San Antonio Symphony
Honoring Jacques Barzun with Berlioz
May 17, 2012
The cheerful fellow in the
front box applauded with almost unseemly vigor after each
item in a special all-Berlioz concert by the San Antonio
Symphony under music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, May 15
in the Majestic Theater.
The approval of an individual audience member might not be
worth remarking, except that the cheerful fellow was the
eminent cultural historian and teacher Jacques Barzun, among
whose numberless distinctions is his stature as the world’s
leading authority on the life, times and music of Hector
The concert was organized as a tribute to Mr. Barzun, a San
Antonio resident since 1996. Charles Butt, head of the H-E-B
supermarket chain, both instigated and funded the
free-admission event, and it would be difficult to say which
form of involvement was the more impressive. During a brief
remarks to the audience, Mr. Barzun returned the compliment
by calling the grocer “the Maecenas of our time” -- a
reference to ancient Rome’s famed patron of poets (notably
Horace and Virgil) and friend of the emperor Augustus.
The announced program was
perhaps just a trifle odd. It opened innocently enough with
the popular “Roman Carnival” Overture, continued with the
middle section of the dramatic symphony “Roméo et
Juliette” and closed with the Funeral March for the Last
Scene of “Hamlet,” a work that might with some justification
be characterized as a shade less festive than the occasion.
(The brassy, bombastic Trojan March, adapted by Berlioz
from his vast opera “Les Troyens,” was appended as an
encore. Spoiler alert: The Trojans' bombast was premature.)
It takes a degree of chutzpah to program a funeral march on
a concert honoring a man who has seen 104 birthdays, but the
chutzpah was Mr. Barzun’s own -- and an excellent example,
perhaps, of his penchant for amiable provocation. Mr.
Lang-Lessing informed the audience that the honoree had made
his musical preferences known, and the Funeral March “was
the thing he was most keen on.”
It is one of Berlioz’s lesser-known works, but also one of
his best. In rhythmic pattern, structure and length it
responds closely to the slow movement from Beethoven’s
Symphony No. 7, but Berlioz adds his own astonishing
harmonies and dramatic intuition to the conversation.
Although the music is unavoidably dark, it is more stately
and solemn than gloomy.
Throughout the concert, Mr.
Lang-Lessing crafted performances that were notable for
astute rhythms, careful balances, crisp execution and a fine
grasp of the equipoise between the composer’s sense of
theater and his sense of abstract form. The love scene from
“Roméo et Juliette” traced an ideal erotic trajectory
from approach to deep, time-stopping tenderness. The “Queen
Mab” Scherzo was fleet, diaphanous and precision-tooled,
with splendid work from the horns.
Also contributing nicely to the Funeral March was a small
chorus comprising members of the UTSA and Trinity University
Postscript: My seat for most symphony concerts is on the top
row of the mezzanine, where the sound is adequate. For this
concert, I sat downstairs under the overhang, where I found
the acoustics to be shockingly flat, harsh and lifeless, and
further degraded by the Majestic’s loud air-handling system.
Even if the acoustics in the future Tobin Center prove to be
less than the promised “world-class” -- whatever the hell
that means -- the sound cannot help but be a major