Hector Berlioz was not guilty by reason of insanity in composing his Symphony Fantastique. Even though his music “shocked and generally upset three whole generations of concert goers” according to the program notes by Ronald Comber. The old version of the work’s genesis had it as an opium induced dream that careened madly from passionate and jealous dreams, to an elegant ballroom, to the Guillotine and on to the very pit of Hell. This we know from a program for the work written by Berlioz himself.
No one is now saying that Berlioz wasn’t stoned out of his semi-quavers, he was. But Dr. Jeffrey Stokes, musicologist, professor, musician and teacher supreme, in his fascinating pre-concert lecture at Brott Music’s Connoisseur Classics performance of the work in McMaster University’s Wilson Hall Thursday evening, told us that science has more to tell.
He was diagnosed in his lifetime with what the pre-Freudian pre-psychiatry shrinks of the day dubbed Monomania. The nearest this layman can get to it is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The obsessive and compulsive stuff was his unrequited adoration of Harriet Smithson an Irish Shakespearean actress he fell for from afar and now it is Berlioz’s music that is climbing up on the analyst’s couch for examination. All those restless musical scurryings, tics and spasms that underpin the work’s main themes especially Smithson’s own leitmotif an idee fixe that permeates the work, are classic presentations of his mental disorder, we are told.
Thus, I bang my gavel, cry innocent and turn him over to Boris Brott’s National Academy Orchestra for exoneration.
And what a glorious job they did of it, the job of literally painting pictures in the audience’s mind’s eye with music.
Brott’s apprentice conductor Trevor Wilson took the first two movements and impressed me with his close rapport with his players and how helpful and inspiring he was in gesture and understanding. Both he and Brott, to possibly an even greater extent, brought a clarity and balance to this teeming and sometimes chaotic work. It is an emotional roller coaster revealed in a deeply satisfying performance.
Of course, they were working with the National Academy Orchestra of which I am a devoted admirer. Brass, woodwinds and strings are all immaculately turned out and eminently capable of producing just what is wanted with a unique and vivid sound and a profound joy in their work that is simply addicting.
Violinist Adrian Anantawan was the first half of the concert. His is a story of true heroism and unbelievable tenacity. He became a professional violin soloist with only one arm. How? Only he truly knows the whole story of how. And what did he do Thursday evening but pick one of the steepest, bravura musical hills to climb in the classical violin repertoire. Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and what he achieved was nothing short of breathtaking.
The left hand dazzled. His fingers literally flew over the strings, flashing out the virtuoso piece in faultless style. Born with only five inches of right arm, a spatula-like arrangement attached to it allows him to bow the strings. Apparently, it cannot yet produce the richness of sound his utterly musical playing deserves and demands. It’s not a musical problem. Those problems Anantawan has conquered with astonishing effort and in a truly miraculous story of human triumph. It is an engineering problem. Let those who can, solve it. The resulting music will be well worth it.
-Hugh Fraser, Former Hamilton Spectator Music Critic