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In UNC's Hill Hall, on October 14, a rare area performance of one of Berlioz's greatest scores, Harold in Italy (1834), loosely based on Byron's Childe Harold , was given by violist Hugh Partridge and the UNC Symphony Orchestra under the watchful direction of Tonu Kalam. The concert also included Barber's brilliant "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance." It was the season's first offering by the UNCSO, our region's largest orchestra (the number of strings on hand exceeded the total number of players in most of our other bands), and the Berlioz had been long awaited - it had been planned for last season, but since 2003 marks the 200th anniversary of Berlioz's birth, the timing could not have been better. Looking ahead at the schedule, there's less readily accessible Berlioz going on here than one might imagine. The Met will broadcast Benvenuto Cellini on December 27 - WCPE will carry it; January brings a performance of the Grand and Triumphant Funeral Symphony , by the NC Wind Orchestra and the Triangle Brass Band; and in March there will be two performances of the early Messe solennelle , by the NCMC and the NCS. Triangle residents have to go to Greensboro or Asheville or Charlotte (if the CSO strike is over by then....) to hear the Symphonie fantastique. Otherwise, the offerings are minor potboilers - overtures and such. It's the pity that the NCS has not seen fit to produce Romeo and Juliet in this anniversary year.
Berlioz is a composer whose music is easy to love. His output is relatively small, and he's been well served by the record companies, so nearly everything he wrote is available, even in NC, which some still see as a cultural backwater. Harold in Italy has been recorded nearly as often as the Symphonie fantastique, so while it is not often played hereabouts - we can recall only one previous reading, also involving the UNCSO - there are few excuses for folks not being familiar with it. At least five performances by the great William Primrose have circulated on records, performances led by Koussevitzky, Beecham, Munch, and Toscanini (two broadcasts). Partridge told us that it was one of Primrose's recordings that served as his introduction to the score and inspired him to pursue a career as a professional violist. He also reported that there are three biggies for violists - Mozart's Sinfonia concertante, Harold , and Strauss' Don Quixote . Partridge has devoted his entire career to the viola, so the fact that this was his first public performance of the Berlioz says something about orchestral programming - and underscores, too, one of the many advantages of having college and university orchestras here and there throughout our region, since these groups tend not to have their programming driven by "marketing" considerations....
There were no program notes, but Maestro Kalam offered brief introductory remarks, tying together, more or less, the two works on the intermission-less concert. Barber's score began life as a ballet for Martha Graham, and the work played was the composer's third version of the material. It's one of his - and thus the 20th century's - most brilliant compositions, splendidly orchestrated and intensely powerful and gripping. The orchestra did it superbly, with winds and brass and percussion under firm control throughout and with all those strings providing many soaring moments and many strongly undergirded passages, too.
Kalam noted in his introduction that Harold was written for Paganini but that he was dissatisfied with the music - too many rests, he said - and didn't do the premiere. In his Memoirs (translated by Ernest Newman), Berlioz discusses the circumstances of Harold 's composition and its post-completion life. It is clear that the score's second movement, known as "The Pilgrims' March," was particularly near and dear to the composer's heart.
Berlioz reports that after a performance of the Symphonie fantastique, "a man with long hair, piercing eyes, a strange and haggard face - a genius, a Titan among the giants" - Paganini - came to see him. Later, he said to Berlioz (according to Berlioz), "I have a wonderful viola..., an admirable Stradivari, and should greatly like to play it in public. But I have no music for it. Would you write me a solo? I have no confidence in anyone but you for such a work." Berlioz replied, "...To make a composition sufficiently brilliant to suit such a virtuoso as yourself, I ought to be able to play the viola, and this I cannot do. It seems to me that you alone can solve the problem." Paganini replied (again, according to Berlioz), "No...., you will succeed. I insist." But as noted, there were problems when Paganini saw the completed first movement, and the commissioner stated, "That is not at all what I want.... I am silent a great deal too long. I must be playing the whole time." Berlioz responded, "That is exactly what I said.... What you really want is a concerto for viola, and you are the only man who can write it." Well, the rest is history. The work broke new ground as a symphony with viola, an episodic work that some believe is one of the most novel and striking scores to come out of the 19th century. And to finish the Paganini story, suffice it to say that he heard Harold in late 1838 and claimed never to have been "so powerfully impressed at a concert...."
Partridge gave an impressive performance in Chapel Hill, and the orchestra was comparably magnificent. The soloist, if we dare call him that (given the fact that it is not a concerto), stood on a raised platform in front of the orchestra, forward of the stage. The orchestra's 100+ players packed the stage. The performance was one of the finest yet experienced, live or on records - this was a miracle of integration, in which the viola part was at once distinctive and thoroughly incorporated into the musical fabric. It was in many respects remarkable, and that a performance of this quality came so early in the school year, given the large number of new players this season, was even more astounding. The low brass, and the low strings, and the winds, too, were consistently excellent. And every detail had been carefully planned, including the offstage string trio - played by Richard Luby, Jose Bastardes, and Brent Wissick - that makes such an impression in the finale. The place was packed, and the crowd went wild, according the artists a standing ovation and repeatedly recalling Partridge and Kalam to the front of the stage. If artists were still carried around the town after performances of exceptional finesse, this would have merited such action. We probably won't get another shot at Harold anytime soon, but this concert was worth the long wait - and it will sustain the Berlioz lovers among us till the next time. One can only guess what it meant to Partridge, the NCS' Principal Viola and the Artistic Director of the Philharmonic Association and Conductor of the Triangle Youth Philharmonic. Chances are it was the high water mark of his career as a solo artist. He deserves another opportunity to play it, now that it's under his fingers. Until then, here's a big bravo - for Partridge, for Kalam, for the UNCSO - and for Berlioz.