There was a genuine sense of occasion at Powell Hall Friday night (April 7, 2017), and not just because conductor David Robertson and the members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra were uniformly spiffy than usual. It was partly due to the fact that the piano soloist was Kirill Gerstein, who has impressed audiences and critics here many tines in the past, but mostly due to the fact that this weekend's concerts were being recorded for an upcoming release on Myrios Classics. Happily, the microphones captured a totally captivating evening.
Things got off to a great start with a finely wrought performance of Darius Milhaud's 1923 ballet La création du monde (The Creation of the World), a work heavily influenced by the composer's exposure to American jazz during a New York trip earlier that year. The sounds of blues and jazz were especially attractive to French composers in the early years of the previous century, and Milhaud was no exception, scoring his short (ballet) for a nineteen-piece ensemble in which the alto sax and piano are prominently featured and in which even more conventional instruments like the oboe and clarinet are given jazzy solos.
As he often does, Mr. Robertson really allowed this music to breathe, imparting a strong sense of rubato to some slower passages while still retaining the piquant snap of more lively sections. The placement of some of the performers struck me as very smart as well, allowing Nathan Nabb's wailing sax and (especially) Peter Henderson's piano to come through more clearly than they sometimes do on recordings of the work.
Solos by Diana Haskell on clarinet and Jelena Dirks on oboe were cleanly articulated and appropriately jazzy, the flutter-tongued passages by Andrea Kaplan and her fellow flautists were nicely eerie, and the brasses had real grit in their sound. Everyone in the ensemble as at the top of their game, in fact, making it a real pleasure to hear this rarely performed piece (the SLSO last did it back in 2001).
Up next was one of the two big attractions, at least for me: the original 1924 jazz band version of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Usually heard in Ferde Grofe's full-orchestra expansion of 1937, the Rhapsody didn't get back to its roots until Samuel Adler reconstructed and recorded the 1924 arrangement in 1971.
The jazz band version has a kind of snap and flash that a full orchestra can't seem to match, especially when played as well as it was Friday night. As he did the last time the SLSO did this work in 2014, Scott Andrews gave the famous opening clarinet solo all the limpid grace it needs, nicely segueing into Tom Drake's "wah-wah" trumpet. The performances of saxophonists Nathan Nabb, Paul DeMarinis, and Jim Romain added considerably to the twenties ambience, as did that of Steve Schenkel on banjo, although his placement towards the back of the orchestra often made it hard to hear him.
As he did three years ago, Mr. Gerstein played the solo part with plenty of technical flash, combined with an impressive sensitivity to the improvisatory nature of this piece. He freely embellished the music more than once, but always in a twenties jazz style which I think Gershwin would have approved of. It was a reminder that the composer himself did some improvising when he played the work's Aeolian Hall premiere, since he hadn't yet completely written down the piano part.
The second half of the concert opened with another work that has been absent from the Powell Hall stage for a while. The Three Dance Variations from Leonard Bernstein's Fancy Free, the 1944 ballet about three sailors on leave in New York (which would later morph into the composer's first Broadway smash, On the Town) were last heard here in 1994. Like the rest of the ballet, these are brash, aggressive, and often comically eccentric pieces that got a bright and irresistibly joyous reading from Mr. Robertson and the orchestra. Anyone who came away from that performance without a smile was a world-class curmudgeon.
Closing the program was Gershwin's 1925 Concerto in F with Mr. Gerstein once again at the keyboard. The concerto isn't particularly complex from a purely structural point of view, but I still find it amazing to contemplate that it was written only a year after the far more rudimentary Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin's development as a serious composer took place with an almost supernatural rapidity, as though he somehow knew that his life on this planet would be tragically short (he died of a brain tumor just a few months short of his 40th birthday).
As it is, the concerto is a beautifully crafted piece: lean, powerful, without a spare note. Reviewing the December 3, 1925, premiere of the concerto for the New York World, critic Samuel Chotzinoff noted that Gershwin's "shortcomings are nothing in the face of the one thing he alone of all those writing the music of today possesses. He actually expresses us. He is the present, with all its audacity, impertinence, its feverish delight in its motion, its lapses into rhythmically exotic melancholy." You can feel and hear that "jazz age" urgency everywhere in the concerto.
Gershwin was a pretty formidable pianist, so the concerto bristles with technical challenges -- all of which Mr. Gerstein handled with ease. Here, as in the Rhapsody, he improvised here and there, but always in a way that felt right. Up on the podium, Mr. Robertson's direction crackled with energy and the orchestra played with its customary virtuosity. The second-movement solos by Mr. Drake, Ms. Dirks, and Ms. Kaplan all had real soul, the percussion work was crisp throughout, and the strings were solid as always. It was, to quote a George M. Cohan lyric, "Music to please the gang / With plenty of biff and bang."
It was a rousing performance, in short, and got an appropriately rousing standing ovation, followed by an encore from Mr. Gerstein: a set of variations (presumably his own) on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." Gershwin wrote a set of his own on that tune a few years before his death, but Mr. Gerstein's were just as impressive in their own way. It was a perfect finale to a thoroughly delightful concert.
Next at Powell Hall: John Storgårds conducts the orchestra and pianist Nikolai Lugansky in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, and Valentin Silvestrov's Hymne 2001 for string ensemble. Performances are Friday at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., April 21-23. David Robertson conducts the orchestra in a Whitaker Foundation Music You Know Concert of popular classics on Friday, April 21, at 8 p.m. All performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.
It was a relatively sparse crowd that witnessed the local premiere of John Adams' 2012 oratorio/theatre piece The Gospel According to the Other Mary Friday night, April 24, by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of David Robertson. I suppose that's not surprising, given how allergic local audiences can sometimes be to newer works, but it's a shame nevertheless. They missed a dramatic, inventive, and sometimes very powerful retelling of the Passion story that placed Jesus in a decidedly contemporary context.
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and first performed by them in 2012, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a time-bending account of Christ's death and resurrection from the viewpoints of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany (the same singer plays both roles), as well as Mary of Bethany's sister Martha, and Martha's brother Lazarus, who are sometimes their Biblical selves and sometimes contemporary people. Mr. Adams and his collaborator, the noted British director Peter Sellars, have mixed texts from the King James Bible in with poems by African-American writer June Jordan and Mexico's Rosairo Castellanos, along with the work of (among others) Italian author Primo Levi, Native American novelist Louise Erdrich, and American Catholic activist Dorothy Day.
There's even a strikingly graphic section inspired by a painting by Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco of Christ, Conan the Barbarian-style, brandishing the axe he as just used to chop down his own cross. Another potent sequence juxtaposes descriptions of Christ's arrest from the KJV with passages from Day's journals describing the arrest of protesters fighting for the rights of immigrant farm workers.
It's not, as the composer himself wryly observed in the pre-concert talk, the sort of thing likely to appeal to the strict traditionalist.
This could be a bit of a mess, and there are times when the archaic language of the Bible clashes oddly with the abstract imagery of the more contemporary poems. But for the most part the pairing of ancient and modern makes dramatic sense—in part because Adams' music acts as a strong unifying force.
I have not always been a major admirer of Mr. Adams' technique of building large structures from minimalist musical cells, but the approach works well here, creating a massive dramatic piece (over two and one-half hours, not counting intermission) derived largely from an ascending Aeolian mode chord sequence that first appears in the opening scene. It's an idea that informs the entire work, pulling sometimes wildly divergent ideas together into a (mostly) coherent whole.
Unification is provided as well by the almost constant presence of the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer found throughout Eastern Europe and Greece—brilliantly played by Chester Englander. Cutting easily through Mr. Adams' massive post-Wagnerian orchestra, its metallic sound conjures up images of the ancient Mediterranean culture from which the story of Jesus sprang in the first place.
In fact, some of the most compelling moments in The Gospel According to the Other Mary are musical rather than textual. A wild African drum solo performed with impressive vigor by Will James, for example, depicts the earthquake that precedes the rolling aside of the stone from Jesus' tomb. The suffering and death of Jesus at Golgotha is portrayed by a massive outburst of instrumental cacophony along with shouts and howls from the chorus. The Passover scene, on the other hand, is distinguished by a lovely aria for the resurrected Lazarus that wouldn't sound out of place on the Broadway stage.
There were other very compelling moments, including the groaning low strings that accompany Lazarus's death and the recorded piping of frogs that presages the coming of spring and the resurrection of Christ, but the bottom line is that there is much to admire in this score. I have not always found Mr. Adams' writing for the stage to be persuasive, but this is often a very theatrically smart piece.
It helps that the work got such a peerless performance from the orchestra and Mr. Robertson, who has been an admirer of it since he made a special trip to Los Angeles to witness its premiere. Mr. Adams has written some very challenging music for both the instrumentalists and singers; the precision with which they pulled it off deserves a round of laurel wreaths for everyone.
Mezzo Kelley O'Connor, for whom the role of Mary was created, was as compelling as you would expect her to be, forcefully conveying the character's passion and sorrow. Both she and fellow mezzo Michaela Martens, in the role of Martha, are often driven down to the bottom of their vocal range, but they projected even the lowest notes with authority, dishing up bravura performances.
The last time I saw tenor Jay Hunter Morris on stage, he was the chillingly arrogant Danforth in The Crucible at Glimmerglass last summer. This time around he was touchingly vulnerable as Lazarus, pouring out his heart in the "Supper at Bethany" scene while Roger Kaza poured his into the fiercely demanding horn solo that accompanied him. Countertenors Daniel Brubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley rounded out the ranks of soloists as a trio of unearthly narrators who also sing the words of Christ.
As for Amy Kaiser's chorus, I just can't praise them enough. Adams asks them to not just sing, but to whisper, chatter, and shriek. They did it all superbly.
For reasons that were not entirely clear to me, all the vocal soloists wore wireless microphones, even though they seemed perfectly capable of projecting over the orchestra. The sound mix was, in any case, handled with remarkable skill; the voices rarely had the unnatural, directionless quality that often accompanies amplification.
The SLSO will be taking this performance to Carnegie Hall on Friday, March 31st, and I really can't think of a better showcase for Mr. Robertson and our hometown band. The Gospel According to the Other Mary may not be without its issues as a work of music drama, but as a demonstration of the virtuosity of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, I think it is (in the words of Walt Kelly's Fremount) "Jes' fine."
Next at Powell Hall: Pianist Kirill Gerstein plays Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F in a program that also includes Milhaud's La Création du Monde ballet and three dances episodes from Bernstein's ballet Fancy Free. David Robertson will conduct. Performances are Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., April 7-9.
John Williams, who turned 86 in February, is probably the best known and most frequently recorded film music composer of the last 100 years. He's certainly one of the most honored, with five Oscars, four Golden Globes, 22 Grammys, seven BAFTA awards, and, for all I know, a partridge in a pear tree.
The reason for his popularity and all those awards was easy to hear Friday night as the St. Louis Symphony performed the score for the 1981 blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark while the film was shown on the big screen above the orchestra. Hearing this music live offered a chance to appreciate the way Williams worked decidedly "modern" effects (dissonance, eerie string harmonics, polytonality) into a traditional action score.
Mr. Williams's seemingly bottomless musical toolbox is hardly surprising, though, given the fact that his involvement with the film music business extends all the way back to his days as a jazz keyboardist and film and TV studio pianist. Remember the piano riff for Peter Gunn? That's him. Although classically trained (he studied privately with the Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco), Mr. Williams got his professional experience in an environment in which versatility was a sine qua non.
He learned his lessons well, and it's impossible not to admire the inventiveness of his work for Raiders. From the ominous passages for the double reeds and low strings in the opening jungle sequence, to the spiky string figures and syncopation of the "basket chase" scene in a Cairo market, to the heroic march associated with Indiana Jones, this is clearly the work of a master of his craft.
It's also impossible not to admire the consummate skill with which an expanded version of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra plays this music. Yes, the audience's attention is mostly focused on the on-screen action, but that makes a polished performance of the score all the more important. Nothing can kill the suspension of disbelief quite like a missed entrance or flubbed note.
Of which, naturally, there were none Friday night. Guest conductor Scott Terrell, the music director of the Lexington Philharmonic, led the SLSO in a vital and precise reading of this score. Conducting in synch with a film is an important skill for young conductors these days, and judging from his many credits in this area, Mr. Terrell is a master of that very special craft.
So, yeah, Raiders of the Lost Ark at the St. Louis Symphony is great entertainment for the whole family. But it's also a reminder of the days when not every single moment of a movie was underscored. John Williams's exciting and intelligent music reinforces the action and highlights character without beating you over the head constantly. I wish more recent films would follow that same path.
You have one more chances to enjoy this good, old-fashioned swashbuckler at Powell Hall today, Sunday at 2pm.
Next at Powell Hall: Friday and Sunday, March 24 and 26, David Robertson returns to conduct the orchestra and chorus in the local premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams, a work that they will be presenting at Carnegie Hall on March 31 as part of the Great American Orchestras series.
Stunningly beautiful folk-inspired melodies, almost child-like in their innocence and freshness, abound in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, dating from 1795. Beethoven's capricious playfulness tumbles forth like petals from a flower. By contrast, the Alpine Symphony of Richard Strauss, appearing in 1915, speaks of a powerful journey of both the body and spirit through the grandeur of nature. These are two very different works, yet both pay tribute to nature, creativity and human nature. Together, they made an awe-inspiring pairing for the St. Louis Symphony on March 10-11.
Considered a die-hard Romantic, and therefore sometimes disdained by modernists, Richard Strauss is enjoying renewed popularity today, benefitting from the hindsight of history. Strauss' reputation suffered as a result of his compromises with the Nazis; however, we are today more aware that he felt trapped in his homeland. More importantly, we now know he took tremendous risks in order to save the lives of his Jewish daughter-in-law, her family and his beloved grandchildren, all of whom lived in constant fear of the Nazi machine. Strauss was able to free his daughter-in-law from a concentration camp and helped keep his grandchildren safe, but he was unable to save their mother's family when they were imprisoned and executed. Perhaps it is no wonder that Strauss had himself in mind when he composed another of his great tone poems, A Hero's Life.
An Alpine Symphony is a vast composition, nearly 50 minutes long, divided into 22 sections, utilizing 112 musicians and incorporating Wagnerian tubas, a large sheet of metal to produce thunder, antiphonal brass from the rear of the auditorium, cow bells and other effects. The listener feels truly transported to another world, one of towering forests, chattering brooks, fragrant fields, magnificent vistas and spiritual awe. Strauss poured some of his most original thought into this overwhelming work. Only an orchestra of the highest caliber can do it justice.
French conductor Stéphane Denève, on loan from the Brussels Philharmonic, directed the performance this weekend. In spite of successfully commandeering such a formidable work as the "Alpine" Symphony, Deneve projected an air of humility and respect for the musicians he directed and the city that welcomed him. His comments to the audience concerning the instruments and the structure of the symphony were helpful in understanding the work, as were the captions projected above the stage. In spite of the magnitude of the work, the whispers from muted strings and solo instruments were never lost. Having done his homework, Deneve was clearly at home with both works on the program, and his expertise resulted in a sweeping performance that showcased the entire orchestra and individual soloists.
British pianist Steven Osborne joined forces with Deneve and the orchestra for the opening work on the program, Beethoven's Concerto No. 1 in C Major for piano. Osborne possesses formidable technique and, like Deneve, performed with confidence and precision. His approach to the concerto was rather staccato and well-punctuated. Some listeners might prefer a more subdued approach to such a lyrical work, but this concerto is worth considering from differing interpretations. Osborne captured the fresh and sparkling quality of this concerto, delivering a rather masculine interpretation that is a refreshing change from the much more timid and restrained approach favored by some pianists.
Today we are keenly aware of the differences between cultures. This concert, showcasing masterpieces by two composers born in the same country yet separated by 120 years of musical evolution, dramatically illustrated the power of the passage of time and history to transform culture.
The power of choral music lies not just in its majesty and grandeur, but in its melding of a cross section of humanity, some professional and some perhaps merely gifted, to produce together a sculpted work of art. A work such as the Vespers by Serge Rachmaninoff, full of mysticism, devotion, drama and spiritual yearning, is the perfect vehicle for showcasing the range and depth of choral music. To the gratitude of a large and appreciative audience, the Bach Society of St. Louis delivered in all categories Sunday at St. Stanislaus Church downtown.
Now in his 31st year as conductor, A. Dennis Sparger has always directed the Bach Society with consummate skill, but his talents, and those of each singer onstage, shone with heightened brilliance at this performance. Rarely would a listener imagine that a crescendo or decrescendo could produce a spiritual effect, yet that was the case in this presentation. Even seasoned listeners likely found a new and deeper appreciation of the capacity of the human voice to enliven a spiritual setting. Regardless of whether each of us follows a traditional Christian path, or whether we might follow the path of Judaism, Buddhism or some other spiritual path -- or perhaps no path at all -- the music of Rachmaninoff's score speaks directly to the heart.
Life was often not easy for Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), even though he ultimately triumphed over his critics and crippling lack of self-esteem. Perhaps he found a measure of solace in composing religiously-inspired music. At first hearing, the score of the Vespers may seem like a whirlwind of sound that carries the listener away to a different realm. Familiarity with the work, though, leads one to pause and experience each turn of the melody and each rise and fall with deeper perception. At a time when interest in the Eastern Orthodox churches is rapidly increasingly around the world, a work such as this provides a glimpse into the texture of Orthodox practice.
The title Vespers is somewhat of a misnomer, in that Vespers refers to evening prayer. However, Rachmaninoff composed an "All-Night Vigil," designed to be performed prior to holidays, that combines evening prayers with morning prayers (matins). Performing the work poses the challenge of learning to enunciate Church Slavonic, the sacred language of the Russian Orthodox Church. Dennis Sparger is well-known for his detailed attention to proper diction. Assisted by tutors from Russia and Ukraine, the Society chorus demonstrated a high degree of accuracy and careful observance of linguistic nuances. (Having a very slight Russian background of my own -- well, I can attest that the overall effect, to me at least, sounded as authentic as any reasonable listener could expect!)
Tenor Keith Weymeier was featured in several of the fifteen chorus that make up the Vespers. His voice is warm and radiant, and powerful enough to resonate throughout the sanctuary of St. Stanislaus. Weymeier seemed comfortable with his diction and at home with the score.
Shawn Neace, bass, was soloist on the opening invocation of the work. His deep projecting voice set the tone with a particularly characteristic Slavic accent. Similarly, alto Alison Neace, soloist on the ensuing "Bless the Lord, O My Soul," possessed a beautiful dark register that seemed well-tailored for a Slavic spiritual work.
Under Sparger's direction, the chorus demonstrated a solid blend and well-honed phrasing. Dynamics were particularly stunning. Sparger was superbly assisted by the hard work and dedication of the singers themselves, pianist Sandra Geary and assistant accompanist Cynthia Johnson. One of the great beauties of choral music is its highly collaborative structure that unites artists from all walks of life into a single unified whole.
Special thanks also to the congregation and staff of St. Stanislaus Church for opening their door to support such a serious and important project as this performance. The near-capacity audience for the March 12 performance demonstrated that classical music is alive and well in St. Louis.