Performing works by Maurice Ravel and Hector Berlioz Wednesday night, the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), conducted by Yannik Nézet-Séguin with guest soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, captivated audiences with both charming, childlike prose and chilling orchestral music.

©: Marco Borggreve
©: Marco Borggreve

Although originally scored for two pianos, Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mère L’Oye puts forth a variety of colours and sounds, challenging musicians to bring to life the children’s stories each piece is based upon throughout the suite. LPO was particularly adept at painting pictures of the characters in each piece. In Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb), the screeching, high notes on the violin were clearly a pair of birds wrestling each other for Tom Thumb’s fallen breadcrumbs; in Les entretiens de la Belle et le Bête (Beauty and the Beast), the intertwining themes on clarinet and bassoon felt personified, as if the musical lines themselves were Beauty and Beast waltzing across the stage. Maintaining a dream-like quality throughout the entire suite, LPO moved seamlessly from one story to the next, making the audience feel as if the colours inherent in Ravel’s writing were more like freeze-frame images of a child’s fairytale dreams.

Moving onto Hector Berlioz’s rendition of Cleopatra’s soliloquy, La Morte de Cleopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra) was executed with both drama and ambition. Although LPO overwhelmed soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci at times, Anna performed the recitatives and alternating arias with a sultry manner, one that beckoned the singular personality of the illustrious Egyptian Queen.

Closing with Berlioz’s famous Symphonie Fantastique, LPO’s true talent shown through. Performing as a single unit, conductor Yannik Nézet-Séguin did not command his orchestra, he moved with them. When the protagonist becomes transfixed, and then haunted, by his love in the first three movements, Séguin rises and falls with the orchestra, perfectly in sync. Even as the piece takes a sinister turn, the orchestra’s emphatic playing and Yannik’s zealous gestures paralleled the frenetic rhythms in Marche du Supplice (March to the Scaffold) as well as the terrifying funeral march that marked the death of our protagonist’s fated love in Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dreams of a Witches Sabbath). Throughout the entire piece, LPO commanded the audience’s attention with Berlioz’s famous instrumental effects: from the offstage oboe to the offstage bells, the banging chords on four timpani to the eloquent glissandi on four harps. Bringing to life the sheer forcefulness of Berlioz’s orchestral writing, LPO and Séguin presented Symphonie Fantastique with the same musical freshness and audacity it inspired when it was first performed in December 1830.