Arts & Events

Blake Pouliot Solos In Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday July 22, 2019 - 01:14:00 PM

Twenty-four year-old Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot made a splashy debut with San Francisco Symphony on Thursday, July 18, at Davies Hall. I don’t know, however, which was more splashy, his skill as a violinist or his fashion statement. Blake Pouliot walked on stage wearing tight-fitting, shiny, silver pants, a three-quarter sleeve-length black T-shirt, and a black sash wound around his neck and hanging down over his left shoulder to his waist. He looked for all the world like a rock star; and his pants, in either satin or lamé, were reminiscent of pants Elvis Presley wore.  

Wielding his bow, Blake Pouliot tore into the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto like a rock musician wielding an electric guitar. Of grace and delicacy there was precious little in Blake Pouliot’s performance of this Mendelssohn classic. But of speed and drive there were plenty. The first and third movements, of course, call for a fair amount of speed and drive, so these sections of the work came off reasonably well, given that guest conductor Brett Mitchell seemed to collude with Blake Pouliot in emphasising these qualities. However, the second movement, a slow Andante, seemed flat. It had none of its usual shimmering quality, which I liken to the play of sunlight on ripples of water. In Blake Pouliot’s hands, however, there was no sunlight and no magical shimmering. It was just flat and dull. 

At the conclusion of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, after taking his bows, Blake Pouliot addressed the audience, saying in a boyish voice how much he enjoyed being in San Francisco. Then as an encore he played the song “The Last Rose of Summer.” Here, for once, Pouliot showed he could play with grace and delicacy; but why he didn’t infuse these qualities into Mendelssohn’s beautiful Andante I simply can’t fathom. Could the fault here lie as much with conductor Brett Mitchell as with soloist Blake Pouliot? Who can say? 

Bookending the Mendelssohn were two works by Hector Berlioz. Opening the program was the Hungarian March from Berlioz’s opera La Damnation de Faust. This brief orchestral work begins as a jaunty march, which features first reeds then brass and strings. As it develops, however, it becomes ever more boisterous, even bombastic, ending in an all out, bring the house down, fortissimo climax. 

The second half of the concert was devoted to Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. I confess that I have never cottoned to this work, which strikes me as emanating from an overheated, perfervid mind ordering on delusional schizophrenia. Here Berlioz attempted to write music depicting his obsessive love for a woman he had only seen on stage as an actress in a Shakespeare play in 1827. The object of his obsessive passion was the English actress Harriet Smthson, to whom Berlioz sent dozens of impassioned love letters (in a French she could not understand). Miss Smithson never responded. So Berlioz began composing Symphonie fantastique in attempting to put his obsessive passion into music. This work’s first premiere went unnoticed by Harriet Smthson. But when Barlioz revised it for the work’s second premiere in 1832, he somehow impressed Miss Smithson; and though she spoke little French and he little English, they were married in 1833. This unlikely marriage, however, quickly proved unworkable, and they were eventually formally divorced after a tumultuous eleven years in 1844. 

Symphonie fantastique is comprised of five sections. The first, “Reveries, Passions,” I find utterly inchoate, quite simply, all over the place. In notes he attached to the score, Berlioz wrote of his obsessive idée fixe, of melancholic reverie, unmotivated joy, delirious passion, fury and jealousy, tenderness, tears, and religious consolation. In short, it’s too much. The second section, “The Ball,” begins with a lovely, almost Viennese waltz, which gradually, however, turns manic once the idée fixe returns in flutes and oboes, upsetting the serenity of the waltz. 

The third section, “Scenes in the Country,” opens with a duet, first heard in English horn and oboe, between two Swiss shepherds in a ranz des vaches. Later, this piping is taken over by two flutes over violins. The overall mood here in serene and bucolic. However, the music suddenly turns jagged and anxious as worries and presentiments about the lover’s obsessive passion intrude. Then the timpani suggest thunder rumbling in the distant mountains, as this section ends. In the fourth section, “March to the Scaffold,” the lover takes opium, falls asleep and has a nightmare. Here the Symphonie fantastique diverges into phantasmagoria. He dreams he has killed the woman he loves, for which he is led to the scaffold to be hanged. He dreams he is about to witness, as Berlioz writes, using capital letters, “HIS OWN EXECUTION.”  

The fifth and final section, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” offers unremittingly ghoulish music, with screeching clarinets. Later, bells introduce a burlesque of the Dies Irae in tubas and bassoons. Finally, the idée fixe returns one last time, now jumbled together with the burlesqued Dies Irae, closing the Symphonie fantatstique in a frenzy of demonic energy and strident sounds. 

Where guest conductor Brett Mitchell is concerned, I think his best work was in the Symphonie fantastique. Mitchell encouraged the orchestra to bring out the extreme, even excessive, qualities of this music, but he also managed to keep things under control throughout. Mitchell was less successful, I found, in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, where, teamed with soloist Blake Pouliot, they overemphasised the speed and drive of this work to the detriment of the grace and delicacy of the beautiful Andante. Given that this was Brett Mitchell’s local debut, I’d have to say that, at least on the merits of his account of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, I’d welcome hearing him return here at some time in the future. As for violinist Blake Pouliot, well, I’m not so sure.