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Concert Review : Requiem by Berlioz at the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles

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Tuesdays and Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl are classical nights. Not always the best attended unless there are superstars involved like the recent Yo Yo Ma and Placido Domingo evening, but often the source of some up-until-now lesser-known gems. Such was the case on September 10 when the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Bramwell Tovey and featuring the oratorio singer James Taylor presented the Berlioz Requiem. It was a very special evening.

Berlioz composed his Requiem with a specific site in mind, the cathedral oh St. Louis des Invalides in Paris. The cathedral’s vaulted nave, with galleries above its side aisles, presented an acoustical challenge for Berlioz. As a result he composed what he called one of his “architectural works, using 188 instruments and 210 choristers. In the written score there is a footnote that these numbers could be doubled or trebled as wanted.

Well the Hollywood Bowl is also a challenge of a different sort; how do you present such a massive work in the Bowl venue. The solution was ingenious and very effective. With the use of a full Los Angeles Philharmonic and a 104 person Los Angeles Master Choral, four bands made up of brass instruments were added, two on either side of the stage (two trumpets, two trombones, and two tubas each) and two more on the sides at the rear of the Terrace section consisting of two trumpets and two trombones each. The result was a stereophonic effect in the lofty celebratory sections which went a long way to fulfilling what Berlioz desired, one where the listener would be “shaken to the depth of his soul

The Requiem itself is a very lush piece alternating between the quiet meditative and introspective sections, and the full out celebratory extroversion of some of the movements. Berlioz was a master at this due to his extensive and kaleidoscopic knowledge of French sacred music and his dramatic instincts that he learned at the opera. Maestro Bramwell Tovey brought his own sensitivity and experience to the work as well. Tovey has a background in choral conductor and got a wonderful sound out of the Los Angeles Chorale as well as the LA Philharmonic. His soloist was the renowned oratorio singer James Taylor who has the perfect glorious tenor for such a work. He had a few problems with a couple of pinched high notes but such are the dangers of singing in the open air. Berlioz Requiem received a full and moving performance at the Hollywood Bowl on September 10th.

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