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CpM’s L’enfance du Christ, plus Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

Hector Berlioz’s career was packed with ironies. Although we now think of his music as quintessentially French, it was received far more sympathetically abroad. And the difficulty he had making a living as a composer never prevented him from writing works constructed on an impractically massive scale. So perhaps it’s fitting that his 200th birthday, on December 11, will be acknowledged by Chorus pro Musica with a performance of one of his least characteristic works: the "sacred trilogy" L’enfance du Christ ("The Birth of Christ").

The origins of the piece are nothing if not quirky. Eager to distract himself at a boring party one night in 1850, Berlioz whipped out a four-part organ piece that would eventually become the famous "Shepherd’s Farewell," L’enfance’s most familiar item. He then passed it off as the work of a forgotten 17th-century composer, to the immense approval of the Parisian press and public. Yet as Berlioz scholar Hugh Macdonald points out, he had no interest in "early music." So there’s a final layer of irony in the Chorus pro Musica performance: it will be the first in North America to use a period-instrument orchestra.

"He was such an amazing colorist in terms of his orchestration," says CpM music director Jeffrey Rink, who will conduct the performance, "and hopefully we will hear the colors he would have been familiar with rather than the colors of the modern orchestra." Rink cites the horns in particular: even though valved horns were common by 1850, "Berlioz preferred the peculiarities of sound with a hand-stopped or ‘bouché’ production. And the wood flutes will add an earthy tone to the trio of the young Ishmaelites [in part three]." The 18th-century instruments will also make for less overall volume, and Rink believes that will "enable the chorus [numbering 90] to explore Berlioz’s specified dynamics of pp, ppp, and pppp."

In many of Berlioz’s more familiar works — the Symphonie fantastique, the Requiem, the Te Deum — those extremes of quiet are counterbalanced by blazing sheets of sound. Not so here: L’enfance is an intimate, hushed work. "The overall dynamic scheme is much softer and the orchestra size smaller than in his more familiar works," Rink says. This is also the only religious work for which Berlioz wrote his own libretto, and that, Rink continues, allows him a measure of theatricality that liturgical works did not: "He gives Herod much more substance and delves into the psychology of the various characters in a way that we might more expect in his operas."

The conductor’s affinity for the work runs back to his musical training and beyond. When he began to study conducting, his teacher was Charles Bruck, a friend and colleague of the great Pierre Monteux, who as a young man played for Édouard Colonne, "a champion of the music of Berlioz, having himself played in many performances under the baton of Berlioz." Colonne made extensive notes on Berlioz’s performances of his own works, notes that made their way to Monteux and then to Bruck, who in turn made use of them when preparing performances in which Rink assisted. "I have waited for many years to hear Berlioz’s music with these instruments, especially this piece," Rink concludes, "and I hope that the audience will come away with a new appreciation for this work as well as for Berlioz as composer, dramatist, and master of orchestration."

Chorus pro Musica performs L’enfance du Christ on December 11 at 8 p.m. at the Mission Church, 1545 Tremont Street, with soloists Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, John Ames, David Kravitz, and Rockland Osgood. There will be a pre-concert lecture by Hugh Macdonald at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $50; call (617) 267-7442.

NEVER ENOUGH: Few artists have of late left such strong memories as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She was wonderful in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande last month with the BSO, but her performance of two Bach cantatas with Emmanuel Music (staged by Peter Sellars) last year was astounding. In Cantata No. 82, Ich habe genug ("I have enough"), Lieberson appeared in a hospital gown with IV tubes. Nonesuch recently released a CD of this and No. 199, Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut ("My heart swims in blood"), in recordings made just after the concerts. Even without the visual element, the performances are magnificent, her mezzo-soprano profound and starkly beautiful — "Beautiful enough to stop a war," according to the New Yorker’s Alex Ross. Next week she returns for a Jordan Hall recital with Peter Serkin at the piano and a program that will include the Boston premiere of Rilke Songs by her husband, composer Peter Lieberson. That’s December 7 at 3 p.m. at 30 Gainsborough Street, and tickets are $41 to $61; call (617) 482-6661.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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