An augmented San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, including over 300 performers, performed Berlioz's gargantuan Requiem last weekend at Davies Hall led by guest conductor Charles Dutoit. I have long felt sincere admiration for the 80-year-old Dutoit during his previous appearances in San Francisco, and also unconditional love for the eccentric early 19th century music of Hector Berlioz, so I was hoping for an overwhelming experience with my first live attendance at the 90-minute, 10-movement behemoth, but it was oddly disappointing.
The SF Symphony Chorus, which sings throughout the entire work, was wonderful and so was the orchestra with its ten timpani and brass ensembles stationed all over the performance space. The problem was Dutoit's conducting. The trio of loud movements were toe-curlingly sensational, psychedelic waves of sound that were probably the 19th Century Parisian version of a Led Zeppelin concert. A few of the quieter movements also had a lovely grace, particularly the penultimate Sanctus where tenor soloist Paul Groves finally appeared and sang a haunting solo aria with ethereal support from the sopranos, which sounded like a convincing depiction of a greeting from angels in heaven. But the piece turned out to be trickier to conduct than I imagined, requiring a leader who could maintain a propulsive musical line between wildly diverse movements rather than simply relying on LOUD, soft, LOUD, soft, LOUD, soft dynamics to provide the drama. For instance, there is a semi-sour, downward brass refrain in the first movement which reappears at the end, a sound that should be strange and disquieting but it was simply four more notes in this performance, coming and going without any emotional effect.
Still, it was great to finally experience the Berlioz Requiem live, and I would love to hear it again, preferably in a big-ass French cathedral with 400 choristers and brass ensembles providing a Sensurround experience from all four, reverbating directions in the church. In fact, this has become a new bucket list item.