Berlioz almost upstaged Saint-Saens

San Diego's Symphony Hall shaken to its foundations

Poster for first performance (Sept. 10, 1838) of Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz
  • Poster for first performance (Sept. 10, 1838) of Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz

I’ve been waiting for Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony at The San Diego Symphony ever since it was announced last spring. The day came, Friday, May 3, and Saint-Saëns was darn near upstaged by a plucky overture by Hector Berlioz.

I’ve used the word “plucky” but that is only in the context of the length of the Berlioz versus the Saint-Saëns. Besides that, there is nothing plucky about anything Berlioz ever wrote. The overture was from Berlioz’s first and failed opera Benvenuto Cellini. Benvenuto Cellini was the famous Italian sculptor of the 16th Century — not necessarily an operatic figure. However, the overture is fantastique.

The overture begins with an energetic bang before transitioning into a section of rumination. Maestro Jahja Ling was back on the podium for this concert and he whipped up a nice frothy performance of the Berlioz.

Following Berlioz was another Frenchman, Francis Poulenc. I can honestly say that I am a fan of Poulenc’s music and that his Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani fares much better on recordings than in a live performance. Blasphemy.

That is to take nothing away from the quality of the performance but rather the quality of the experience. It felt as though the organ was sitting in our laps while the strings and timpani were over the river and through the woods at grandmother’s house in the pantry just behind the flour and sugar — on the left.

Regarding the quality of the performance, it was stellar. Local organist-made-good Chelsea Chen played the Poulenc with an economy of technique. However, Poulenc did not write a tour de force for the organ as he wasn’t an organist.

Poulenc studied organ compositions and received advice from the great French organist Maurice Durufle, but the music still feels unnatural compared to some of his other compositions such as the Concerto for Two Pianos which stole the show in last year’s final concert of the season..

Ms. Chen went ahead and supplied a tour de force organ piece as an encore. She played an arrangement of themes from Star Wars which received a raucous ovation from the audience.

Maestro Ling and the San Diego Symphony did not disappoint when it came time to roll out the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony — except, at times, the tempo felt a few clicks too slow which made the perpetual motion of the woodwinds sound deliberate and controlled in the first movement. Yes, I am picking nits.

The first half of the first movement was bold and dramatic, as it should be. The second half of the first movement (there are only two movements) was some of the most beautiful playing I’ve heard from the orchestra. The balance between the orchestra and the organ was ideal in this instance.

The cataclysmic conclusion of the piece shook Symphony Hall to its foundations. The organ was more than balanced by the enormous orchestra playing with all the blastisimo they could muster.

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