A life-long devotee of the music of Hector Berlioz, Sir John Eliot Gardiner anticipates next year’s 150th anniversary of the composer’s death with the Berlioz Series 2018, a transatlantic tour with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and soloists including beloved British actor Simon Callow. Bookended by European dates at London’s BBC Proms, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, the Paris Philharmonie, the Palace of Versailles, and more, the series sees the orchestra and Gardiner – the winner of more Gramophone Awards than any other living artist – return to the States for concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall and other venues this fall (Oct 10-15).
In Chapel Hill, NC (Oct 10) and at Carnegie Hall (Oct 14), Gardiner leads performances of Harold en Italie, La mort de Cléopâtre, excerpts from Les Troyens, and the Corsaire overture, with solo appearances from mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot and violist Antoine Tamestit. In Ann Arbor, MI (Oct 12) and in a second performance at Carnegie Hall (Oct 15), he and the orchestra offer a pairing of the celebrated Symphonie fantastique and Lélio, the far rarer work that Berlioz considered its sequel, featuring tenor Michael Spyres, bass-baritone Ashley Riches, National Youth Choir of Scotland, and Simon Callow as the narrator.
As the founder and artistic director of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR), as well as of the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner is a pioneer of historically informed performance. Although he is best-known as a key figure in the early music revival, Berlioz’s music has also long loomed large in his career. The Guardian observes: “Gardiner’s passion for Berlioz is as deep-rooted as his dedication to Bach, or to Monteverdi. … For some four decades, Gardiner has applied the same eagle-eyed scrutiny to Berlioz as to those other composers with whom he is more readily associated, scouring autograph manuscripts and reminding us of works forgotten or misunderstood.”
In an insightful note about the upcoming Berlioz Series 2018, the conductor explains: “What I value most of all about Berlioz is his romantic chutzpah – his astonishing daring as a composer, his phenomenal ear for orchestral rhythms and sonorities. I believe that his instrumental colours register most graphically when played on the original instrument types he assembled when painting these revolutionary orchestral canvasses. To recover this vivid palette of instrumental colours has been the motivating force behind our Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique for the past three decades.”
Over the years, he and the ORR have demonstrated their extraordinary commitment to the French Romantic composer’s stage and orchestral works in numerous key recordings that include the world premiere recording of his long-lost Messe Solennelle and a definitive DVD recording of his Les Troyens that Gramophone magazine hailed as a “superb authentic-instrument performance … to equal Sir Colin Davis’s pioneering original.” The review concluded: “Greatly as I revere both Davis CD versions …, for anyone who loves Les Troyens, this is just as revelatory, just as essential.”
Their landmark live performances of Berlioz’s music include an account of The Damnation of Faust at London’s BBC Proms last summer, where – as in the upcoming performance of Lélio at Carnegie Hall – they were joined by the National Youth Choir of Scotland and soloists Spyres and Riches. The performance scored five-star reviews in The Guardian, The Times, and the Independent, which marveled: “Gardiner’s instinct for Berlioz has been honed over many years, and the result here was a performance brimming with detail and colour. With the orchestra (his own Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique) centre-stage, every passing instrumental flicker and aside was amplified – a sardonic bassoon here, a guffawing ophicleide there – playing dramatically off a cast which was the stuff of dreams. … You had exactly the kind of overflowing evening this music was made for, layering sensation on sensation. When it comes to guilty delights, Mephistopheles might just have met his match in Berlioz and Gardiner.”
Likewise, when Gardiner led the ORR in Berlioz at the Edinburgh Festival three years ago, The Scotsman’s David Kettle awarded their performance another five-star review, praising their “electrifying account” of the Symphonie fantastique and “brilliantly theatrical account” of Lélio, before concluding: “You couldn’t have asked for more – a thoroughly entertaining, provocative evening that also shone new light on Berlioz’s unhinged genius.”
About Simon Callow
Simon Callow, CBE, who joins Gardiner and the ORR to narrate Lélio, is a leading actor, author, and director. Highlights of his distinguished acting career include creating the title role in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus at London’s National Theatre; headlining one-man shows including The Mystery of Charles Dickens, Being Shakespeare, A Christmas Carol, and Inside Wagner’s Head; and making memorable appearances in such prominent feature films as A Room with a View, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, Phantom of the Opera, and Victoria & Abdul. He directed Shirley Valentine in the West End and on Broadway, Single Spies at the National Theatre, and Carmen Jones at London’s Old Vic, as well as the film of The Ballad of the Sad Café. He has written biographies of Oscar Wilde, Charles Laughton and Charles Dickens, and three autobiographical books: Being an Actor, Love Is Where It Falls, and My Life in Pieces. The third volume of his massive Orson Welles biography, One Man Band, appeared in 2016; Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will, his short biography of Wagner, was published last year. Music is his great passion, and he has made numerous appearances with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the London Mozart Players.
John Eliot Gardiner on Berlioz Series 2018: “Berlioz, to me, captures all that Beethoven was about to unleash on the world if by some miracle he hadn’t died in 1827, tone-deaf, disillusioned and with a broken heart. Oh, add to that, if he (Beethoven) had been born French and not German! (Actually, there was a brief moment 30 years before, when Beethoven, aroused and inspired by the French Revolution, seriously considered relocating to Paris. Just imagine how differently the musical world might have developed if he had taken up residence there and not moved to Vienna!)
“The thing is that Berlioz had few inhibitions when it came to fusing poetic ideas with musical structures. Where Beethoven left us rather obvious hints of what he was picturing when he sat down to compose his Pastoral Symphony, Berlioz gives us a detailed phantasmagoria of what was going on within his super-charged imagination in his Symphonie fantastique, composed barely three years after Beethoven’s passing. The son of a village doctor, and brought up in a musical wilderness, Berlioz was only 27 when he wrote it. He then followed it with a weird and rather wonderful sequel – Lélio – a so-called “mélologue” in which he spells out exactly what it was like to be him, Hector, a passionate, late-starting composer, with an obsessive attachment to Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil, and prone to catastrophic love attachments.
“And if that wasn’t enough, he followed Lélio with a second symphony – Harold in Italy – which, again, is autobiography, hiding this time behind the mask of Lord Byron’s dreamer hero, Harold, who sets off on his travels, both physical and metaphysical. The work was meant to be a viola concerto for Paganini to play, but ended up as a dramatic symphony with the soloist playing only intermittently while holding imaginary conversations with different sections of the orchestra, or listening silently to them as they head off to party in what he calls an ‘Orgy of Brigands’. That sums up life on the very edge for Hector Berlioz during the 1830s – at least in his fevered imagination – and is brilliantly conveyed by him in abstract music that feels disturbingly alive to the torments of existence.
“What I value most of all about Berlioz is his romantic chutzpah – his astonishing daring as a composer, his phenomenal ear for orchestral rhythms and sonorities. I believe that his instrumental colours register most graphically when played on the original instrument types he assembled when painting these revolutionary orchestral canvasses. To recover this vivid palette of instrumental colours has been the motivating force behind our Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique for the past three decades.
“Berlioz never allowed his imagination to be confined by classical modes of expression, although he certainly studied and revered a few favourite composers who preceded him – Gluck, Weber, and above all Beethoven. One can hear this reverence in his irrepressible Overture ‘Le Corsaire’ and in the magical tone-poem, ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’, as well as in the two wonderful and rarely performed dramatic scenes for mezzo-soprano and full orchestra – the Death of Cleopatra and Dido’s final adieu in Berlioz’s operatic masterpiece, Les Troyens. I hope you will savour the beauty, poignancy and originality of this music as much as we shall in performing it.”