Oh, what love can make us do! It can drive us to be our best; it can show us at our worst; but one thing we know for sure -- life isn't worth much without it.
Ardent love was the inspiration for French composer Hector Berlioz, who wrote the majestic work, Symphonie Fantastique, featured in Friday night's Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) Masterworks concert of the same name. The object of Berlioz's affection, Irish actress Harriet Smithson, remained aloof to his passion for several years -- perhaps fortunate for music lovers, as this spurned love birthed the drive to compose the 48-minute, five-movement masterpiece.
Conductor Alexander Mickelthwate led the WSO in the epic piece, threaded together with a recurring melody or idée fixe representing Smithson.
It never lets up in its passionate urgency. Berlioz's original program notes began with "A young musician of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of amorous despair." Not for the faint of heart.
Mickelthwate did not shy away from the unbridled emotion represented throughout, especially in the complex opening movement, Reveries and Passions, with its ever-changing tempi and moods. It was at its best when brass-enhanced, making for an exciting and very grand sound and spectacle. It ended with a touching stillness.
The WSO gave A Ball a wonderful lilting quality, full of motion. The musicians performed with deft precision and seamless phrasing -- you could almost envision the swaying of ball gowns and scurrying of dance slippers. Lovely notes from the harp rang out throughout the movement.
The plaintive English horn and oboe offstage charmingly introduced Scene in the Country -- like two shepherds calling their flocks. We had the feeling the WSO was comfortable with this work.
WSO associate concertmaster Karl Stobbe gave a masterful reading of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major. Not every musician can step from the ranks to be a convincing soloist. Stobbe proved in spades he has the goods to do just that. Musical, sensitive and technically impressive, he played fearlessly, burning up the strings in the allegro. His intensity and concentration were inspiring. This was a clinic in the art of playing the violin.
Stobbe lent a little playful touch to the speedy scherzo, buzzing right along, attacking with full force -- totally committed. The final movement was stately but light and while not showy, Stobbe is a performer who compels his listeners.
Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin opened the evening, its plentiful oboe solos a wonderful opportunity for the audience to revel in principal oboist Bede Hanley's gorgeous, sinewy playing. Mickelthwate was spot-on with his approach to this satisfying work, finding and nurturing all its subtleties. The WSO showed a big orchestra can indeed be light on its feet.
The concert repeats tonight at 8 p.m.
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
Centennial Concert Hall
March 15 Attendance: 1118
**** out of five