'The Childhood Of Christ' In Concert

Hector Berlioz had a weakness for the grand gesture.

As a way of asserting that his medical studies (a concession to his physician father) were in vain, Berlioz threw himself out the window of a dissecting lab. When a pretty young pianist jilted him in Italy, he tried to end it all by diving into the Bay of Naples.

Later, he would document the Faust story in a powerful stage drama with chorus and soloists, and build a complex, five-hour operatic spectacle on the ruins of Troy.

And, though Berlioz's own faith was tenuous to nonexistent, a story as grand and essential as L'Enfance du Christ ("The Childhood of Christ") proved irresistible. In middle age, he plunged into the story of Herod's madness, and of the flight of the holy family into Egypt.

Scottish conductor Douglas Boyd chose Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ for one of his last three concerts as artistic partner with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. This performance, renewing Boyd's collaboration with choral conductor Dale Warland, was recorded this past fall at Ordway Center in St. Paul, Minn.

Boyd approaches L'Enfance as a quasi-opera or folk opera, and character is key. For instance, the story's putative villain, Herod, comes across as a vivid, even somewhat sympathetic character. As he's driven by a dream of a child who'll destroy him, Herod's despair strikes us, perhaps uncomfortably, as quite a human reaction.

Steve Staruch, one of the choristers in this performance, said that Boyd's commitment to, and immersion in, the music was total. "During the 'Shepherd’s Farewell,' there were moments when he held his arms close to his body with his elbows out," Staruch said. "Only the expressions on his face led us, but that was enough."

Composing Piecemeal

Berlioz initially wrote the famous "Shepherd's Farewell" as a single, stand-alone piece -- and as a sort of bitter joke. Paris audiences were seldom kind to what they perceived as the bombast in Berlioz's music. He presented the "Shepherd's Farewell" as the work of an imaginary 17th-century composer. The consensus was that Berlioz could never write anything as simple and lovely as this.

From there, he built the work piecemeal, completing the middle section ("The Flight into Egypt") first. "The Arrival in Saïs," the finale, came next. Thinking the work lacked balance, Berlioz finally added the introductory section: "Herod's Dream."

Berlioz was specific about certain theatrical effects. This SPCO performance faithfully follows the composer's instructions to place the angels' chorus offstage. The reed organ of Berlioz's original wasn’t available, but Boyd found a plausible compromise in a portable pipe organ.

In Paris, the name Berlioz meant loud, harsh, even bizarre. But the reaction to the premiere of L'Enfance du Christ, in 1854, was different. To the composer, it was both gratifying and grating, because the implication was that if he stopped writing like Berlioz, he would begin to please people. He went to great lengths to explain that he hadn’t changed his style one bit.

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