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Missoula Symphony's macabre Masterworks concert

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MSO conductor Julia Tai

Julia Tai at the Dennison Theatre last year. 

A spooky melody haunts “Ghosts, Ghouls and Symphony,” the Missoula Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks concert this weekend, in many forms.

The “dies irae,” a medieval chant, “The Day of Wrath,” recurs in all three pieces, sometimes from the brass section or the woodwinds, across Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre,” Danny Elfman’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas Orchestral Suite,” and the Masterworks piece, Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”

“Composers over the years have always used this chant to symbolize death,” said Julia Tai, the MSO’s music director. It “just kept coming up in different pieces — it’s a really nice connection."

‘Danse Macabre’

The classical canon isn’t short on music that addresses the theme of death with spooking overtones, Tai said. This concert boasts two signature ones, Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre,” and the Berlioz.

A notable feature to listen for is the violin soloist, who tunes their E-string down to an E-flat, conjuring up the so-called tritone, also known as the “devil’s tritone” in earlier eras, for its eerie-sound interval, Tai said. (Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” is a famous example.) Other effects include the composer’s use of the xylophone to represent dancing skeletons. (He did this in “The Carnival of the Animals,” too.)

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’

Composer Danny Elfman is probably the most well-known person on the program thanks to his prolific TV and film work, including Tim Burton’s 1993 classic.

This suite is a kaleidoscope, Tai said, spending about a minute on a theme before moving to the next. While it includes signature pieces like “Jack’s Lament,” the vocal melodies have all been adapted for instruments.

‘Symphonie Fantastique’

The heart of the program is a famous piece where “a classical composer went dark,” Tai said.

Berlioz included paragraphs of text with each section of the score to explain the story line that would unfold purely in musical form, a feature that’s notable for music history buffs.

“This is the first time somebody wrote a symphony that related to a story,” she said. Before Berlioz, composers like Mozart and Beethoven wrote works that were “purely instrumental” abstractions, and in his wake, composers in the Romantic era wrote more frequently in tone poems.

The plot is autobiographical, and his subtitle, “Episode in the Life of an Artist,” alludes to that fact. Berlioz went to see a Shakespeare play and became enamored of the lead actress, whom he began “relentlessly pursuing,” Tai said.

The first movement, “it’s like him, heart beating, he’s so excited that he met her.” In the second, it’s a “wild, beautiful ballroom” where he sees her again. In the third, he goes to the mountains and hears a duet between shepherds oboe and English horn that ends in unanswered calls. A winter storm represented by drums moves in.

Now, in the fourth movement, things get real dark. He consumes too much opium and hallucinates. “He dreamed that he murdered this woman and was going to be executed,” she said. It’s a famous and scary tune, she said, with a brass procession accompanying him to his end, and a string pizzicato representing his severed head bouncing on the ground.

The fifth movement brings back a beautiful theme from prior movements that represents his beloved, but now it’s been transformed into a witchy sequence for clarinet as his phantom lover dances on his grave.

"The fifth movement of the Berlioz is an earth-shaking take on Dies irae, with brilliant brass chorale and orchestra in full force. It's an ingenious display of Berlioz' orchestration and use of the theme to portray a "Witches' Sabbath,' " Tai said in an email.

Church bells toll, drums resonate, all making for a “very spooky and scary last movement,” she said.

Notably, Berlioz was self-taught without much formal training, yet he went on to become “an amazing orchestrator” who wrote a textbook on the subject, Tai said. He cultivated innovative ideas for combinations of instruments, for instance — this piece calls for four bassoons and two sets of timpani.

Playing live

This weekend’s concerts mark the largest number of musicians on stage yet, with about 90 people performing in the Dennison Theatre.

“It’s really nice to play with a big group again,” she said.

They’ve removed the bandshell backdrops on stage to provide more space for everyone, and will have more visual projections related to the pieces. (Although they’re not directly from a film, for copyright reasons.)

The MSO’s 2020-21 season marked its return to in-person concerts. Ticket sales have been strong at about 75% of pre-pandemic levels, and “we’re pretty happy about that given everything that’s going on,” Tai said.

The orchestra has continued offering livestreams for the entire season and so many ticket-holders are opting to watch from home.

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