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An epic, diverse 'Romeo and Juliet'
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, October 10, 2003
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback

URL: sfgate.com/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/10/10/DD168875.DTL

Berlioz was not lacking in ambition when he set out to combine the legacies of Shakespeare and Beethoven in his dramatic symphony "Romeo and Juliet." And it was the resulting grandiosity -- the score's invigorating sense of sweep and scale -- that was the key to Wednesday's powerhouse performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

These Davies Symphony Hall performances are the Symphony's celebration of this year's Berlioz bicentenary, and the gesture could hardly be better judged.

Although the "Symphonie fantastique" and "Harold in Italy" are more frequently encountered, "Romeo" remains Berlioz's most dazzling claim to greatness as a composer of symphonies.

That's due in part to the intellectual restlessness and artistic vision with which he redefined the whole idea of what a symphony could be. Taking his cue from Beethoven, particularly the Ninth Symphony, Berlioz attempted to use orchestral, choral and solo vocal writing to mirror both the emotional intimacy and the dramatic flair of Shakespeare's play.

In this 90-minute score, properly done without intermission, Berlioz ranges from fugues to scherzos to instrumental recitatives, from offstage choruses to full-strength solo arias, and from pictorial literalism to the most keenly evocative abstract poetry. Not even Mahler conceived the world of the symphony on quite so epic or diverse a plan.

Unsurprisingly, there was something a little Mahlerian about Thomas' reading, an emphasis on the larger dimensions of the piece rather than the individual details. If some of those niceties were occasionally blurred in the onward dramatic rush of the performance, it seemed a small price to pay for the evening's overall impact.

Most impressive was the way Thomas kept the piece's overall course in view throughout. Without that comprehensive vision, "Romeo" -- which offers selected scenes from a presumably well-known story rather than a strictly linear narrative -- can too easily sound like simply a collection of vivid set pieces.

Instead, there was an overarching sense of pieces fitting together into a persuasive mosaic, in which the purely orchestral episodes linked together to form a vibrant context for the sung interludes.

The orchestral writing was delivered with uncommon panache, from the plush but translucent string textures to the proud, robust pronouncements by the brass. The love scene, probably the score's most breathtakingly beautiful episode, sounded unbearably poignant, and the melancholy strains of "Romeo Alone" tugged at the heart. The great "Queen Mab" scherzo stumbled a little at midpoint but soon recovered.

Vance George's Symphony Chorus, deployed in various configurations on and off stage, sang with extraordinary clarity and tenderness, particularly in the dirge for Juliet.

The vocal soloists, too, were first-rate. Samuel Ramey brought his thunderous bass and ferocious moral authority to Friar Lawrence's concluding orations, shaping them with force and eloquence. Mezzo-soprano Monica Groop sang the scene-setting verses with fine-toned lyricism, and tenor Matthew Polenzani made a wonderfully ringing debut in the Queen Mab narrative.

San Francisco Symphony: The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. today and Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $20-$97. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.

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