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>  News Releases >   2003 >   February

Berlioz birthday party

Posted 02/18/03, by Karen Endicott

Hector Berlioz
Handel Society plans four-day celebration

Music lovers all over the world this year will be celebrating the 200th birthday of French composer Hector Berlioz.

From Feb. 27 to March 2 the Handel Society of Dartmouth College, conducted by Melinda O'Neal, will present a special Berlioz Bicentennial Weekend of celebratory events.

The centerpiece of the celebration will be a performance of Berlioz's dramatic choral symphony Roméo et Juliette on Saturday, March 1, at 8 p.m. in Spaulding Auditorium, Hopkins Center.

This colossal work will be performed by the Hanover Chamber Orchestra, Handel Society, Concertato Singers, and guest soloists David Arnold, baritone, Erma Gattie, mezzo soprano, and Ryan Turner, tenor. Melinda O'Neal will conduct.

In Roméo et Juliette, composed in 1839, Berlioz casts vocal soloists and chorus as the narrators of Shakespeare's famous story. The Concertato Singers, a small ensemble of the Handel Society, introduces the action at the beginning of the work. The Handel Society divides into two opposing choruses to re-enact the feuding Capulet and Montague families. Three movements for orchestra alone express the passion and turmoil of the two lovers. In the final movement, after the deaths of Roméo and Juliette, Friar Laurence brings the two grieving families together in reconcilation.

Shakespeare's play held a special appeal for Berlioz. When he attended a performance of it in Paris in 1827, he fell in love with the actress playing Juliet, Harriet Smithson, whom he later married.

Berlioz, in turn, holds a special appeal for Melinda O'Neal, who has championed the composer ever since her doctoral studies at Indiana University's music department. "I find his music original and alluring, a little weird — actually more than 'a little' — full of intellect, honesty, extreme passion and clear expression. His sense of creating drama and aura (atmosphere) through text, melody and harmony is entirely captivating," she says.

"At the conclusion of his compositions Berlioz usually brings home some sort of moral imperative; in each work it's a little different. In Roméo et Juliette Friar Laurence brings the two warring families to reconciliation," she says. "There's often an irony or conflict that Berlioz points out and resolves. He doesn't create it but simply reveals another viewpoint, a new detail on an otherwise already known tale. I find this, along with his musical processes, extremely compelling. The music at the conclusion of Roméo et Juliette, when Friar Laurence sings the grand oath of reconciliation, Jurez donc, the three choirs joining him in absolutely remarkable nine-part harmony, is simply overwhelming."

For more information on Hector Berlioz, visit

Dartmouth's Berlioz Bicentennial Celebration Weekend is supported by the Hopkins Center, Leslie Humanities Center, and the Music Department.

- Karen Endicott

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