Music lovers braved the threat of a storm to hear a very enterprising all-French program performed by the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh’s lovely Meymandi Concert Hall. It was an ardent Francophile’s dream program, consisting of a seminal, early orchestra piece by a 22-year-old Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), a fine example of a Romantic violin concerto by Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-81), and the unparalleled masterpiece Symphonie fantastique, by Hector Berlioz (1803-69). The very able soloist in the Vieuxtemps was the orchestra’s own concertmaster, Brian Reagin, who has appeared in this capacity more than 100 times. This makes him the most frequent soloist in the orchestra’s history.

Central to Messiaen’s life was his deep conviction as a Catholic. Les Offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings) is the composer’s first published orchestral work, from 1930. The composer’s early influences were Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Méllisande, Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, Medieval plainchant, Classical Indian music (complex rhythmic modes), and, later in life, natural bird calls. The last are not present at all in Les Offrandes oubliées.

The work is like a musical version of a medieval triptych, an art work consisting of three panels portraying a religious theme. Although played without pause, the piece is in three parts, a slow “La Croix” (The Cross), a fast and chaotic “Le Péché” (The Sin), and an extraordinary slow and ethereal “L’Eucharistie” (The Eucharist).

Guest conductor Michael Francis led the orchestra in a superb interpretation. It had all the French virtues, clarity, color, and precision – all hallmarks of correct style since the age of the Couperins. String intonation was excellent in the opening and, most importantly, in the slow and drawn out ending, evoking eternity.

Although Vieuxtemps was Belgian, he was a great virtuoso in the Franco-Belgian School of violin playing that continued through his student Eugene Ysaÿe. Unlike many of the hot shots of his era who featured forgettable showpieces, Vieuxtemps played a wide variety of the great works and played a vital role in reviving the neglected Beethoven Violin Concerto when the violinist was only 14 years old. Vieuxtemps’ own Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, Op. 37, was composed as a competition piece for the Brussels Conservatory. Originally in two fast movements, the composer later inserted a brief slow movement exploiting a melody from André Gréty’s opera Lucile. The three movements are played without pause. Of the composer’s seven violin concertos, No. 5, the “Gréty,” is the most popular, being often played and recorded by such virtuosi as Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman, and others.

Brian Reagin delivered an interpretation of great élan and elegance. Intonation was immaculate, and he tossed off difficult four-note chords seemingly without effort. Francis provided a beautifully balanced accompaniment that fitted the soloist like a glove. The program did not identify which of the composer’s two cadenza choices Reagin played so superbly.

After intermission came the meaty repast of the evening, the astonishing Symphonie fanstastique, Op. 14, by Hector Berlioz. This work was decades ahead of its time and more than one musician has commented that Berlioz’s music is the path of nineteenth century music that was not taken further (as opposed to Liszt and Wagner). It is in five movements and makes much use of an idée fixe, a term meaning unhealthy obsession, borrowed from early psychology. The volatile Berlioz never did anything by halves, especially in matters of the heart. Most program and recording notes give the well-worn story of Berlioz’s obsession for the English actress, Harriet Smithson and their later ill-fated marriage. But the idée fix, the musical representation of his love used in altered form in all five movements, dates far back to a song the love-sick 14-year-old Berlioz wrote in the aftermath of his rejection by an 18-year-old girl. The five movements take us from the feelings of first love to the sight of his love at a ball, followed by overhearing shepherds playing an alternate dialogue in the county before turning to thoughts of betrayal, leading to the imagined murder of his love and his subsequent march to the scaffold, ending in a wild dream of his love as one of the gals in the Witches’ Sabboth.

Michael Francis led the symphony musicians is a brilliant and effective performance. Every section played superbly. Francis made very effective use of off-stage players. In the third movement, “In the Country,” principal oboe Melanie Wilsden played from behind the orchestra, offstage. Her distant solo and perfectly in-sync duet with the principal English horn of Michael Schultz, over murmuring muted violas, was ravishing. During the finale, the ominous ringing of the orchestra’s tubular bells haunted from behind the orchestra. Among many other fine soli were those of principal trumpet Paul Randall, principal flutist Anne Whaley Laney, and the principal clarinet.  

Kudos to the excellent succinct and cogent pre-concert talk given by Associate Conductor David Glover. I strongly recommend attending this talk with well-selected musical examples delivered via his laptop. I hope awkward CD or tape players are things of the past.