He made women faint with ecstasy and cheerfully encouraged rumors that he owed his phenomenal talent to a deal with Satan by dressing all in black and riding to concerts in a black coach drawn by black horses. He was, in short, Mr. Showbiz.
You can hear that flash as well as a fair amount of finesse in his “Violin Concerto No. 1,” which he first performed in 1816. Like most of Paganini’s music, it demands a high level of technical skill, especially in the opening and closing movements. The soulful Adagio, though, could almost pass for an operatic aria and demands real musical sensitivity.
Violinist Augustin Hadelich appears to have plenty of both. He negotiated the purely showoff material with ease. But he also made that second movement sing and even, in places, weep. In his notes for a 2011 Kennedy Center performance of the concerto, Peter Laki notes that this movement “supposedly depicts a famous actor of the time delivering one of his most heart-rending speeches.” Others have heard the composer’s own anguish over his poor health. Whatever the cause, it’s emotionally charged stuff, and Mr. Hadelich did it well, beautifully supported by the orchestra under guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier.
Unlike Paganini, Mr. Hadelich does not appear to be drawn to the showy or overtly theatrical in performance. Yes, he was dressed entirely in black, but when he started playing his concentration was entirely on his instrument and the conductor. He’s a serious musician, a fact made all the more apparent is his encore, the Andante from Bach’s “Violin Sonata No. 2” (BWV 1003). Virtuosity of a different kind is called for here, as the performer must sustain both the rocking base line and fluid melody above it. Done well, as it was Friday morning by Mr. Hadelich, the music presents the illusion that two instruments are playing at once.
If Paganini courted a diabolical image, his friend Hector Berlioz perhaps took it a step farther by actually going to Hell in the final movement of his 1830 “Symphonie fantastique.” Subtitled “An Episode in the Life of an Artist,” the work tells, in dramatic and musically explicit terms, the story of a “young vibrant musician” who becomes sexually obsessed with an “ideal” woman. He dreams of her in the first movement; unsuccessfully pursues her at a ball in the second; and flees to the country to escape his longing in the third. In the fourth movement “March of the Scaffold” (often performed by itself) he overdoses on opium (the LSD of the early 19th century) and dreams he is being beheaded for her murder. The work ends with the hallucinatory “Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath,” in which the protagonist envisions himself at an infernal dance, presided over by the object of his affection, now transformed into a demon.
The idea for the “Symphonie” came from Berlioz’s own obsession with the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, whom he wooed for years and finally won after convincing her to attend a performance of the “Symphonie”. The composer never tried to kill her, but he did threaten to kill himself with an opium overdose if she didn’t marry him—which she did. The marriage did not end well, but that’s another story.
Unlike the marriage, the music lasted, although it was fiercely controversial. Parisians had just gotten used to the idea of Beethoven when along came this wildly dramatic bit of excess scored for a massive orchestra and accompanied by a narrative that was, to say the least, lurid. Younger composers like Liszt and Saint-Saëns loved it but traditionalists like Mendelssohn were appalled. Even today, a good performance is still (to quote another concertgoer Friday morning) a “wild ride.”
In order for that ride to be enjoyable, of course, you need a conductor who can keep it all under control and make the languorous sighs of the first movement as compelling as the histrionics of the last. Mr. Tortelier did all of that Friday morning, and then some. His interpretation was nuanced without sacrificing any of the composer’s high drama. He clearly knows this music inside out—he conducted without a score—and that level of expertise was apparent in every note.
Mr. Tortelier’s conducting style is fascinating to watch. Working without a baton, he uses his very expressive hands to shape phrases. He seems to be all about economy of movement, holding the big gestures in reserve for when they’re really needed—the volcanic final moments of the “Symphonie,” for example. There’s subtle shading there that parallels his interpretive approach.
The Berlioz offers plenty of solo opportunities for members of the orchestra, and the symphony musicians did not disappoint. Cally Banham, for example, did full justice to the famous English horn solo in the bucolic “Scène aux Champs,” as did oboist Phil Ross with the offstage echo part. Andrew Cuneo and his fellow bassoonists were wonderfully precise in the fourth movement death march. There was also lovely work here by Scott Andrews and Diana Haskell on clarinet, Andrea Kalpan on flute, and Julie Thornton on flute and piccolo. Praise is also due to Harpists Megan Stout and Claire Happel for their lovely sound in the second movement waltz waltz as well as to the entire percussion section, who get a vigorous workout in the final two movements.
The concert opened with a wonderfully jolly performance of the overture to “L’italiana in Algeri” by another detractor of the “Symphonie fantastique,” Gioachino Rossini (“What a good thing it isn’t music”). It’s classic Rossini, with those familiar slow builds in volume and pace that earned him the nickname “Signor Crescendo.” Here, as in the Berlioz, Mr. Tortelier found variety and nuance where I have not heard them in other performances, at least on CD. Mr. Ross’s oboe and Ms. Thornton’s piccolo sounded quite fine in their solo passages.
Next on the calendar: Friday and Saturday, April 19 and 20, at 8 PM, Ward Stare conducts the orchestra and chorus in an intriguing program of two rarely heard Brahms choral works, Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Artist’s Life” waltz, a suite from Richard Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier,” and Webern’s entrancing “Im Sommerwind.” For ticket information: stlsymphony.org.