Prepare to be "lifted out of your seats" at HRO concert

by Victoria Aschheim

The first of the three compositions on the HRO’s program for its October 24 performance in Sanders Theatre (at 8pm) is Roman Carnival Overture by Hector Berlioz. Berlioz was a supreme master of orchestration, having written one of the legendary treatises in the history of orchestration. As a percussionist, I am particularly interested in Berlioz's innovations and specificity in orchestral percussion writing. With its exuberant orchestration and melodic themes, and brilliant display of musical color, from featured solo instruments, to the dynamism of orchestral tutti sections, Roman Carnival Overture is a

particularly appropriate piece in its celebratory feeling to commemorate the HRO debut of our new conductor, Maestro Federico Cortese. Peter Bloom, a Berlioz expert, has written of the section of the Overture after the Allegro vivace: "led by horns, trumpets, and cornets…all hell breaks loose. If you are not lifted out of your seat at this point in the score, something has gone wrong, or Berlioz is not right for you…Rhythmic and dynamic contrastes et oppositions, as Berlioz like to call them, go at a gallop to the end." In Paris in 1844, concertgoers were lifted out of their seats with admiration for the Overture.

When Roman Carnival Overture was first performed on February 3, 1844, at the Salle Herz in Paris, conducted by its composer, Hector Berlioz, himself, the applause was so tumultuous that the orchestra had to present an encore of the Roman Carnival Overture there and then, to the delight of the audience.

The history of Roman Carnival Overture is a fascinating musical story in itself. In 1837 the poet Heinrich Heine wrote: "From Berlioz we shall soon have an opera, the subject is an episode from the life of Benvenuto Cellini, the casting of his Perseus. Something extraordinary is expected, since this composer has already achieved the extraordinary." At the world premiere of Benvenuto Cellini at the Paris Opera on September 10, 1838, the opera had an extraordinarily controversial reception to say the least. Berlioz commented that the opera "hissed with admirable energy and unanimity." Berlioz was incensed at the conductor, Francois Antoine Habenek, for disregarding his directions and having given a lackluster interpretation of the second act, the salterello, conducting it at half the proper tempo. Berlioz later recycled the music of the saltarello for a concert composition of its own, the Roman Carnival Overture, and Berlioz conducted the first performances of Roman Carnival Overture himself. Berlioz was elated with the reception of the Overture, and at the suggestion of Lizst, Berlioz adopted it as the prelude to the second act of the opera, Benvenuto Cellini, in a production at Weimar in 1852. The opera is rarely performed but was staged by the Opera Company of Boston in 1975, directed by Sarah Caldwell. Boston’s own James Levine conducted the first performance of Benvenuto Cellini at the Metropolitan Opera in 2003.

The Roman Carnival Overture includes, in addition to the cymbal-highlighted saltarello, another theme from Benvenuto Cellini: the melody from the duet of Benvenuto Cellini and his beloved, Teresa from the opera’s first act, performed on the 24th in the Roman Carnival Overture on the English horn, played by the HRO’s Jonathan Bragg '10. Berlioz derived inspiration for his opera and the resulting Overture when in 1830 he won the Prix de Rome, a prize that supported the development of young composers through study abroad. It was from this foundation that Berlioz came to love Italy, and the Roman Carnival Overture is an enduring legacy of the prize for which Berlioz tried year after year and finally succeeded in winning.

Berlioz could have only one rehearsal with his orchestra before the first performance of Roman Carnival Overture because the wind players were needed for National Guard responsibilities. Berlioz instructed: "You are all excellent players. Watch my stick as often as you can, count your rests carefully, and everything will be all right." The triumph of that Overture performance is now history. Habeneck attended that triumphant concert, at the conclusion of which Berlioz remarked to Habeneck (in reference to Habeneck’s incorrect tempo conducting of 1838): "That is how it goes," to which Berlioz recorded in writing, "he took care to make no reply."

Hoping you will be at the well-rehearsed October 24th HRO performance of the Roman Carnival Overture when Maestro Cortese begins a new chapter in the history of the HRO.

Sprinkled through this post are images I captured of HRO's rehearsal on October 20, 2009. The evening began with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, followed by a rehearsal of the third movement of Debussy's Nocturnes, "Sirenes," for which HRO is joined by women of the Holden Choruses, prepared by Jameson Marvin.

And finally, Maestro Cortese chatted with me after rehearsal about how he is feeling about the Orchestra and his thoughts behind the first concert's programming!

[Caption: The warmly lit, amber-colored stage of Sanders Theatre]

[Caption: View from the horn section]

[Caption: Maestro Cortese in motion]

[Caption: Aerial view from the Sanders Theatre balcony]

[Caption: View from the cello section]

[Caption: Celli and basses]

[Caption: Concertmaster Michael Viscardi '10 stands as the orchestra tunes. Tuning is a sacred moment during rehearsal.]

[Caption: The chorus during Debussy rehearsal. Maestro Cortese dubbed the singers the "sirens of Harvard."]