the rehearsal as if it was a recording session.
The performance was certainly the equal if not even better than the Côte St. André event. Tout Lyon turned out, with the Mayor leading the cheering. Full houses were the order of the evenings and at the conclusion we were greeted with the “clapping in rhythm” reaction as well as a standing ovation. After five bows I led the forces off the stage. The same pattern took place during the second presentation.
The season had opened with an extraordinary event and we were all thrilled by what had been accomplished.
On the book front, everything is doing well. Sales are strong and the e-book is expected at any time. Over the next month there will be several signings in various locations, including one in Tokyo!
Daniel is firmly ensconced in college at USC. Jumping into his new life was not so difficult and he has already attended a Trojan football game.
Cindy continues to thrive and shows far more energy then me.
Keeping up with baseball, both the Tigers and Cardinals are hanging on, hoping to make the playoffs.
I am headed home for a few days before flying to Japan. After that, it will be back to Detroit to open the season with my orchestra. It should be a great year!
See you next month,