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Dark-horse candidate astonishes Philharmonic crowd

February 20, 2011
photo - Josep Caballé-Domenech Photo by
Josep Caballé-Domenech Photo by  

Lightning struck Saturday night when Josep Caballé-Domenech appeared as guest conductor with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. The Spanish maestro was not originally one of the finalists for the position of music director -- he was appearing in place of the ailing Lawrence Leighton Smith. But at this week’s rehearsals, he made such a powerful impression on the musicians that they requested he be considered as a sixth candidate.

It’s no mystery why. Caballé-Domenech not only outshone the previous three candidates, but the musicians responded to him with a performance that’s rarely been equaled in Colorado Springs.

The climax was a performance of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” so rhythmically supple, so vividly colored, and so hysterically intense that should I die tonight it will be in the contented knowledge that I have experienced Berlioz’s vision for this piece.

One moment you were thinking, “Gee, I didn’t know the orchestra could play so loud”; five seconds later, you were thinking, “Gee, I didn’t know the orchestra could play so quietly.”

The opening Prelude from Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” gave a big hint of what was to come. It began with a white-hot intensity, and from there Wagner’s polyphonic extravaganza built with oceanic surges of sound. On another night the performance’s amazing clarity and precision would have been cause for rejoicing, but here they were just means of conveying the music’s epic grandeur.

By the close, it was clear that Wagner was not only one of the greatest composers of all time, but that he also must have been one of the last people on earth you’d want to hang out with: the Herculean emotions both inspire and bludgeon.

Berlioz would compose greater music than the “Symphonie Fantastique,” but nothing so extravagantly imaginative or so enduringly weird. At its worst, it’s an unruly collection of fascinating and colorful orchestral and harmonic experiments. At its best, as it was on Saturday, these kaleidoscopic details come together in a gripping musical tale of obsession, so bizarre and adventurous that it’s hard to imagine that it was written just six years after Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Caballé-Domenech and the orchestra followed Berlioz mood for mood in this drunken, giddy, romantic, spasmodic, graceful, melancholy, passionate, diabolical work. The ballroom scene had an unearthly delicacy, like a half-remembered vision; the summoning of dark spirits at the beginning of the finale had had the primeval power of an ancient ritual.

The most impressive aspect of the orchestra’s performance wasn’t the hugeness of the fortissimos, but the intensity of the pianissimos: At the beginning of the finale, for instance, the strings were more felt than heard.

Caballé-Domenech’s right arm is a thing of beauty. The beat can be huge or tiny as it conveys both the beat and the mood, but it’s not theatrical; it’s always directed at the musicians. The more complex the music was, the simpler his beat was. In Berlioz’s vertiginous second-movement coda, for instance, Caballé-Domenech hardly moved the baton, providing a clear signal to the musicians in the midst of Berlioz’s mayhem.

Sandwiched between two such wild creations, Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 sounded even more reserved than it actually is. It took until the middle of the first movement before I felt Saint-Saens’ prim, organized personality had fully emerged from Wagner’s shadow.

Principal cellist Jeffrey Watson performed with a lucidity and fluidity that Saint-Saens would have admired - an interpretation on the level of many a touring soloist. His dynamic range is wide, his timbre varied, and his intonation rock-solid. He played the enchanting second movement - in which Saint-Saens pretends Wagner and Berlioz never existed, and reaches back past them to the graceful world of Rameau - with a perfect combination of freedom and elegance.

Here’s hoping that our first experience of Caballé-Domenech is not our last.

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