Sunday, March 13, 2016

Review: Leonard Slatkin brings home the passion of Berlioz's "Romeo et Juliette" Friday and Saturday, March 11 and 12, 2016

Leonard Slatkin
Photo: Alexander Ivanov /
Even if I hadn't seen the video blog in which St. Louis Symphony Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin named Berlioz's 1838 Roméo et Juliette, Symphonie dramatique (op. 17) as one of his favorite works to conduct, I would have guessed as much from the fierce joy and commitment of the interpretation he gave this monumental work with the SLSO Orchestra and Chorus Friday night (March 11, 2016). If you'll pardon the expression, he and his forces completely killed it.

If you've never seen this remarkable mashup of symphony, oratorio, and opera performed live—and there's a good chance you haven't, given what a big undertaking it is—I hope you had a chance to experience this. With over 100 musicians on the stage and over 80 (by my count) in the chorus, this is a work which, while massive in scope, has moments of real delicacy and intimacy. Maestro Slatkin's interpretation was beautifully shaped and dramatically compelling, and the musicians played and sang with real perfection.

Tenor Sean Panikkar's description of Queen Mab in the second movement's "Grande fête chez Capulet" (essentially, "big party the Capulet's place") was delightfully droll. Mezzo Kelley O'Connor expertly captured the ecstasy of young love in the first movement's "Strophes," assisted by Allegra Lilly's flowing harp. And bass Renaud Delaigue was the passionate voice of morality in the imposing choral finale. Both the full chorus and the smaller chamber chorus that is featured in the first two movements sang with the power and clarity I have come to expect from them.

Maestro Slatkin's interpretation got off to a dramatic start, adopting a strikingly brisk tempo for the opening "Combats" section, which portrays the war between the Montagues and the Capulets with rapid-fire thrusts and parries from the strings and brasses. It proved to be emblematic of an overall approach that brought out all the drama in Berlioz's music.

The orchestra responded with some of the finest playing of the season, from the unearthly violin harmonics in the famous "Queen Mab" scherzo that makes up the fourth movement to the powerful brass declarations that announce the intervention of the Prince in the first. There were many impressive solo passages as well, such as Jelena Dirk's haunting oboe melody in the "Tristesse" ("sadness") section of the second movement and Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews's dramatic depiction of Juliet's awakening in the sixth movement.

The SLSO's Roméo et Juliette is history now, but the season continues this Friday through Sunday (March 18-20) as Jun Märkl conducts a program the features Schumann's Symphony No. 2 ("Rhenish") and Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Concertmaster David Halen as soloist. There's also a Pulitzer Series concert Wednesday at the Pulitzer Arts Center. For information these and other upcoming SLSO events, check out the web site.

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