Prokofiev and Berlioz with the Verbier Festival Orchestra

There are an awful lot of good to excellent youth orchestras out there. Abbado has a great one in Europe. Here in Chicago the Civic generally pleases. The Verbiers, from Switzerland, played in Chicago tonight. I was lucky in this concert; as a music teacher and lecturer, I usually have to make my dinner with stale gruel and tepid tap water, but not tonight. A generous patron associated with Verbier’s sponsor, UBS, gave me tickets to the pre-concert reception. Crab legs, salad with walnuts and blue cheese, ravioli suffed with carmelized mushrooms, beef tenderloin with creamy horseradish sauce, and anything you could want to drink…I wanted to miss the Prokofiev and stay with the food. But alas, with polite regrets and best wishes the catering staff shooed me off to the concert. Still, I’m sure my loyal students will continue to come through for me with tickets, books, Cds, etc. You hear that? This means you.

The first half was Martha Argerich and Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. She is a phenomenal pianist, could hardly have done better, but I enjoyed the little Chopin mazurka she played as an encore more than the piece de resistance, although I assure you I liked the tenderloin better than the salad. You know the old maxim about children? They should be seen and not heard. Well, the visual aspect of the pianist attacking and dismembering the piano is better than the aural aspect in this piece. And the orchestration was full of all sorts of miscalculations, the string writing consistently delivering little bang for the buck. All three movements begin promisingly, with Slavic melodies that leave a hint of Rachmaninov in the air. But then you have this deplorable combination of primitivism and neoclassicism. Before anybody gets on my case, I hereby solemnly state that I love many things of Prokofiev; “War and Peace”, the Sixth Symphony, more than half the piano sonatas, and even his other concerti; particularly the magnificent Symphonie-Concertante for cello. Speaking of primitivism, Bartok’s First Concerto fits the bill, and speaking of neoclassism, you could do worse than Bartok’s Second Concerto. I honestly think Prokofiev copies Stravinsky, like he did with his “Scythian Suite”. But whether yea or nay to that, the Third Concerto is all too limited in the type of piano sonority it evokes. Evertything is either a motoric toccata or actual banging, which is exciting but limited. The second mvt., however, has an interesting conceit; alternating violence with Slavic pathos. The Verbiers were outstanding in a reasonably difficult accompanying capacity, and in fact I was especially impressed because accompanying sensitively is a skill that often eludes brash, hot-shot virtuosi. 

Berlioz “Fantastique”…here is a work that wholly deserves its canonical status, and is a perfect vehicle for brash, hotshot young virtuosi.  They overdid it, I guess, but then,that’s part of the message of the piece. Nothing succeeds like excess.  Every single time I hear this incredible piece, I’m struck by its essential modernity and its sense of humor. I’ve made an entry about it which you can access here: (Revenge article). Who else would depict his composition, theory, and I’m almost certain, at least one especially noted Russian music expert (from the Paris Consevatory, of course) as capering demons at a satanic orgy?  

I’d like to say something serious about the Berlioz: the slow movement, “Scene in the Country” is the fantastic heart of the work, also the fantastic heartbreak of the work. I don’t have words eloquent enough to describe the shattering sadness of the English Horn’s attempt to start up again the duet with the oboe that begins the movement, and the lack of reply. Duet becomes solo, and only nature answers, malevolently, with the menace of a thunderstorm. This is Berlioz’s great hymn to loneliness. The Shepherd’s pipe is a voice in the void.  Goosebumps, goosebumps, goosebumps. What could be more beautiful? 

The orchestra, led by Charles Dutoit, generously played encores of the rousing “Farandole” from “L’Arlesienne” of Bizet, and Chabrier’s Espana. The latter piece has a clever ryhthm, but I don’t know…I’m  tempted to resume my habitual snobbiness just now, so here I will stop.