For just $20, you could have given that special someone a trek to Italy, along with a side trip to Austria, a pilgrimage to a historic monastery, a springtime romp in an Alpine meadow, and a secret viewing of a den of thieves in the Abruzzi mountains.
All of this was offered at the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest's second season concert in the comfort of First United Church last Sunday. "Romantic Journeys," as the concert was billed, presented works by two giants of 19th-century Romanticism, Berlioz and Mahler, both no doubt inspired by the towering Alps in their backyards.
Berlioz seemed destined to reach beyond the Alps on the horizon of the little French village where he came of age. From his earliest compositions, he was drawn to grandiose concepts and extraordinary orchestration, hence the unusual and weighty viola solos in the tone poem, "Harold in Italy," which opened the program.
As the strings were warming up and last-minute arrangements were underway, Charles Pikler, the esteemed viola soloist, could be seen ambling among the audience members, chatting with a friend, viola casually in tow. Before trading his casual demeanor for more intense art, he amicably addressed the audience with the warning that his approach to the Berlioz might be considered crazy, something he shared in common with the composer, whose mold-breaking manner eventually led to the label of l'enfant terrible among the Parisian establishment.
Berlioz's note in the score, "The player is instructed to stand in the foreground, isolated from the orchestra," inspired Pikler to play throughout the lengthy work from six different locations. He referred to Harold's journey, set in poetry by Lord Byron, as something the audience would see, not simply hear. And then he disappeared behind a harp.
For lesser musicians, Pikler's peripatetic approach to the solo role in Harold might have been distracting. But Associate Conductor Ho Chung Yeh handled the roving soloist without incident and Pikler played without constraint, in the natural style of a seasoned storyteller. He strolled from stand to stand within the orchestra, out into the aisles, up into the choir loft, and finally to a quiet retreat in an upper balcony to expire, as Berlioz described the closing moments.
The palpable tenderness of Pikler's pianissimo in the opening phrases was highly effective, given that he was ensconced within the depths of the orchestra. Not only was the audience kept on the edge of their seats playing "Where's Waldo?" but his staging revealed clearly the varied roles of the violist in the changing scenes of this work: as soloist, narrator, accompanist, aloof observer and yes, even tour guide. Perhaps it was craziness, but Berlioz consistently relied on special effects to convey his musical imagination and Pikler proved himself a solid interpreter of this beautiful work from every angle.
Conductor Jay Friedman took the podium after intermission for Mahler's First Symphony, "Titan." In his timeless Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein introduced Gustav Mahler as a double man. Both a composer and conductor, rooted in Austria but born in Poland, sensing the pinnacle of childlike joy in the same breath as tragic desperation, Mahler explored the extreme peaks and ravines of the human condition on an enormous scale.
Negotiating the ecstasy and dejection of Mahler's music requires an ability to play with abandon in the best of interpretations. Friedman excelled in capturing the massive desolation of the opening movement and the full brass section delivered the contrasting exuberance in the fortissimos. The orchestra's principal woodwinds deserve special note for tossing off their numerous solos with energy and spunk. But in this work, I am always drawn to the principal bass player, who in Sunday's reading beautifully rendered the playful children's song, "Frère Jacques," as a soft and sinister funeral dirge, in full keeping with Mahler's intent.
Fortunately, Mahler counterbalanced this soulful third movement with the stormy and stirring close which, as usual, brought invigorated cheers from the symphony's loyal audience.