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Santa Fe Symphony goes all Berlioz to close season

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Untrained and largely self-taught, Hector Berlioz essentially invented the Romantic period.

For its 35th season finale, the Santa Fe Symphony will celebrate his genius in an all-Berlioz program at the Lensic Performing Arts Center next weekend.

Music director Guillermo Figueroa fell in love with the music of Berlioz when he was performing music from the composer’s opera “The Trojans” at Carnegie Hall in his 20s. At first, he didn’t get it.

“By the time the gig came around, it knocked me out,” Figueroa said. “I was just transfixed and it’s been my musical passion” ever since.

Santa Fe will play Berlioz’s “Symphonie fatastique,” his most famous work, written when the composer was 26, just three years after Beethoven’s death. The music tells the story of an artist’s self-destructive passion for a beautiful woman.

“It’s probably one of the two or three most influential pieces in music history,” Figueroa said. “It’s so hallucinatory in its musical style. It sounds like a piece that should have been written 60 years later than it was.

“He essentially created the Romantic period,” Figueroa continued. “Beethoven and Schubert had just died. Berlioz took the music to the next level. Music in Paris was behind the times; they didn’t even like Beethoven.”

The composer wrote “La Mort de Cléopâtre” (“The Death of Cleopatra”) in 1829, as his third bid for a Prix de Rome. He was then 25 years old and had already composed his Eight Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust.”

“You can’t write soothing music to that,” Figueroa said. “The jury was mystified and of course, he lost.

” ‘Cleopatra’ is an absolute masterpiece in the way he uses his harmonies,” Figueroa continued, “40 years before Wagner used chromaticism.”

Abandoned by Octavius, Cleopatra looks back on her life, celebrates her triumphs, laments her failures and – after clasping the snake to herself – drifts into death.

Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Robinson will provide the vocals, with English subtitles.

Berlioz transformed a rejected aria from his first opera “Benvenuto Cellini” into the Reverie et Caprice for violin and orchestra. Figueroa will perform on the violin, with concertmaster David Felberg at the baton.

“It’s essentially a little charming salon piece for violin,” he said. “I’ve recorded it, also, and I love it and it doesn’t get played that often. I always want to play something people don’t know.”

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