It's always good to see a well-sung and expertly played production of Wagner's Ring cycle and the Lyric Opera of Chicago's mounting of Das Rheingold, which opens a four-season run through the entire thing, is certainly that. In addition, the libretto's focus on the cost of abusing power and personal trust feels very relevant in our current political environment.

A high-powered cast is led by bass-baritone Eric Owens, whose solid and voice and dramatic conviction give real gravitas to the role of Wotan, who wakes from his dream of power to learn that the giants Fasolt and Fafner have finished the construction of Valhalla. Bass-baritone Samuel Youn is also compelling as the dwarf Alberich. He's a complex character -- an unscrupulous bully but also wronged by the gods and less deluded than they about the cost of the Ring’s power -- and Mr. Youn gives him real nuance.

Tenor Štefan Margita is a wonderfully wily Loge, making the most of the character's dry, self-aware humor. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner gives impressive voice to Fricka's misgivings over her husband's infidelity and dubious bargains. And tenor Rodell Rosel makes a strong impression as the querulous dwarf Mime.

Soprano Laura Wilde as Freia, tenor Jesse Donner as Froh, and baritone Zachary Nelson as Donner round out the cast of gods very effectively. Soprano Diana Newman, mezzo Annie Rosen, and mezzo Lindsay Ammann perfectly captured the allure and cruelty of the Rheinmaidens. And mezzo Okka von der Damerau was appropriately ominous as Erda.

That said, I wish director David Pountney and his design team had taken the whole project a bit more seriously. They have elected to make all the mechanics visible, bunraku style, so that (for example) the Rheinmaidens in the first scene float around on massive metal platforms manipulated by visible stagehands.

It works well there and in the Nibelheim sequence, which looks fittingly hellish; less so for the giants Fasolt and Fafner, who are nothing but huge platforms with plastic heads and inflatable arms that flop around absurdly. Fafner's murder of Fasolt ought to be chilling, as it's the first evidence of the ring's curse. Here, as the stagehands toss around inflated arms and boots, it just looks goofy. So does having Wotan tear Alberich's arm off to get the ring. Giving the audience a cheap laugh at that point makes no dramatic sense.

Other moments of imposed comedy feel equally out of place. But the concluding entry of the gods into Valhalla retains all of its musical and visual power, with the orchestra's brass ringing out as the gods literally ascend towards their gleaming (if skeletal) home. I'm willing to forgive a lot for that. Besides, the orchestra under the sure hand of Sir Andrew Davis does very well by Wagner's score throughout the evening, and that's a huge plus.

In an interview at the Lyric Opera web site, Mr. Pountney says that his staging of the Ring operas will be “united by a single theatrical device. We keep trying to go back to an empty stage to show, in the end, that this is all just a stage, just a theater. However splendid the effects are, when we roll them up and whisk them away, we go back to an empty stage." I'm not convinced that kind of Brechtian distancing serves Wagner all that well. We'll see how it works for Die Walküre next year.

Performances continue through October 22 at Lyric Opera's home in the magnificent Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop. Information on Das Rheingold and the rest of the current season is available at their web site.

 

 

Choral music, particularly when performed by a superb chorus and enhanced by a top-notch orchestra and conductor, can be electrifying. The ocean of sound engulfs the audience, grabbing not only the auditory sense, but the intellect and even the visual sense.  For 76 seasons now, the Bach Society of St. Louis has been providing this experience to enthusiastic audiences in our region. The season opener on October 9, held at the First Presbyterian Church in Kirkwood, was no exception, providing a memorable performance of Mozart's Mass in C Minor, K. 427.

Conductor A. Dennis Sparger, in his 31st season with the Society, has provided solid, recognized leadership and a knowledge of the works performed that goes beyond the mere printed score; in addition to conducting, he writes the program notes for the programs and provides additional items of note from the stage.  

One of the challenges faced by directors of combined large ensembles is the need to achieve balance and blend. Both the chorus and orchestra maintained an elegant organic union throughout the performance, never overpowering each other. Under the direction of Sparger and Assistant Conductor Stephen Eros, the chorus sang as one voice, yet contrapuntal sections were clearly distinguishable and well executed.  

The first half of the program consisted of Beethoven's "Hallelujah" from The Mount of Olives, Op. 85; Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus"; "Hallelujah, Amen" from Handel's Judas Maccabeus; the "Laudamus Te" from Vivaldi's Gloria; "Wie will ich mich freusen" (How I Will Rejoice) by Bach; as well as a jewel just for orchestra, the famous "Air in G" by Bach, all conducted by Stephen Eros.  The second half of the program directed by A. Dennis Sparger, was devoted to the Mass in C Minor of Mozart, with his "Regina Coeli," K. 276 as a starter.

Eros brings a similar level of professionalism to the podium as does Sparger -- not always the case with guest conductors! Both men direct with confidence and boldness tempered by sensitivity to the music. Dynamic contrasts were noticeable and well prepared, imparting the same excitement to the hushed pianissimos as the reverberating fortissimo sections. Although tempos are often a matter of personal taste, the tempos selected by both conductors throughout the program seemed just right. It was good to hear the "Air in G" and the "Ave Verum Corpus" performed at tempos ever so slightly brisker than usual, thus adding greater definition and contour to the melodies and harmonic movement. Although the magnificent orchestra powered through the hall when necessary, it was still possible to hear violin soloist Susie Thierbach soaring above the orchestra as a single instrumental voice.  

Guest vocal soloists on the program were sopranos Juliet Pertus and Josefien Stoppenlenburg; tenor Steven Soph; and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. All are superb singers and well-matched for the tasks at hand. Very, very occasionally the female soloists were slightly overpowered in a few sections with heavy orchestral backgrounds, but the fluidity and nimbleness of their voices were never lost. Both Soph and Burton possess strong and resonant voices, yet were never lugubrious. Burton adds a strong foundation to any sort of ensemble; we heard to little of his magnificent voice (simply due to the needs of the repertoire), but we hope he will return to St. Louis soon for future performances.

The Mass in C Minor is a complex work, rather like a tapestry of countless strands woven together by Mozart. It is a work of reverence, drama and awe, yet it also carries an air of inner tension (perhaps foreshadowing Mozart's own questioning of faith and power in later life) and even of mystery. Only a genius could bring together such diverse qualities into a masterful whole. Those who are not immediately drawn to the music of Mozart may find that this enormous work provides much to ponder, and may come to see the composer (who wrote this piece while still in his twenties) in a different light. This is music that not only entertains, but challenges our brains as well.

The next performance by the Bach Society of St. Louis will be the Christmas Candlelight Concert held at Powell Hall on December 22.

 

Jolly Haydn and dramatic Beethoven were on tap this past weekend at Powell Hall, in a program made up mostly of music written around 1800.

The concerts opened, appropriately, with an overture -- specifically, the one Mozart wrote for Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), the 1791 Masonic-tinged singspiel that would prove to be his last completed work for the stage.  From the three solemn opening chords to the end of the sprightly and ingeniously constructed Allegro that follows, this is music with an optimism and drive that contrasts sharply with its creator's failing health and fortunes.  

Mr. Robertson gave those opening chords a kind of dramatic poignancy that reminded me of that contrast, then followed it up with an energetic and expertly shaped reading of the body of the overture. It was the kind of performance that lends credence to critic Jeff Counts' characterization of the piece as "the most rewarding six minutes in music," especially when played with such crystalline precision.

Up next was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. The work had its premiere at a mammoth 1803 concert that included his Symphony No. 2 and his oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. The orchestra was second rate and Beethoven hadn't finished writing out the piano part, playing it instead from memory as Gershwin did at the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue.  Subsequent performances were better received, and the concerto is now widely seen as the composer's first truly mature work for piano and orchestra.

The Beethoven revealed here is the dramatic and heaven-storming Beethoven of popular legend. The hushed expectation of the ascending string motif at the beginning soon gives way to high drama with the entrance of the soloist playing music which, as the movement progresses, pushes the capabilities of 1803 piano technology to its limits.  The lyrical second movement and energetic finale, with its unexpected fugal passages, are clearly the work of a composer fully in command of his idiom.

Soloist Yefim Bronfman, whose prodigious technique has impressed me in the past, delivered everything the score promises. He gave us all the fierce intensity of that first movement, culminating in a particularly dramatic cadenza, with its tranquil final trill leading to a strikingly impassioned coda.  

The second movement, which included some fine playing by Principal Flute Mark Sparks and Associate Principal Bassoon Andy Gott, sang as it should, and the final Rondo was completely engaging. In short, Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Robertson gave us a Beethoven third that bodes well for the rest of the complete cycle of Beethoven piano concerti that the SLSO is doing this season.

The second half of the program leapt ahead in time to 1997 with Viola, Viola by English composer George Benjamin (b. 1960). This intimate 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.  

It was fun to watch the impressive virtuoso interplay between the wife and husband team of Beth Guterman Chu (Principal Viola) and Jonathan Chu (Assistant Principal Viola) here, but the score itself struck me as a bit arid. I came away feeling that I had admired a neat bit of musical clockwork.

The concert concluded with a wonderfully good-humored romp through Haydn's Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major. First performed in 1795, it was written for the second of two highly successful London engagements in the 1790s. By then Haydn's audiences were increasingly drawn from the educated middle class rather than the aristocracy, and like any good showman, he knew what they wanted: novelty, invention, surprise and a healthy dollop of good humor.

"Haydn's 102nd, just like all of his London symphonies," wrote Tom Service in a 2013 article for The Guardian, "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." Mr. Robertson's performance honored that bond in both audible and visual ways. This was especially true in the finale, in which Haydn playfully throws snippets of the melody back and forth between sections like a game of musical tennis. Mr. Robertson followed those leaps with his head like a spectator at Wimbledon, to the obvious amusement of the audience. Purists might object to those sorts of hijinks, but I think Haydn would have loved it.

And all this was, in any case, in the service of a very knowing and idiomatic performance, with the usual high level of playing from the members of the band. I was very much taken with Principal Cello Danny Lee's work in the Adagio second movement as well as the flutes, oboes, and bassoons in the trio section of the comically off-center third movement Menuet.

Mr. Robertson clearly understands both Haydn's humor and inventiveness. I'd like to see him take on more of the composer's symphonies in the future.

Next at Powell: David Robertson conducts with violin soloist Leila Josefowicz on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., September 30 and October 1. The program consists of John Adams's Violin Concerto and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 also known as the Eroica.  

 

 

In his own words, contemporary composer John Adams describes his Violin Concerto, written in 1992, as an effort toward a renewed emphasis on melody -- "hypermelody" as he called it.  Adams did not clarify exactly what he meant by the term hypermelody, but it seems he meant it to refer to the effusiveness of the violin figurations that coast above the more muted orchestral underpinnings throughout the work. With Beethoven's Eroica on the second half of the program, the program seems to set up a relationship between heroic boldness and deep introspection. Conductor David Robertson led the St. Louis Symphony in performances of these works, with the phenomenal solo violinist Leila Josefowicz, who has made the Adams concerto her signature work. 

Adams is an enigmatic composer in many ways. He is prone to quoting other composers and has a penchant for dream-like titles that sometimes reference his own family members. It was not long ago that his opera The Death of Klinghoffer, dealing with the murder of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists on board an Italian cruise ship, triggered a storm of protest at the Metropolitan Opera, since it was perceived by many to favor the Palestinian cause over that of the Israelis. David Robertson conducted Klinghoffer at the Met and has been one of Adams' strongest champions. Adams' work has ranged from meditative minimalism to conventional (banal?) atonalism to innovative melodies and even to occasional touches of traditional harmonies and melodies. However, his Violin Concerto is surely one of his greatest works, building to a phenomenal climax at its close after rising on an ocean of movement in the earlier sections. Among American orchestras and music schools today he seems to hold an almost cult-like significance, but works such as this concerto are worthy of listeners' attention.

With both Canadian and American roots, Leila Josefowicz is one of the most prominent virtuosos onstage today. She plays with fervor, confidence and conviction. It takes a performer such as she to bring life to any contemporary work. She performed the challenging score from memory, demonstrating her total mastery of all its intricacies.  

This concerto is surely challenging to both orchestra and soloist. It requires a firm and confident conductor as well. Robertson clearly understood the work and remained unwavering, as we have grown to expect. There seemed to be some balance problems in the hall. Although Josefowicz has performed this work with eloquence and a deep lyricism, it was sometimes difficult to hear the voice of the violin against the orchestra, primarily in the opening movement. This gave the performance a bit of a rough edge, but it is important to bear in mind that concert halls sometimes offer poor acoustics, despite the best efforts of conductors and engineers.  

Both Adams and Beethoven provide evidence that politics can be risky business for composers. Like many in Europe, Beethoven initially admired Napoleon, seeing him as a savior of the citizens who were oppressed by the crushing weight of the nobility and monarchies. His Symphony No. 3 was dedicated to Napoleon. To Beethoven's horror, Napoleon went on to declare himself an emperor. In disgust, Beethoven ripped the dedication from his copy of the score, declaring, "So he is no more than a common mortal!" However, the symphony remains as one of his greatest works, and one of his most innovative. The grinding dissonant chord in the first movement and the ruminative funeral march have made the symphony famous, along with its soaring themes.

Although both the Adams concerto and the Eroica are characterized by boldness, there is also a great deal of quietness and reflection in both works. Boldness requires confidence and confidence is the product of self-examination. The SLSO captured the essence of both.

Sometimes when the Symphony prepares a particularly challenging contemporary work it becomes noticeable that the more traditional works in the program seem to get short shrift. That did not seem to be the case in this program. The orchestra performed as a unified whole with riveting accuracy. Although every section of the orchestra is magnificent, the horn section and the woodwind section were particularly electrifying in this performance. The audience, although not as large as one might have liked, responded with great enthusiasm to both halves of the concert. The heroes of this program were the performers themselves.

 

 

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?

 

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