Wind, rain, ice, fog, thunder, waves, light and shadow -- these were the elements woven together for the opening weekend presentation for the 2016-2017 season of the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall on September 16 and 17. But the human spirit was also well represented in the person of Charles Lindbergh -- who flew his historic flight across the Atlantic 90 years ago next May -- and Boulez' synthesis of a man and woman in dialogue with their combined shadow.

Kurt Weill (1900-1950) was one of many gifted composers forced to flee the cancer of Nazism in Europe. In 1929, while still residing in Germany, Weill collaborated with playwright Bertolt Brecht to pay homage to the monumental transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh. The two crafted a cantata for orchestra, chorus and male soloists, The Flight of Lindbergh, in which the thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams of an ambitious young man are mirrored. Tenor Clark Sturdevant sang the role of Lindbergh, assisted by bass-baritone Jeffrey Heyl and bass Mark Freeman. Sturdevant projects a strong, well-articulated masculine timbre that balanced perfectly with the orchestra and chorus. Likewise, Heyl and Freeman also turned in solid performances of the vocalized commentary embodied in the score. The SLSO shone strong as always. At this point in its history, the Chorus has acquired the polished sheen of experience; under the direction of Amy Kaiser they can always be counted upon to turn in a well-oiled, in-tune and sharply-honed performance. Again, balance between chorus and orchestra was excellent, admirably complementing the strong male soloists. And radio host Charles Brennan narrated the cantata, providing a spoken commentary reminiscent of announcers of Lindbergh's day.

Weill was a composer of broad range and adaptability. His hallmarks are catchy tunes and phrases that have a way of tweaking the ears of listeners. Yet despite the robust rhythms of this cantata and its energetic orchestration, there seemed to be few memorable melodies, which perhaps explains why the work has not been performed more often. However, the music packed a lot of spirit (pun intended) derived from Lindbergh's epic flight. In fact, the cantata beautifully evoked admiration of the very essence of the human spirit at its best, persevering and pursuing heroic achievement.

There is a sad irony in the fact that Weill, a Jew, and Bertolt Brecht, a free-thinker and opponent of Nazism, paid such tribute to the feat of Charles Lindbergh, whose own attitudes toward the Jews and Nazism were somewhat ambivalent. Lindbergh cannot be dismissed as a mere anti-Semite, since there is some evidence that he admired certain aspects of the Jewish culture and decried Nazi extremism, but the reverse is also true. In 1938 he even considered moving to Germany for the winter months, a rather ominous decision, although he was eventually talked out of the trip. To their credit, Brecht and Weill chose to focus on Lindbergh's bravery and devotion to his task rather than on his human failings.

Principal clarinetist Scott Andrews was the soloist on a work by the French avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez, Dialogue de l'ombre double (Dialogue of the Double Shadow), written in 1982-85 for solo clarinet and "live" electronics, so called because the electronic systems must dialogue with a live performance. Boulez' multi-movement work is based on the premise of a man and woman together whose combined shadow behaves as a single entity.

Like all truly great composers, Boulez expanded the capacity of his media. His unabated use of trills and tremolos for the clarinet in this work give the instrument a fluidity and bounce that we rarely associate with the sound of a woodwind. Andrews' consummate skill was put to a successful test as he dialogued with recordings of himself (as the double shadow), all skillfully monitored by sound technicians. Many audience members may have missed the fact that a microphone was also placed inside a grand piano onstage to catch the sympathetic vibrations of the strings to the sound of the clarinet, further enhancing the overall effect.

Although this work was superbly performed and engineered, and although it is a thoroughly accessible piece by a composer not known for the accessibility of his work, its bubbling originality seemed to wear off after the first several minutes of its 20-minute length. The concept of the piece is clever, yet runs a risk of petering out its originality; Boulez was clearly attempting to construct a representation of a fantastical dialogue, but the work could have benefited from more definition and variety of expression. 

The concert closed with Claude Debussy's monumental tone poem La Mer, a paean to the magnitude, depth, breadth and ever-changing character of the sea. Conductor David Robertson's talents displayed themselves as vividly as those of a captain of a ship on capricious waters as he guided the orchestra through a pictorial tribute of the might, and tenderness, of the open seas. Debussy was a master of orchestration--even when writing for a single instrument--and the orchestra seemed to come alive with the exhalations of his unquenchable imagination. This was a work truly worthy of an opening night.

Which brings us to a sad point, but one that should not be neglected. Opening weekend at the St. Louis Symphony should be a sold-out affair, but this one was far from that. There were simply too many rows of empty seats. We have to ask ourselves why. Boulez and even Kurt Weill were unable to grab the attention of the concert-going public. Is it because of our educational system and its marginalization of arts education? And if so, will more marching bands and more administrators and more money solve the problem? Contemporary composers do not seem to sway audiences as easily as their historical counterparts. Yes, all music was once new, but audiences seemed to connect more readily in the past than they do now. Performers and conductors who champion the cause of contemporary music must also accept the challenge of demonstrating its worth to a public that retains a high degree of skepticism. If we fail to accept this challenge, audiences will continue to dwindle. To blame the audience is a cop-out; listeners look to performers for insight and understanding. They also look to composers for inspiration and originality. Are they receiving it?

 

 

A vast chronological gulf separates three of the pieces on the St. Louis Symphony program for this Saturday and Sunday from the fourth. The works by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven all date from the final decade of the 18th century while the music that opens the second half of the program -- George Benjamin's Viola, Viola -- is from the final decade of the 20th. Yet they all, somehow, get lumped under the category of "classical music." SLSO program annotator René Spencer Saller rightly decries the term as an "annoying lower-case catch-all term for the sort of thing that symphony orchestras do" but goes on to offer us a sound reminder: "Benjamin might have been born 133 years after Beethoven's death, but he was still shaped by him. We all were. We all are." So maybe the "classical" label isn't entirely bogus.

The concerts open, appropriately, with an overture, specifically, the overture written for Die Zauberflöte -- better known in English as The Magic Flute -- which Mozart composed towards the end of his sadly brief life. (Mozart had only a few months to live when it premiered in September of 1791). Die Zauberflöte was intended not for an audience of nobles at court but rather for ordinary folks at a suburban theater closer in ambience to a tavern. A Singspiel with spoken dialog instead of recitatives and a text in German instead of the fashionable Italian, the work is the fantastic and somewhat incoherent tale of romance, magic and the triumph of love and reason over superstition.

Mozart was a Master Mason in the Zur neugekrönten Hoffnung lodge in Vienna (or "Newly Crowned Hope"), and both the overture and the opera are filled with Masonic musical references, including frequent uses of the number three in various combinations. One hears the use immediately in the three solemn chords that open the overture which quickly shifts gears to a sprightly and ingeniously constructed allegro. "Mozart treats us right away to fugue, transformation, delightful instrumental playfulness and an invigorating sense that something special is in store," writes Jeff Counts in program notes for the Utah Symphony. As Counts says, "This is the hopeful music of a man with plans for the future, not the last rites of someone who felt time slipping and assumed he had said enough. From this perspective, the Overture to The Magic Flute may well be the most rewarding six minutes in music." 

Up next is Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, a work which shows the composer in a role for which he is not, in my experience, always given enough credit: that of an "early adopter" of technology.

The technology in question is that of the piano. At the time Beethoven was writing the C minor concerto around 1800 -- although he had ideas for it a few years earlier -- major technological advances were being made in the design and construction of the instrument. It was becoming bigger and heavier, the sound was getting more robust and the range of notes wider. When Beethoven began composing in the 1780s, the piano (then called the fortepiano) was basically an amped-up harpsichord with strings that were struck instead of plucked and a range of around four or five octaves. By the time he died in 1827, the piano had evolved into something closely resembling the contemporary concert grand, with a range of nearly eight octaves and the ability to produce the kind of thunderous climaxes that (for example) Fanz Liszt loved so much.

A major player in this technological revolution was the English firm of John Broadwood and Sons. As part of their marketing campaign, they sent their new pianos to Haydn and Beethoven, with the result that Beethoven made use of the expanded range of notes for his new concerto. "As originally composed," writes Ms. Saller, "his Third Concerto requires the soloist to play a high G, which is believed to be the earliest instance of that particular note in the piano repertory. In 1804, after trying out a new expanded keyboard design, Beethoven extended the range to include the C that sits over the fifth ledger line above the treble staff. Even though going higher and higher meant that his concerto could be played only on new, state-of-the-art pianos, Beethoven wanted his concerto to reflect these technological advancements."

Beethoven's technological innovations will be played this weekend by Yefim Bronfman, a celebrated performer whose "volcanic pianism" so impressed me when he performed the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 five years ago. He has the chops to deliver the big dramatic moments along with the musical sensitivity required for the largo second movement, with its improvisatory feel.

After these late 18th century masterpieces, the second half of the program opens with the local premiere of Viola, Viola. Written in 1997 by English composer George Benjamin (b. 1960), this intimate little piece for two violas is the product of a composer who, like Beethoven, continually revises and reworks his pieces until he's sure they're just right. Over the course of its ten minutes, the instruments converse, argue and finally combine so seamlessly that it can be hard to tell them apart. Keeping with the intimacy of the piece, the soloists will be the wife-and-husband team of Beth Guterman Chu (Principal Viola) and Jonathan Chu (Assistant Principal Viola).

The concerts end with Haydn's Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major. It was part of a dozen symphonies (the last ones he wrote, in fact) that Haydn composed for a pair of trips to London in the last decade of the 18th century. Those trips were highly successful, both in terms of critical reception and income. This piece -- No. 102 -- was written for the second sojourn, by which time Haydn had a pretty good idea of what his audiences wanted.

Those audiences were no longer what they were a few decades earlier. What we'd now call "classical concerts" had become public events, not private affairs for the nobility. Attendees were increasingly educated and middle-class. Trinity College's Tom Service writes in his analysis of the 102nd symphony of how carefully Hayden was able to build this new public: "He knew how much this middle-class audience of concert-goers...understood and appreciated his invention, his games of expectation and surprise, his effortless manipulation of genre, affect, and expressivity. And he knew he could push them and himself even further when he came back, when his celebrity and status were even greater than before. That means these symphonies are, in effect, palimpsests of listening, pieces composed with their effectiveness for a musically literate audience in mind."

And so we get a symphony that's filled with surprises, invention and the composer's trademark wit. "Haydn's 102nd, just like all of his London symphonies," writes Mr. Service, "consecrates a moment in symphonic history when this composer and his listeners were in excellent, mutually appreciative accord, a bond that's renewed every time this symphony is played or listened to today."

Listeners can renew that bond this weekend at Powell Hall on Saturday at 8 p.m. or Sunday at 3 p.m. The Saturday evening concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio, but as always I recommend hearing it live.

 

The sixth annual Gesher Music Festival, "American Dreams," a program of the Jewish Community Center, recently wrapped up 11 days of celebrating Jewish musical artists. A variety of events were held to meet artists, and variety performances were created that included the "Route 66 Playlist" concert, "Welcome to America," and concluded with "The Great (Jewish) American Songbook."

Songbook was created to explore contributions of Jewish composers and lyricists to musical theatre, popular music, and more serious classical compositions.

A portion of the nearly two-hour program was a mélange of very well-known musical theatre and film numbers that included "Get Happy" (by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, perhaps most associated with Judy Garland's take in the film Summer Stock), "Whatever Lola Wants" (by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross for Damn Yankees), "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (by Jerome Kern and lyricist Otto Harbach for their 1933 musical Roberta), "Somewhere" (Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for West Side Story), and "Something Wonderful" (Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein for The King and I). Mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae did the honors on all the theatrical songs, ably accompanied by Daniel Pesca on the piano. Her voice, without amplification, easily filled the Wool Studio Theatre.

Other selections in the program highlighted the fact that some Jewish composers may have made their names with musical theatre work, but they were wont also to create less known, more classical compositions. Examples of these works were chosen that included George Gershwin's "Lullaby," and Kurt Weill's "String Quartet No. 1, Op. 8." Doing justice to these selections was a quartet that included J. Freivogel and Karen Kim on violins, Dominic Johnson on the viola, and Sara Sitzer (also founding Artistic Director of the Gesher Festival) on cello. A final classical selection was Leonard Bernstein's 1942 "Sonata for Clarinet and Piano," featuring Dana Hotle on the clarinet and Daniel Pesca on the piano.

Songbook was entertaining and enlightening, highlighting the invaluable contributions of Jewish composers to "The Great (Jewish) American Songbook."

 

 

The Cardinals may be out of town battling the Reds in Cincinnati this weekend, but nevertheless the St. Louis Symphony has a double header of its own for you, with one program on Friday night and a completely different one on Saturday and Sunday.  

For now, let's talk about Friday. It's the first of the four "Music You Know" concerts spaced out during the new season. Sponsored by the Whitaker Foundation, "Music You Know" is a series devoted to relatively short works which will be familiar to SLSO regulars and very user-friendly to newcomers.

For this first concert, the focus (with one big exception) on the greatest hits of the 17th and 18th centuries, with easy-on-the-ears favorites by Pachelbel, Boccherini, and Mozart.  

Pachelbel's famous Canon in D, with its increasingly elaborate variations unfolding over a simple tune in the bass line, surely needs no introduction. Nor does the charming "Minuet" movement from Boccherini's String Quintet, Op. 11, No. 5. The entire quintet is pretty fine stuff, for that matter, but that third movement has eclipsed the other three in popularity.

Mozart is represented by two works: the very familiar Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the somewhat less celebrated Bassoon Concerto, K. 191, from 1774.  The latter presented significant technical challenges for the relatively primitive bassoons available back then, but Friday's soloist -- Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo -- is likely to navigate them with ease. The concerto is also distinguished by a lyrical second movement which, to quote American Classical Orchestra founder Thomas Crawford, "would only have been known in ore or two examples from mature Haydn." Coming from a 21-year-old who was writing his first solo wind concerto, it's remarkable.

An interesting side note on Eine Kleine Nachtmusik: over the years the title has commonly been translated as "A Little Night Music." To Mozart's German-speaking contemporaries, though, it would have meant "a little serenade" -- not a specific title, but simply a generic description. Mozart never gave it a title of its own and apparently didn't give it much thought. It's not clear when it was first performed and it wasn't even published until well after his death in 1827. One wonders what Mozart would have made of its enduring popularity.

Scored for an ensemble of two violins, viola, cello and optional double bass, Mozart's little serenade is now more commonly heard in an expanded version for string orchestra. That should make it a nice showpiece for the SLSO strings. For the true lover of orchestral strings, however, the gem on this weekend's program will likely be the closing work, Vaughan Williams's 1910 Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

This lush, rhapsodic meditation a on a 16th century psalm tune conjures up images of the lofty, echoing cathedrals of a bygone age, transforming the modest and mysterious original into an ecstatic celebration of sheer sound. Written for two string ensembles and a solo string quartet, the Tallis Fantasia can only be fully appreciated in a live performance. You can distinguish the separate groups sonically in a recording, but to truly understand Vaughan Williams's ingenious reworking of the multiple chorus techniques of the Renaissance (with their reliance on spatial separation), you need to be able to see the interaction among the three groups. 

If you're looking for this kind of immersion, there's only one performance of this "Music You Know" program, this coming Friday, September 23

 

The decade spanning the turn of the 20th century was a veritable decennium mirabilia, or "decade of wonders," for Puccini. In these years Puccini wrote three of the world's top five all-time favorite operas: La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madama Butterfly (1904)--all wonderful, but each quite distinct. La bohème was based on a collection of stories some fifty years old; Tosca drew from a play just thirteen years old; Butterfly came from a play only four years old and more representative of the new trend in realism. La bohème is nostalgic and romantic--Mimi and her friends are the original "poor people of Paris." Butterfly is filled with delicate oriental exoticism and gentle pathos. Tosca, on the other hand, is sheer nineteenth-century heroic melodrama. The libretto is based on a play by Vitorien Sardou, one of the most prolific and successful continental playwrights of his era, who (with Eugène Scribe) epitomized what was then called "the well-made play." These plays were heavily plot-driven and showed little interest in subtlety or depth of character. G. B. Shaw, who championed more modern drama, dismissed such "well-made" plays as "sardoodledom."

Well, Tosca is a classic melodrama, by which I mean a play driven by an evil villain. Many melodramas end with justice triumphant, but Tosca is a tragic melodrama, which means that everyone ends up dead--both the virtuous and the vile.

Puccini set his story in (precisely) 1800, when Italy was being tossed between Napoleon and the Austrian empire. It presents the conflicting forces of tyranny and the libertarian, egalitarian rebels who were inspired by the French Revolution. The Union Avenue production, under the skilled direction of John Truitt, transposes the story to sometime in the 1930's. This places the modern audience in a more accessible political framework: Fascism versus free democracy. It works well, though the Fascism is, one must admit, a bit heavy-handed.

Angelotti, an escaped political prisoner, seeks sanctuary in a church where his friend Cavaradossi is painting a portrait of Mary Magdalene. The painter offers his friend a hiding place on his villa. Floria Tosca, the painter's mistress, arrives. She's a famous opera singer and she succumbs to pangs of jealousy when she sees that the painting of the Magdalene looks not like her, but like some other woman. The ensuing plot involves the wicked chief of police, Baron Scarpia, and his effort to capture Angelotti. Now Scarpia is a villain as pitch-black as Iago and after various complications Scarpia has both Cavaradossi and Tosca in his hands. Will Tosca yield to Scarpia's lust for her in order to save Cavaradossi's life? Well, you just buy a ticket!

On stage the audience sees the stunningly beautiful interior of a church in Rome. When the orchestra strikes those first ominous bold, brassy modern-sounding chords we know we're in for something special.

Elena O'Connor sings the role of Tosca. She is a strikingly lovely, tall graceful woman, with an astonishingly powerful voice. In the memorable "Vissi d'arte" aria, where Tosca in anguish sings of her piety, she echoes the suffering of Job--and even Christ's words from the cross. Ms. O'Connor delivers this aria with a conquering power and clarity that makes it one of the most memorable moments of the evening.

Matthew Edwardsen sings a superb Cavaradossi, vocally strong and true. One most striking moment is when news comes that Napoleon (the good guy) has won a critical battle; Edwardsen pours out a cry of "VITTORIA! VITTORIA!" with an almost sky-shattering triumph. He is also a handsome, gifted actor and his passion is utterly convincing.

Neil Nelson makes Baron Scarpia the epitome of evil. Over and above his rich full baritone, he gives Scarpia intelligence and supreme confidence. His pledge of evil over the soft strains of the "Te Deum" is chilling in its irony.

Wayne Hu is particularly strong as Angelotti, the fleeing prisoner; Marc Schapman, Kurtis Shoemake and Randall McGee do fine work as police agents and a jailer. Mark Freiman gives a vocally strong Sacristan and fills him with wry comedy.

At the opening of Act 3, we hear a shepherd song that is so lovely I thought it must surely be coming from heaven--beautiful work by Katherine Menke.

Puccini's score for Tosca is more like a film score than are others of his works. It is more "through-written" and more programmatic--with musical phrases supporting very specific stage business. It's like the best film score ever--but for a highly melodramatic B-movie. The music is filled with Puccini's characteristic lyrical beauty and it wondrously supports the joys and fears of the characters, but there are only a few arias with deeply memorable melodies: Tosca's "Vissi d'arte," for example, and Cavaradossi's utterly gorgeous and melancholy "E lucevan le stelle"--so full of tender erotic memories.

Conductor Stephen Hargreaves draws consistently excellent work from his singers and orchestra.

But the story of Tosca is sheer, bald melodrama--a style long out of fashion. Scarpia doesn't actually tie Tosca to a railroad track but the effect is the same when he forces her to weigh her honor against her lover's life as Cavaradossi screams under torture off-stage. It is this melodrama which prevents us from bonding our hearts to these characters as we so readily do with Mimi and Butterfly.

The talented Kyra Bishop designed the remarkably fine set with excellent assistance from charge artist Cameron Tesson. The church has towering pillars and walls full of framed segments of a gorgeous sky-scape. And we find that this large set is wonderfully convertible: it changes into an excellent Palazzo Farnese, and then to a very convincing prison in the Castel Sant'Angelo. Costumes by Teresa Dogget exhibit her usual perfection in design and construction.

My one quarrel with the visuals of this production is with the new painting of Mary Magdalene. It is totally out of harmony with every other aspect of this Baroque church. Its style might be Fauvist or Expressionist, and the lady portrayed would certainly not inspire anyone to exclaim (as Tosca does), "She is too beautiful!"

Lighting designer Jeff Behm does beautiful work underscoring the high melodrama taking place. For example, as our hero is being tortured by the Fascists off-stage we are startled by the sudden dimming of the lights--like in all of those old death-row movies of the forties.

Union Avenue Opera's splendid production of Puccini's Tosca runs through August 6.

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