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Berlioz’ ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ leads trio of iconic works for Minnesota Orchestra program this weekend

If you played the “Symphonie Fantastique” for neophyte listeners and told them it was a shining example of the Romantic period in classical music, they’d immediately understand.

Vibrant and headstrong in nearly all its particulars, the first symphony by Hector Berlioz, written when the Frenchman was 27, is the autobiographical blend of the composer being utterly smitten with a Shakespearian actress and then hearing two of Beethoven’s epic symphonies (the Third and the Fifth) for the first time in the throes of this unrequited love. The result is this ambitious masterwork, five movements spread over 50 minutes, combining the emotional indulgence of youth with an obsessive attention to detail.

The late Michael Steinberg, whose superb program notes frequently continue to inform Minnesota Orchestra patrons, called the work “the most remarkable First Symphony ever written.” Steinberg extended his praise to specifics, as in his description of the fourth movement, entitled “March to the Scaffold”: “Berlioz’ orchestral imagination — the hand-stopped horn sounds, the use of the bassoon quartet, the timpani writing — is astonishing in every way.” (Complete program notes are here.)

Here is a performance of that movement.

Before intermission, conductor Osmo Vänskä and the orchestra will perform two other, only slightly less iconic, works. “Mephisto Waltz No. 1” by Franz Liszt is a neat complement to “Fantastique” in that Liszt frequently performed and championed the works of Berlioz and delivers his own passionate program music here, setting the scene at a whirlwind wedding feast.

The third composition on the docket is “Death and Transfiguration” by Richard Strauss, a lengthy tone poem and meditation on the mortality, and life’s meaning, of an artist as he lies on his deathbed. Strauss composed it while in his mid-20s (right after completing another much-celebrated work, “Don Juan”), and yet as he himself was fading from life 60 years later, he remarked to his daughter-in-law that “dying is just the way I composed it.”

Here is a 1950 recording of the somber but beautiful first movement by the Vienna Philharmonic.

Minnesota Orchestra: Vanska and Symphonie Fantastique, at Orchestra Hall, this morning at 11 and Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m.. Tickets are $22-$56 this morning and $26-$84 on Friday and Saturday.

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