Dallas — The Dallas Symphony delighted audiences Thursday night with its performance of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. This “dramatic symphony” is an easy crowd-pleaser, to be sure, with its programmatic description of a blissful opium dream that turns into a very bad trip indeed. But in the Dallas Symphony’s hands, it was far from a weary warhorse. It was instead gripping and engaging from start to finish. Nearly every element was in place, from the ethereal beauty of the two harps in the second movement waltz to the flawlessly executed third movement call-and-response between offstage oboe Willa Henigman and onstage English horn David Matthews. Other highlights included the bassoon duo in the fourth movement and outstanding playing from the percussion section in the last two movements.
At the time Berlioz wrote Symphonie fantastique, in 1830, no other symphony had been written for an orchestra so large. The 90 musicians called for anticipate the even larger contingents for which composers such as Mahler and Bruckner would write later in the century. But in 1830, only three years after the death of Beethoven, the super-orchestra was not yet the norm. Berlioz was radical in other respects, as well. Rather than adhering to the traditional symphonic form, he melded elements of opera, including a plotline or “program,” with elements of the symphony, including a piece divided into movements (albeit five of them, rather than the symphony’s usual four).
He also added elements of his own, psychologically unstable, life experience-- including his ardent, unrequited passion for a Beloved. (This was the actress Harriet Smithson, who did eventually marry him, to their mutual misery, after he stalked her for a few years under the guise of courtship. Sometimes fantasy is better than reality.)
The “March to the Scaffold” parallels Berlioz’s life in a disquieting way—while in the March the dreamer believes he has killed his Beloved and is being executed, Berlioz himself was jilted by his first fiancée and devised an elaborate plot to kill her, her mother, and her new fiancé. He was himself in the midst of his obsession with Harriet Smithson at this time, but no matter. He eventually abandoned his homicidal plan, saving himself, perhaps, from the fate he had imagined in his music.
While all of this drama makes for good storytelling, it makes for even better music. The DSO under the baton of Jaap van Zweden chose to present the piece’s five movements as five distinct chapters, without much of a connecting thread. This approach, perhaps reflecting the dreamer’s disjointed and eventually nightmarish experience, worked well.
The first half of the program featured Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-Sharp Minor, with 24-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov at the keyboard. This concerto is less frequently performed than Rachmaninoff’s second and third concerti or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Trifonov skillfully outlined and interpreted the concerto’s many assets, from his crisp staccato in the first movement to his lyrically shaped phrases in the second to his muscular playing in the third movement Allegro vivace. Trifonov provided listeners outstanding playing from a bold young musical voice.