Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Fantastic Detroit


The story behind the creation of Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" is one of the more amazing in the history of art.

Berlioz, a young composer, in 1827 attended a performance of "Hamlet" given in Paris by a traveling English troupe and fell in love with the cast's Ophelia, Harriet Smithson. Though he'd never met her, he bombarded the young actress with insanely passionate love letters. She thought he was nuts. Berlioz had a dream about her, which he turned into the famous symphony. Smithson then married him. (It didn't last.)

The story Berlioz wrote into the symphony is as insane as his passion. It's about an artist; opens with an opium-induced dream; ends with his eventual beheading on the guillotine(!), and closes with a dance of witches. Obviously an amazing piece. When I learned it was coming to Detroit's Orchestra Hall I obtained a ticket in the balcony-- for January 25th, a Friday.

Beforehand I stopped at the Main Library, up Woodward Avenue from the concert hall, then had time to kill before the concert at eight. With the sun disappearing from a bleak, purple-gray sky, I walked into the Cass Corridor to check out a long-ago hangout of mine, the Bronx Bar on Second. I ordered a Pabst and burger from the bartender, Charlene.

I'd been a regular at the Bronx ten years or more prior. None of the regulars remained. It'd been a seedy place then, Detroit-style real. A guy named Steve would bring in his large dog, which would sit at his feet, barking at strangers. Now the place was inhabited by college people-- a suburban young prof telling a colleague he was selling his house. Yet much of the place's seediness remained. Despite redecoration, atmosphere was embedded in the saloon, in the outside streets and the occasionally arriving street person come inside to sit at a table for a few minutes of warmth; asking customers for change before being shooed off by a glance from Charlene.

A local couple stepped into the bar, recognizable as locals by their tough visages. In their way they were an attractive couple. They could've stepped from Berlioz's 19th-century Paris-- been Berlioz and Smithson themselves. He was tall, with black wavy hair and dark moustaches. The woman, in a tight brown jacket, had glowing amber hair. She was quite pretty, despite the veneer of hardness on her round face-- ruddy in the barroom's yellow light-- until she laughed and I saw as with so many city people, here and in Philly, her missing and disarrayed teeth.

I walked then through the Corridor to the concert hall, receiving into my psyche familiar impressions of the neighborhood.

The sky was vast, dark, and frigid. On one of the coldest nights of the year, orange light from windows of stray brownstone apartment buildings reached out to me; the buildings standing as narrow corridors of refuge'd life within the Corridor. They were the remains, along with a warehouse here; or there, a sooted church; of one of the nation's great neighborhoods. To my mind, a fabled place.

In this empty environment, the towers of downtown far away, I came upon the venue as if it were a concert hall on a prairie. All around it looked abandoned. Wind blew, and ice covered everything.

Which made 98 year-old Orchestra Hall more of a special destination. A uniformed man on the sidewalk, ushers within, welcomed me through the doors, scarcely glancing at my ticket. I strolled about the Max Fisher addition; a lobby with bartenders at round tables serving drinks. Warmth returned to my face. Then I walked up stairs, rose through the many-levelled modern atrium-- artworks on all sides-- found the magical old hall itself, its uppermost reaches, and took my seat. I had a great view of the hall's intricate ceiling. Seats filled around me.

But, the concert. The concert! Increasing drama as the symphony warms up, lights dim, and the conductor stides out, slow-paced, upright, and regal, like a king. All is anticipation.

Highlight of the first half was a Ravel piano concerto by French pianist Jean Phillipe Collard. It was a night for the French. I was reminded this was once a French city. For one evening they recaptured it.

I'd never seen Ravel's "Concerto for the Left Hand" and hadn't realized its difficulty. I was frankly amazed at the precision as white-haired Collard's left hand moved about the keyboard. One hand!-- creating a rush of music as the right hand seemed to watch in futility, wanting to help but not allowed. Tom Brady playing quarterback is a grade-school achievement compared to the concerto's demands of accuracy.

Ravel wrote the concerto for a pianist who lost his right hand in World War I. It's a moody work; a lonely piece fitting the loneliness of Orchestra Hall; the loneliness of Detroit. The pianist Collard was alone with his left hand. During pauses in his play, while the orchestra put forth trumpet-blares of melancholy, his right hand touched the tiring left, as if to rub it, or in sympathy. Then the left went back at it. All focus in the hall was on that hand.

It's a difficult piece-- and Collard nailed it! His performance was painful and triumphant, full of accuracy, stamina, power, and tremendous emotion. The notes were light and then dynamically strong as the orchestra's accompaniment welled and Collard's hand shook-- that left hand pounded the final notes. Echoed feeling: the aftermath of war is imbued in the piece. In 2008, very appropriate.

As the last note drifted away; as Collard's perspiring face turned toward the audience: ovation after ovation.

When Collard stood, the conductor made a point of shaking the man's left hand, then raising it.

During intermission I strolled through the lobby. Murmurs of amazement around me. How could this be topped? Next up: the Fantastic Symphony.

With the piano and pianist gone, we watched the conductor, Charles Dutoit; dark-haired, chin up, chest out. The baton raised. . . .

The symphony began slowly. I noticed the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's two acknowledged stars, Concertmaster and First Violinist Emmanuelle Boisvert, at the front toward the left, and First Cellist Robert DeMaine toward the right. If this were a football team, they would be the team's Pro Bowlers. Blond-haired and beautiful, Boisvert carries herself like a star and plays with more intensity than the other string people, always on the edge of her chair. As high-strung as her violin. DeMaine on the other hand, young and squat, is more relaxed, but plays with no less power. Noticeable beneath his black suitcoat are the arms of a bodybuilder, creating sound that, with Orchestra Hall's fabulous acoustics, reaches out to a listener even at the uppermost spot.

From above I saw how the DSO works as a team; Boisvert with her players on one side; DeMaine with his on the other, like opposing lines. Toward the rear, the assorted winds, oboes and the like; backed by an occasionally used brass section, and behind everyone, the timpani player, standing in back of an array of round drums in his jacket and tie like a waiter parked behind empty tables, waiting patiently and stupidly for-- something. Why is he waiting?

At the center of the activity moved Dutoit, the coach and quarterback, directing without a score, pointing this way and that, creating sounds with his fingertips, gesturing angrily then happily, driving the players on toward greater feats as the sound of the music increased.

The first movements of Symphonie Fantastique lull the listener. It's beautiful music. The audience becomes lost in its beauty, including from magical harps coming to the listener in a line of direct clarity. All has merely set the stage for the dramatic final act. Transcendently dramatic.

Sudden bells ring out; then: sharp drums. The timpani man is playing frantically, not alone but with fellows beside him, creating in the hall an alive, thundering sound. The entire symphony has joined in, surrounding them gloriously. Charles Dutoit meanwhile is like a man insane, jumping about the podium, stance like a fencer, sawing with his baton, prodding the team on, and on, compelling more intensity-- demanding it-- facing first on one side then the other, to DeMaine then Boisvert then back again. What sound! Tremendous sound.

It's wonderful music, bouncing and vibrant, a truly fantastic piece. I wondered why the audience wasn't dancing from their seats. THIS is what I came for, what everyone came for. People smiled. The machine that is the orchestra was itself insane, panoplies of instruments moving at once in a vision of clashing armies. Under the mad conductor's demands, playing at absolute peak.

The conductor's baton hovered over the symphony; sudden echoes; the baton still; silence; the musical experience complete.

"BRAVO!" a big-voiced man in one of the boxes yelled immediately. Everyone stood. Released enthusiasm. Endless ovations. The conductor genius faced the audience and bowed his head ever slightly.

I left the warm glow of Orchestra Hall and was back walking swiftly in the cold through Detroit's dark and moody streets.

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