'Fortunately, the hall is solid . . . it can stand the strain."
So reads the caption to a Hector Berlioz cartoon showing the composer conducting an array of hardware appropriate to battle as well as music, probably inspired by the Requiem that left Verizon Hall wowed but unrattled in the Thursday finale of the Philadelphia Orchestra's Kimmel Center season.
Brass choirs were positioned at four corners of the hall for the famous musical apocalypse that Berlioz envisioned. Later, tenor Paul Groves sang from the hall's upper rafters; the effect was celestial.
Cool, precise Charles Dutoit maintained balance in a performance that was rough-edged at times, careful at others, but delivered the punch that Berlioz all but guarantees - and that made maximum use of Verizon Hall. The acoustical qualities that normally make audience noise annoyingly intrusive made Berlioz's spatial effects vivid and enveloping.
That's one way in which Dutoit went further than some conductors. The performance history of this Requiem has options: Brass choirs can be confined to four corners of the stage. And even when positioned around the auditorium, brass players sometimes retire to their more usual positions onstage for later exclamations. Dutoit kept everybody dispersed - with particularly great effect later on during interplay between onstage flutes and first-tier trombones. Besides, keeping the brass in the auditorium allowed an impressive stage setup, with timpani lined up across the rear.
Coordination problems are inevitable, and exciting when diverse instruments attempt to mesh over a great expanse. Tenor Groves was having a brittle-vibrato day in the "Sanctus." But in a voice positioned in the highest point in the auditorium - and in music that climbs ever higher in his range - who cared?
Though choral portions aren't all that challenging, the Philadelphia Singers Chorale had the necessary heft in a piece for which the composer fantasized about having hundreds upon hundreds of singers. The chorus also exhibited the pliability necessary in a work that, like so much other Berlioz, has a different sound world for each moment, allowing nearly everybody (vocally and instrumentally) a turn at dominating the proceedings. Much of the piece seems compiled from disparate parts.
Contrary to that, Dutoit was after a Requiem that was all of a piece - in a performance that was more about the constructive powers of the composer's imagination (God knows there's a lot of constructing going on) than the neurotic religiosity that the late Charles Munch harnessed as a great source of inner musical tension.
Avoiding possible extremes, for Dutoit, may have also been about the practicality of making all of the pieces fit: In the "Quaerens me," the chorus is unaccompanied but obliged to stay at orchestral pitch. But his caution kept a bit of a lid on the piece - a problem if you believe the music has more rhetorical than lyrical impulses and speaks best when doing so recklessly. It's good to have a calm eye in a musical hurricane, but better when danger is nearer.