The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, like most major American orchestras, can generally be counted upon to deliver a blockbuster season finale. Last year it was Holst's popular suite The Planets paired with works by Berg and Vaughan Williams. This year (May 4th and 6th, 2017), it was another of the orchestra's forays into the world of opera: a complete concert performance of Wagner's 1843 opera Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). And it was, as they used to say in Variety, boffo.
Written when the composer and his first wife were literally starving in Paris, The Flying Dutchman would prove to be not only Wagner's first big success but also the first opera for which he would write both the music and the libretto--a major step on the path that would eventually lead to the Ring cycle. "From here," wrote the composer in an 1851 essay, "begins my career as poet, and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera-texts."
In fact, almost everything in The Flying Dutchman presages the route Wagner would take in his subsequent operas. There are individual themes (leitmotifs) for the major characters, a massive orchestra with a beefed-up brass section, and a libretto that deals with the idea of salvation through the self-sacrificing love of a virtuous woman--a theme Wager found fascinating. When Senta leaps to a watery death at the end of the opera, it's hard not to see it as a precursor to Brünnhilde's more elaborate fiery demise at the conclusion of Götterdämmerung. At least Senta doesn't take all of Valhalla with her.
It also has one of the best opera overtures ever written, vividly conjuring up images of storm tossed seas and ghostly ships--even if it is hard to listen to it without thinking of a certain Warner Brothers cartoon.
Add in the Gothic elements of the ghostly ship with its undead crew, and you have the makings of a potent evening of music drama. Which is exactly what we got Thursday night, thanks to strong performances by the orchestra, chorus, and soloists. That's because Maestro David Robertson, as he did with the SLSO's Aida two years ago, has once again assembled a cast of outstanding singers who are also capable actors.
Soprano Marjorie Owens, who was so striking in her local debut last year in Ariadne on Naxos at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, impresses once again as Senta, whose dramatic sacrifice at the opera's close saves the Dutchman from his eternally cursed around-the-world cruise. The Act II ballad in which she tells the tale of how the Dutchman is cursed to sail the world forever until redeemed by love is an ingenious conceit on Wagner's part in that it serves both as exposition and insight into Senta's obsession with someone she has only seen in a painting. Ms. Owens infused it with real longing and delivered it flawlessly, building effortlessly to a powerful vocal climax.
Bass-baritone Alan Held, who got such great reviews in the SLSO's Peter Grimes in 2013, cut an imposing figure as The Dutchman -- menacing, stentorian, and tormented. He commanded the stage with his first aria, "Die Frist ist um, und abermals verstrichen sind sieben Jahr" (The time is up, and once again seven years have elapsed) and remained a magnetic figure throughout. A seasoned Wagnerian, his big, solid voice rode easily over the composer's massive orchestra.
Bass Raymond Aceto found the comic side of Senta's venial father Deland without overdoing it and, like Mr. Held, had a voice the projected strongly throughout the houses. Tenor Rodrick Dixon showed real passion as Senta's unfairly scorned lover, Erik, and did it with a clarion-clear voice. His cavatina "Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr entsinnen" (Won't you remember the day you called me to you?) in the third act was a thing of beauty.
Tenor Paul Appleby shone in the small but important comic role of the Steersman. He thoroughly captivated the audience with his big Act I aria "Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer" (With tempest and storm on distant seas), in which his character tries (unsuccessfully) to keep himself awake during his watch by singing a cheerful song about the sweetheart who waits for him on shore. Soprano Joy Boland rounded out this excellent cast as Senta's nurse Mary.
Under Mr. Robertson's skilled baton, the orchestra gave a masterful account of the big, complex score, with expert playing by every section. Mr. Robertson brought out all of Wanger's drama and paced the performance in a way that kept the tension at just the right level while still allowing the quieter moments their due.
Amy Kaiser's chorus performed heroically as well. The women's chorus sang the Act II spinning song with giddy joy, while the men's chorus threw themselves into the Act III party scene, complete with foot-stomping choreography. The SLSO chorus never fails to impress.
Originally produced for the Sydney Symphony's Dutchman in 2013, S. Katy Tucker's evocative animations--projected, appropriately, on large sails suspended above the orchestra--added to the theatricality of the evening, reflecting the changing moods of the music. Her close-ups of Mr. Held's face were especially striking. I was also very taken with the way in which her lighting design changed the color of the stage and the house to emphasize the dramatic action. This was most apparent at the very end, when Senta's sacrifice dispelled the Dutchman's curse and the entire hall was bathed in blue light as Wagner's music came to a tranquil close. It was a wonderfully effective moment.
Mr. Robertson made inventive use of the Powell Hall space as well, with offstage brass and, in the dramatic final scene, the choristers portraying the Dutchman's ghostly and ghastly crew singing from house left with megaphones to give their voices an eerie hollow sound. My only real issue with the evening was the forest of microphones on stage. They sometimes obscured the soloists, who sang from a raised platform behind the chorus at the very back of the stage. Still, their voices projected from there quite effectively.
The weekend's concerts opened with an emotional moment that had nothing to do with The Flying Dutchman but everything to do with the great work the orchestra has done over the years, as Mr. Robertson bade a fond public farewell to retiring percussionist John Kasica, who has been with the band since 1971. He has the distinction of having served under five different SLSO music directors (Walter Susskind, Jerzy Semkow, Leonard Slatkin, and Hans Vonk, in addition to Mr. Robertson) and, as his official bio notes, has the unique distinction of having had more solo appearances with major U.S. orchestras than any other percussionist in U.S. history. He'll be missed, but he got a great send-off.
This past weekend's excellent Flying Dutchman closed the formal SLSO concert season, but special off-season events continue through June 23.
The reflective powers of music are truly remarkable. In a program themed as "Dark Vision and Warm Friendship" (April 29-30) the St. Louis Symphony presented contrasting images of fear, violence, mystery, yet also of warmth, tenderness and the rising of the human spirit.
Although Edward Elgar wrote some of the world's most beautiful music, heaviness and melancholy nevertheless appear in his works. The searing passages of the Cello Concerto in E minor and the heartfelt moments of the mysterious Enigma Variations spring readily to mind. Elgar's life was not as easy nor as quintessentially British as one might think. Curiously, his Serenade for Strings, which opened the program at Powell Hall, held a special place in Elgar's heart, despite its brevity and limited palette of colors and melody. Although no overwhelming sadness is present in this work, it moves with a haunting voice that seems to long for a different age, perhaps, or for memories long forgotten. Conceived for strings only, the piece makes a good vehicle to highlight the velvety blend and tonal accuracy of the string section of the SLSO, which were not lacking.
The program continued with the U.S. premiere of Jerusalem (after Blake) by the contemporary composer Georges Lentz, born in Luxembourg in 1965. The apocalyptic and visionary poetry of William Blake has long fascinated Lentz; Blake's meaning is often baffling and seemingly impossible to decipher, yet the sweep of his vision has captivated readers for generations. Additionally, Lentz was inspired by the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, whose victims, unlike those of 9/11, were unable to make final cell phone calls. Accordingly, brass sounds emanating from mobile phones in the balcony symbolized the calls that could never be made.
In his introductory remarks to the work, Music Director David Robertson stated that he found this to be one of the most beautiful and expressive works he had conducted over the past 25 years. He also assured the audience that the antiphonal brass located in the balcony of Powell Hall would not be overwhelmingly loud. Well...each listener will have to make his or her own decision as to whether to agree with Robertson's notions. Melodically speaking, the piece seemed to rely on the same angular effects produced by atonal avant-garde composers of the early to mid-20th century; rhythmically (and melodically) speaking, the work was somewhat bland, sometimes subsisting on patterns of repeated eighth notes. However, it cannot be denied that the composer possesses a keen sense of empathy for those who have been the victims of the violence and upheaval fomented by the ideologies of the modern era.
One might argue that too many contemporary composers rely on sound effects while ignoring the development and crafting of musical ideas (sometimes even leaving the music to improvisation or chance, as is the case with "aleatory" music). Certainly Lentz utilized a broad spectrum of instrumental timbres, including smart phones, electronic effects, electric guitar and cimbalom (a close relative of the hammered dulcimer and a beautiful instrument that should be heard more frequently). Again, though, listeners must make up their own minds as to the value of each new work. We might ask ourselves how many of the works spawned by government grants and commissions by foundations will be sought by audiences decades and centuries later. Even today, listeners continue to debate the intrinsic merits of composers from the past.
Like Georges Lentz, the final composer featured on the program, Johannes Brahms, also possessed a keen sensitivity to tragedy. His first piano concerto mirrored the attempted suicide of his close friend and mentor Robert Schumann. Throughout the Brahms repertoire there is a juxtaposition of sadness, pathos, empathy, joy and beauty; perhaps the same could be said of Elgar. However, it was the Violin Concerto in D major, performed by the brilliant young violinist Augustin Hadelich, that was the vehicle to provide the capstone to the concert. The choice was an eloquent one, because the Violin Concerto embodies nearly every emotion that Brahms could express. Brahms forged deep relationships in his life, similarly to Elgar. Accordingly, this concerto was written for his close friend Joseph Joachim, one of the greatest violinists of the 19th century.
The 30-something Hadelich is a product of diverse roots, born in Italy to German-Jewish parents, and recently became a U.S. citizen. As a teenager, his career and his life narrowly escaped a tragic end when he was trapped in a fire at his family's farm in Italy. Despite severe burns, Hadelich made an almost miraculous recovery and emerged stronger than ever. His playing is marked by a soaring lyricism, yet he also can call forth a marked sense of drama when necessary. His finger movements are so well-oiled and liquid as to completely belie the injuries they overcame.
A few times the orchestra seemed to overpower the soloist. In recent years that has been much less of a problem at Powell Hall, but has occasionally been noticeable in the last couple of years. Controlling acoustics and projection is not an easy task. Perhaps it was just imagination, but coming on the heels of the Lentz work and the conclusion of a long weekend of performing, the orchestral accompaniment to the concerto seemed just a bit mechanical, but there was never an audible misstep. The concerto created an artistic and surprisingly upbeat conclusion to a concert faceted with many contrasting faces of humanity.
Nearly all of the longer than usual St. Louis Symphony program this past weekend (April 22 and 23) consisted of two big early-twentieth-century concerti, one for a single virtuoso and one for an orchestra full of them. Happily, both were on hand at Powell Hall.
The first major event was Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30, from 1909. Known as "Rach 3" to its friends, of whom I am one, is widely regarded as one of the most challenging concerti out there. Fiercely difficult, it's a reminder of what a superhuman pianist Rachmaninoff was. For many years after its premiere, its only real advocate was the composer himself.
Here in Mound City there has been no shortage of great Rach 3's over the past few years, including a real stunner by Steven Hough and Peter Oundjian in 2012. The soloist this time was the remarkably talented Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky, who recorded all four of the Rachmaninoff concerti in the early 2000's and whose CD of Rachmaninoff piano sonatas copped multiple awards.
He clearly knows this material well, and it showed in the easy familiarity with which he approached the music. He and guest conductor John Storgårds took an expansive view of the concerto that highlighted the strong differences among its many moods. In the opening movement, for example, the brisk and authoritative opening stood in sharp contrast to the more lush treatment of the second theme group, while the titanic cadenza had all the flash and power you could ask for.
The second movement was extraordinarily passionate, and the finale raced ahead at breakneck speed to its power chord code, capped with the composer's characteristic four-note signature ("Rach-man-in-OFF"). Done properly, this never fails to get a standing ovation -- which is exactly what happened when we saw the concert Saturday night.
It was a superlative performance, marred only by what sometimes seemed to be a less than ideal balance between the soloist and orchestra, with Mr. Lugansky sometimes swamped by the ensemble. The work that he played as an encore, on the other hand -- Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32 No. 12 --was crystalline perfection.
Let's turn now to that piece that needs an orchestra full of Nikolai Luganskys: Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra's famed music director Serge Koussevitzky in 1943 when the composer's finances and health were both bottoming out, the composition process worked like a tonic. Bartók threw himself into the project and the final result has been part of the core orchestral repertoire ever since.
The work's title refers to the fact that throughout the piece individual groups of instruments or even entire sections of the orchestra are given difficult, attention-grabbing passages which highlight them. This is most apparent in the "Giuoco delle coppie" ("Game of couples") second movement, in which the melody is tossed about among pairs of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and trumpets, but there are neat little solos for trombone and oboe in the first movement and the strings get a real workout in the fiery finale. Pretty much every section gets a chance to join in the fun.
It's only fun if the orchestra and conductor are up to the task, of course -- which Mr. Storgårds and the band certainly were Saturday night. The second movement was both jaunty and whimsical, the third movement "Elegia" was piercingly intense, and the interjection, in the third movement "Intermezzo interotto" ("Interrupted Intermezzo"), of a theme from the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony (which Bartók heard in a live broadcast while composing the "Concerto") was comically precise. The opening movement had all the ominous drama one could hope for and the whirling finale built a tremendous head of steam and hurtled towards its conclusion, propelled by great slashing gestures from the podium.
This is, as René Spencer Saller writes in her program notes, a work that "boasts brisk contrasts and strange symmetries...a storehouse of stylistic touchstones: Bach fugues, peasant folk songs, angular tonal experiments, birdsong, night music." Mr. Storgårds let us hear all of that in a performance that allowed the music to breathe without sacrificing forward momentum. The players responded with some of the best work I have heard from them in some time. Every section was at the top of its game.
The concerts opened with a brief work for strings getting its local premiere: Valentin Silvestrov's haunting Hymne 2001. The delicate work is a beautiful piece of gossamer sonic filigree that uses silence -- or as much silence as one can get in a live orchestra hall, anyway -- as an important compositional tool. This is music that begins softly and ends with a prolonged hush. It is, in its own way, every bit as demanding as the far more massive Bartók in that all the lines are very exposed and the players need to be flawless. The SLSO strings proved that they were exactly that, with a performance of surpassing radiance.
Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the orchestra in two programs. On Friday, April 28, at 8 p.m. he'll conduct an evening of popular classics, including Tchaikovsky's Capprico Italien, the overture to Weber's Der Freischütz, and Walton's Crown Imperial march, along with James Stephenson's bass trombone concerto The Arch performed by the SLSO's own Gerard Pagano. On Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., April 29 and 30, Augustin Hadelich joins the orchestra for the Brahms Violin Concerto. Performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.
It was damp and gloomy outside Friday night (April 28) but inside Powell Hall it was all light and cheer as David Robertson conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a festive romp through the last of the Whitaker Foundation's "Music You Know" concerts.
Launched back in November 2014, the "Music You Know" series features familiar classics often mixed with new but highly approachable works. This edition followed the same pattern, but with one charming wrinkle: the first music heard Friday night—the "Sword Dance" from Arbeau's Orchésographie, in a simplified arrangement by Bob Phillips—was played not by the SLSO but by one of the participants in the Symphony in Your School program: the Jennings Jr. High School string orchestra, conducted by their director, James McKay. Preceded by a video in which Mr. McKay, some of the players, and the ensemble's SLSO mentors reflected on the joy of their shared experience, the brief piece was an inspiring beginning to a highly enjoyable evening.
The SLSO part of the program began with a performance of the overture to Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera Der Freischütz that emphasized the work's dark and dramatic themes while still delivering an appropriate rousing finale. An unfortunate moment in the first entrance by the horns not withstanding, it was well played, with fine individual contributions, like the clarinet solo leading into the first statement of the big second theme.
Next up was a the premiere of The Arch, a concerto written for SLSO bass trombonist Gerard Pagano by James Stephenson and inspired by the Gateway Arch. Accompanied by a series of slides showing the construction of the arch, this listener-friendly work was a reminder of a time when America was brimming with courageous postwar optimism. The contrast with our current climate of paranoia and pessimism was both stark and sad. Mr. Pagano's performance was inspirational, though, and earned him a standing ovation.
The first half of the concert concluded with one of my favorite marches, William Walton's Crown Imperial. Intended for the coronation of Edward VIII—who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson before the ceremony could take place—it was finally played to mark the ascension of George VI. It's a certified rouser, with a broad, noble second theme and an inspiring finale. Mr. Robertson and the orchestra gave it an appropriately powerful reading, with an especially high-gloss treatment of that second theme.
The second half of the program opened with a leisurely stroll through Mendelssohn's 1830 musical postcard from Scotland, the Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) Overture. This is vividly evocative music, and while Mr. Robertson's more relaxed treatment didn't always deliver that sense of the wild, storm-tossed Scottish coast, it did feature some exemplary playing, including Scott Andrews and Tina Ward in the important clarinet parts. And Mr. Robertson's approach certainly brought out the strong dramatic contrasts in the score.
A beautifully delicate performance of Debussy's Clair de lune (in the popular André Caplet orchestration) was next, featuring Allegra Lilly's gossamer harp, followed by a real rarity: an orchestration of the 1964 Nocturno for horn and piano by Franz Strauss, father of the celebrated composer Richard. A virtuoso player in his own right, Franz (as Mr. Robertson pointed out in his prefatory remarks) showed Richard what the instrument was capable of—which explains the very challenging horn writing in so many of the younger Strauss's works. The SLSO's own Julie Thayer was the soloist, in a performance that was the auditory equivalent of liquid gold.
The concerts concluded with a bold and fiery run through another musical souvenir, Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien. Written during a visit to Rome in the winter and spring of 1880, the Capriccio shows the composer in an exuberant and dramatic mood. From the opening fanfare (inspired by the bugle calls from the nearby military barracks that woke the composer up every morning), to the irresistible tunes informed by Italian folk songs, to the rousing and dramatic coda, this is the kind of stuff that inevitably brings an audience to its feet—which it certainly did Friday night.
“Tchaikovsky knows what the instruments can do in a virtuoso way," observed conductor JoAnn Falletta in program notes for a 2011 Virginia Symphony performance of the Capriccio. "He brings them to their limit in the most thrilling fashion." And "thrilling" is exactly what Friday night's performance was, with exceptional playing from everyone and a perfectly shaped interpretation from Mr. Robertson. It was an immensely pleasing way to end the evening and the current "Music You Know" series.
Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and vocal soloists in a concert version of Richard Wagner's opera Der Fliegende Holländer better known in English as The Flying Dutchman, with projected visuals by S. Katy Tucker. Performances are Thursday and Saturday, May 4 and 6, at 8 p.m. at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.
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.