Charles Dutoit Leads San Francisco Symphony in the Berlioz Requiem

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday May 16, 2017 - 10:46:00 AM

It is not clear how much or how little religious inspiration Hector Berlioz felt in composing his Grande Messe des Morts, aka his Requiem. This work was commissioned by the French government and was intended to be performed on the day of the annual service commemorating the dead of the 1830 Revolution. This date had great significance for the French people, for it marked the end of the Bourbon monarchy, which had been initially overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789-99 only to be restored, with limited powers, in 1815. The July Revolution of 1830, however, brought about a populist overthrow of the Bourbons in favor of a constitutional monarchy headed by the House of Orléans. Stirred as much by patriotic fervor as by religion, Berlioz composed his Requiem only to have its performance canceled at the last minute. Later, another event stirred up French patriotism – an important military victory in France’s colonial enterprise in Algeria, during which the French commander, General Damrémont, was killed. A solemn service for the French soldiers killed in this battle was scheduled to be held in the immense chapel of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris; and it was here that the Berlioz Requiem had its premiere on December 5, 1837. 

Here in San Francisco Guest Conductor Charles Dutoit led the San Francisco Symphony in three performances of the Berlioz Requiem May 4-6 at Davies Hall. Tenor Paul Groves sang the beautiful Sanctus movement, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus was joined by the Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco and Golden Gate Men’s Chorus. Charles Dutoit has recorded a highly acclaimed Berlioz Requiem with his Montreal Symphony and Chorus in 1997. So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to hearing Dutoit conduct this Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony. The experience lived up to my hopes and expectations. Dutoit has a fine feel for the flow of the Berlioz Requiem. There is a sense of spaciousness in Dutoit’s interpretation of this work. He positions four brass ensembles high up in the tiers at four compass points of the auditorium. Berlioz’s bold orchestral colors are brought out in vivid detail while the overall flow of the ten movements creates a strong sense of structure.  

There is something of an existential anguish in the face of death inherent in the Berlioz Requiem. One gets the sense of the weakness and vulnerability of humankind confronting the inevitability of death. One also senses the grandeur of humanity’s efforts to create meaning out of existence, perhaps even to create a notion of God that might offer hope. The Dies irae, Tuba mirum, and Lachrymosa sections are of overwhelming power, full of awe and terror at the prospect of death. The Lachrymosa, with its snapping rhythm on the off-beat chords, is a particular favorite of mine, and it was admirably performed here under the leadership of Dutoit. The Quid sum miser depicted the desolation of humanity in an empty universe; and the Hostias, with its combination of high flutes and low trombones, offered a sense of infinite spaciousness. The Rex tremendae posits an all-powerful God who just might offer hope to mankind; and the Sanctus, exquisitely sung here by tenor Paul Groves, praises Hosanna in the highest. The concluding Agnus Dei opens softly, imploring God to grant the dead eternal rest. As this section comes to a close, the music fades away in a pianissimo, a last plaintive cry for the dead.  

Throughout this performance of the Berlioz Requiem, the combined forces of the augmented choir performed admirably. The Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco were led by Susan McMane, and the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus was led by Joseph Piazza. Ragnar Bohlin, director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, oversaw these combined choral forces.