Symphony’s Festive ‘Te Deum’ to Relieve Holiday Tedium

The French composer Hector Berlioz was addicted to works of monumental scale. His sprawling grand opera Les Troyens takes over five hours to perform; the orchestra of his grandiose Requiem requires no fewer than eight sets of timpani and four additional brass choirs scattered about the hall. His quirky Grand symphonie funèbre et triomphonale requires a large military band and a string orchestra in addition to the chorus.

On Friday (December 11) at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, the San Diego Symphony and San Diego Master Chorale presented the Berlioz Te Deum, an equally monumental work for chorus, orchestra, organ and tenor soloist that is the infrequently programmed kid brother to his more familiar Requiem. Under Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling, these forces fused amiably in a robust, ardent account of Berlioz’ giant 1849 hymn of sublime praise and earnest entreaties.

John Russell [photo courtesy of the artist]

John Russell [photo courtesy of the artist]

The Te Deum rises or falls on the strength of the chorus, and from the striking acclamations of the opening movement, the Master Chorale displayed laudable breadth and a rich, open sonority that enlivened a work whose solemnity can seem unrelenting. At times I longed for greater choral power in climactic cadences, such as the conclusion of the “Christe Rex gloriae” movement. The 2014 Verdi Requiem performance that joined the San Diego Opera Chorus and the Master Chorale at Civic Theatre revealed the astounding sonic power of those combined ensembles that would have truly raised the roof of Symphony Hall. But, of course, there was not sufficient room on the Symphony Hall stage for both choirs and the orchestra.

Organist Chelsea Chen handled the important solo organ passages with understated authority, although that understatement had more to do with the modest capacity of Symphony Hall’s augmented theater organ than with any limitations of Chen’s virtuosity. A young performer who has already established a favorable international reputation, Chen’s Messiaen performance at her American Guild of Organists convention recital in San Diego in July 2015 proved her dramatic flair for brilliant French organ repertory.

In the “Te ergo” movement, tenor soloist (and San Diego Master Chorale Music Director) John Russell used his gleaming lyric tenor voice to imbue the tender supplications of this movement with elegance and conviction. Towards the end of his solo, the women’s voices from the Master Chorale floated above him like a halo just before the entire chorus brought the movement to its calm repose.

In two shorter instrumental sections Ling and the orchestra made the most of Berlioz’ rather conventional—to our ears, at least—etudes in the style of Napoleonic military processionals, but they flexed their muscles in the furious “Judex crederis,” a text that deals with those ominous Last Judgement themes for which the “Dies irae” is rightly famous.

While it was rewarding to hear the Berlioz Te Deum in a concert hall performance, we were still one giant step away from experiencing the real thing. Berlioz intended the work for those massive stone Paris churches (he conducted the 1855 premiere in the huge late Gothic Church of St. Eustache) with their resonant acoustics, where the stirring final chords would linger in the room and the powerful organ in the rear gallery would answer the choir and orchestra at the opposite end of the long nave in thrilling stereo. But we must be thankful for Ling’s championing of this rare work in San Diego.

Alisa Weilerstein [photo (c) Christian Steiner]

Alisa Weilerstein [photo (c) Christian Steiner]

Johannes Brahms’ Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Cello (the “Double Concerto”) featuring the accomplished young cellist Alisa Weilerstein and Symphony Concertmaster Jeff Thayer opened this program. Weilerstein’s rhapsodic yet gracefully sculpted playing, especially in the animated rondo finale, matched Ling’s effervescent take on the composer’s valedictory orchestral composition. Perhaps because Brahms gave the cello the more important role and the more extensive solos, Thayer’s less extroverted figurations deferred to Weilerstein’s compelling lead. In the finale, the orchestra sounded exceptionally buoyant, cohesive and confident in a classical-Romantic style that suits their strengths

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This concert was given by the San Diego Symphony December 11-13, 2015, at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. The December 11 program was heard for this review. The Symphony will offer three versions of its Holiday Pops concerts December 18-20, 2015, in the same venue.


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