incident light

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 Berlioz.

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 choirs.

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 improvement.

Mike Greenberg