I prefer chamber music to large orchestral works just as I prefer intimate gatherings to large crowds .  I already knew that, but the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra was performing on my doorstep, with their starry much-feted young Venezualan conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and we had tickets, so I went along.

A large symphony orchestra is quite a sight.  I couldn’t help whispering aloud “Wow!” as I sidled to my seat, my eyes fixed on the cornucopia of instruments laid out for us.  One by one musicians filled every inch of the large stage, with a dozen violin spilling over into the space in front of the cellos at the right hand side of the stage.  I counted thirty three violins, trying not to count any of the violas by mistake, and eight double basses.  This was an orchestra at its biggest.  Two huge church bells several feet high stood waiting at the far left of the stage. 

Once all the musicians were on stage, expectation quietened the audience.  Not a seat to spare in the auditorium.  Only two spots were empty – there was as yet no leader of the first violins, and the conductor’s podium was an empty space.  We waited, and waited and waited and waited.  And waited, and nothing happened.  People began to shift in their seats.  We wondered if we might venture a word or two to our neighbours.  Then the first violin arrived.  More waiting.  This was ridiculous. 

Eventually the prima donna parted the second violins which closed together behind him, and he took up the baton.  Dudamel.  Short.  A mop of untidy dark curls.  No apology, no explanation.  No music. I wondered what kind of twenty-seven year old could command an orchestra.  I wondered what experience he could add to the performance of those many practised musicians.  He took over the orchestra at short notice last year, and is now its principal conductor.  Next year he becomes the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.  He is supposed to be one of the hottest little things around according to the New York Times.

I was not gripped.  I was still feeling manipulated by the time he had made us wait.  The first piece passed without anything memorable happening.

The second piece, Peacock Tales, is a new composition by the Swedish composer Aho.  It was composed especially for Martin Frost, a clarinettist in his early twenties who has a formidable reputation.  The piece begins with a beautifully clear simple notes that rise and fall and rise.  The tone of the clarinet is exceptional.  Haunting, and lingers in the memory long after the sound has disappeared, like a fragrance.

Part way through the piece, when we were distracted by the main orchestra, we suddenly notice that the clarinettist has donned a Venetian mask and is moving around the stage Michael Jackson fashion.  Quite why he does this I never understand, but I notice that his odd behaviour has substantially changed the nature of what we are watching.  It is no longer music, but theatre.  And the thing is, the theatre is not very good.  At best it is Central Park on a Saturday, Covent Garden in the evening.  But it is not worthy of our attention.  Or rather, I am visually driven and am easily distracted by visual cues.  I compared notes afterwards with a good friend who knows a hundred times more than me about music and performers, but receives all her information first through her ears and only secondly through her eyes.  She found that the theatricals enhanced the music: I found that they took something away from the music.

Short version

With interview with Martin Forst

You can judge for yourself.  Or you can read this review of a performance a day earlier in Edinburgh. You might like to contrast the less than fulsome review with this considerably more positive profile of the conductor which appeared in the Guardian prior to the event and which bigs him up more than he may deserve. Dudamel conducted a native Venezualan orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival last year, an event described by Richard Holloway (a favourite theologian of mine who now fronts the Arts Council in Scotland) in hyperbolic terms thus:

“It became a sort of watercooler event. People were asking afterwards, ‘Were you there?’ There was probably more kindness in Scotland for about three days afterwards. It enthralled, softened, delighted, chuffed people.”

I wish I had been there, because last night’s first half left me needing caffeine not water.

I waited a long time for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, to hear those massive church bells struck. Each was played a couple of dozen times. That was it. I hoped that the percussionists did not get paid as much as the violinists. I’ll have to find out if they do.

This is the Fifth movement, the movement which contains the church bells:

And this is a link to a very interesting programme about Berlioz and the Symphonie Fantastique. Through the language of the symphony Berlioz tells the story of the passage of a love struck young man’s obsession with a girl – an autobiographical groan that grew out of Berlioz’s love-at-a-distance for an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson. He wrote this to a friend after his encounter of her stage presence:

“…[L]et me tell you, you don’t know what love is, whatever you may say about feeling it deeply [for your friend]. For you, it’s not that rage, that fury, that delirium which takes possession of all one’s faculties, which renders one capable of anything. You would not be the man to lose yourself in pleasure over the person you love. In that you are lucky, and I would never want you to experience the unbearable suffering to which I have fallen prey since your departure.”

Convinced that his love is unrequited, the young man drugs himself to dull the pain and so the Fifth Movement is full of the comfortable horrors of opium.  Berlioz wrote this programme note to accompany this final movement which uses the godly bells to strike at the apogée of the nightmare:

“He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.”

Our neighbour here is a herbalist.  I had to push past a giant stand of valerian to get to their door, and his explanation of the sleepy properties of this drug prompted me to remember the three-part account I had recently read of experiments by a young Cypriot American, Constantine Markides, with salvia divinorum, an account which Berlioz’s infatuation brought to mind. 

“For the first time I felt that I had come up against a tangible spirit.  Not a benevolent spirit, not some interlaced-fingers-on-belly chuckling Buddha, but a cackling psychopath, a destroying angel […]  All I now recall of this demon are circular saws, razors, teeth, blades—all of them spinning and whizzing with a geometric fury, nearing within millimeters of my body, threatening to slice me if I moved the slightest.  At the same time, a weight was crushing me down.  I could not budge.  Even if I could, these saws would grind me up into mincemeat.  A violent end awaited me if I even took a breath.  I did at one point sneak a gulp and I remember exulting in the fact that I had managed to trick this demon, to swallow without getting carved up.”

Drugless unrequited obsessive love is pain at its most exquisite.  Opium did nothing, apparently, to take the edge off its power to wound.  Our neighbouring herbalist had tried salvia divinorum too, when he was a young man of less than thirty, and when he wanted to be a writer.  He wondered how he would experience the drug now that he is just forty.  He might have well have asked whether the emotions of a twenty year old were those of an older man, whether the high and lows of passion are dimmed by age.

Berlioz fell in love with Harriet Smithson after seeing her as Shakespeare’s Orphelia in Paris in 1827. He sent her numerous love letters, but none were answered. When she left Paris they had still not met. His musical love letter premiered in Paris in 1830, but Harriet did not hear it until 1832.  She realised that she was the object of the symphony and the composer and actress finally met and were married in 1833.   They were divorced nine years later though the marriage was apparently happy to begin with.

I can imagine a performance of the Symphonie that brings those terrible emotions of obsessive love alive, but this was not it.  At least not for me.