Posted on Sat, Oct. 11, 2003

Berlioz symphony brims with passion


This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hector Berlioz. Bay Area programs celebrating the occasion have been surprisingly few, but the composer finally got his due with a magnificent San Francisco Symphony performance of "Romeo et Juliette," Op. 17, Wednesday evening at Davies Hall.

Live performances of Berlioz's "symphonie dramatique" are rare; the work's size, length and demand for large forces make it one of the composer's seldom-heard masterpieces (the S.F. Symphony hadn't performed it since 1992). Performances as cohesive as the one led by Michael Tilson Thomas are rarer still; undaunted by its challenges, the conductor, his orchestra and members of Vance George's S.F. Symphony Chorus brought the score to life with equal parts verve and delicacy.

A lineup of first-rate vocal soloists led by bass Samuel Ramey added to the excitement. Audiences are advised to secure whatever tickets remain for tonight's final performance.

Berlioz was fascinated with Shakespeare throughout his career, and he found "Romeo and Juliet" particularly inspiring (he fell in love with his wife, Harriet Smithson, while watching her in the role of Juliet). His admiration for the play was the spark for one of his most mesmerizing scores. An unusual blend of oratorio and symphonic elements -- with a taste of the operatic added to the mix -- the writing captures much of the fervent emotion and dramatic pathos that distinguish Shakespeare's enduring text.

The score is divided into three sections. Part I is an orchestral introduction that sets the rancorous scene between the Montagues and Capulets, followed by vocal parts for alto (in these performances, mezzo-soprano Monica Groop) and chorus outlining the plot of the play.

Part II, scored entirely for orchestra, includes an achingly beautiful theme for Romeo, a little Italian dance music and a setting of Shakespeare's famous balcony scene. It ends with a diaphanous scherzo depicting Queen Mab.

Things take a tragic turn in Part III. Juliet's funeral procession yields to the tomb scene; the finale is a massive number for vocalist and chorus, with the bass soloist assuming the character of wise Friar Lawrence, urging peace and reconciliation between the families.

Tilson Thomas led a brilliant reading that emphasized the score's infinite range of color and texture, as well as its dramatic impact. There were arresting moments throughout the 1 hour, 40 minute performance (played without intermission), from the solemn statements for trombones representing the Prince in Part I to the weighty sound of the strings in Romeo's music to the heartbreaking woodwinds in the tomb scene.

The vocal parts essential to the drama were handled with style and precision. Ramey's famously resonant, dark-hued vocalism was especially impressive in the Friar Lawrence role. Groop's warm, lustrous singing in Part I and Matthew Polenzani's attractive, flexible account of the scherzetto were excellent. Coupled with the glorious singing of the chorus, it was a performance that afforded the listener a new appreciation for the genius of Berlioz.

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