Verdi's opera is every bit as dark and bloody as Shakespeare's drama on which it was based. It is true to the original play in most details of plot and character, yet it differs in significant ways -- ways that express the different political worlds from which the two works sprang. Verdi first addressed Shakespeare's "Scottish play" with an opera that premiered in 1847. After eighteen years he revised it -- the new version opening in 1865. In that eighteen years Italy had became a nation.

For hundreds of years Italy had been merely an assortment of city-states, duchies, dogeries, Papal States and areas ruled by foreign "great powers" -- from Norman and Spanish kings in the south to, more recently, the Habsburg Austrian Empire and Napoleonic France. There was barely even a common language. The great Austrian diplomat Metternich called Italy "nothing more than a geographic expression." But starting around 1815 (when Verdi was two years old) Italy experienced the Risorgimento -- it's great struggle for independence and unification. This ended in a single independent state under King Victor Emmanuel. Verdi was in the middle of this fight. He was already famous when his first Macbeth appeared (one year before Italy's first war of independence). The revised Macbeth opened one year before the third war of independence. During those eighteen years, Verdi's operas became synonymous with the cause of an Italian nation. His very name became a kind of popular acronymic battle cry: "Viva VERDI" or "Viva Vittorio Emanuele, Re D'Italia!"

So it is not surprising that in Verdi's Macbeth we find much more presence of the Scottish people than in Shakespeare. In Shakespeare Macbeth's usurpation of the crown is an outrage against the nobles; in Verdi it is an outrage against the people. Hence we find that Verdi's opera emphasizes the chorus; yes, there are gorgeous arias, but it is the choral work that most distinguishes this opera.

And in this OTSL production the chorus does glorious work! Now one striking invention of Verdi (and Piave, his librettist) is the efflorescence of the witches from three to eighteen! Thus we get another chorus. Verdi does, at one point, give this female chorus a curiously bright and bouncy number that evokes all of those choruses of maidens in Gilbert and Sullivan -- but I suppose he could stomach only just so much gloom and doom. And there seem to be sixteen or so murderers ready to kill the Macduffs. Be that as it may, chorus master Robert Ainsley draws superb work from his choristers, both witches and Scots: perfect synchrony, wonderfully distinct and controlled dynamics and beautiful diction, and true choral glory at the end.

The principals are all splendid, most especially those playing the colossally cursed couple who crave the crown. The folks at OTSL have planned for forty years to do this opera but as general director Timothy O’Leary put it, Stephen Lord -- music director and the conductor of the production -- had always wanted to wait for "the right baritone" to play Macbeth. Well, in Roland Wood he has most assuredly found him. His voice is powerful and pure -- a very dramatic dramatic baritone indeed. His voice simply commands the hall. He is well matched by Julie Makerov as Lady Macbeth. Such power and drama in her voice! Those stunning high notes soar toward the heavens as if to shake loose the tragedy waiting for her there. In those grand choral numbers we hear Miss Makerov's voice shining like a bright lodestar above the chorus. She tells her troubled lord, "I will provide all the strength you need!" Indeed!

These two are powerfully persuasive actors. They beautifully convey the intense ambition, the fear, the panic in this nightmare world they inhabit. And all the blood and tension trigger an erotic magnetism between the two -- as if on some great cosmic piano they strike a shattering chord of blood, only to evoke the sympathetic reverberation of some dark erotic chord below.

Bass Robert Pomakov does impressive work as Banquo. His aria of dark premonition is most moving, and he makes a fearsome and stony ghost -- his shaved head the perfect canvas for all that blood. Tenor Matthew Plenk sings a very strong Macduff. His anguished grief over the deaths of his family will break your heart. And Evan LeRoy Johnson is bright and heroic as Malcolm, the ultimate and rightful king.

The design team serves this opera exquisitely. Set designer Alex Eales gives us a simple vast rear wall with coffered panels, perhaps reminiscent of the dome of the Pantheon. This wall opens or closes with the smooth ease of a camera iris to enlarge or shrink the acting space. Costumer Mark Bouman clothes his characters properly and beautifully in ancient Scottish attire.

Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind creates a dark world for this dark, dark tale. A great troubled gray sky broods over it all and subtle auras of illumination keep the principals visible. The black-robed witches of this coven drift like wraiths through the gloom.

Stage director Lee Blakely does wonderful work -- from the overall visual concept to the very detailed elements of movement and business that carefully support the music, such as the gradual arrival of the witches, their almost magical dispersal, the solitary abandoned figure against a glow. There is much use of long rough branches: When the witches carry them they subtly evoke broom-sticks; when Malcolm's army wields them they become Birnam Wood. And the parade of Banquo's eight descendant kings in Act 3 is strange and disturbing: the witches draw from their caldron, one after another, small gray bundles -- like mummified infants -- and present them for Macbeth. At appropriate moments throughout, there is alarming thunder and lighting. (The world is in turmoil!) It is some of the most beautifully dramatic staging I've seen in a long time.

My congratulations to all involved. Verdi's Macbeth at Opera Theatre of St. Louis is a production not to be missed. It continues through June 26 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.

For information on other operas in the season, see the preview article "Tales of love, death, and laughter in Opera Theatre's 2016 season" by Chuck Lavazzi.

 

By the time Puccini and his librettists got around to translating Henri Murger’s episodic 1849 novel Scènes De La Vie Bohème into the 1896 opera La Bohème, it had already enjoyed a considerable European vogue, so it’s not surprising that La Bohème has gone on to become a favorite of opera companies around the world. That includes Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which has presented it five times since 1978.

For its sixth run at this classic tearjerker, OTSL has assembled a fine cast, with particularly strong performers in the supporting roles. Combine that with generally very smart direction and superb orchestral playing and the result is a very gratifying production which, despite a few missteps, serves both Puccini and his librettists very well.

For those of you who have somehow missed being exposed to this tale of starving artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris, here's a quick summary. On Christmas Eve, the poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, the philosopher Colline, and the musician Schaunard are young, creative, broke, and preparing to burn some of their work to heat their squalid Parisian apartment when the equally poverty-stricken seamstress Mimi comes knocking. Before the first act is over, she and Rodolfo are smitten. The opera chronicles the highs and tragic lows of both their relationship and that of Marcello and the singer Musetta. Mimi dies, Musetta doesn't, and nobody lives happily ever after.

Bass-baritone Bradley Smoak and baritone Sean Michael Plumb turn in two of the strongest performances as Colline and Schaunard, respectively. A regular on the OTSL stage, Mr. Smoak once again displays the ideal combination of vocal power and theatrical prowess that made him a welcome addition to (among others) the company's Pirates of Penzance in 2013 and Don Giovanni in 2011. Mr. Plumb, in his OTSL debut, proves to be a skilled actor with a fine sense of comedy and an accurate, robust voice.

Also making his company debut is baritone Anthony Clark Evans as Marcello, who can't decide whether he's less happy with Musetta or without her. His battle and reconciliation with her in the big Café Momus scene of Act II was a highlight of the evening.

Speaking of Our Lady of the Relaxed Virtue, soprano Lauren Michelle (yet another newcomer to the OTSL stage) gives Musetta a bit more of a comic edge than I have seen in other productions. It makes her great fun to watch, even if it makes Marcello's obsession with her a bit less credible, but she sings up a storm in the famed "Musetta's Waltz" sequence and makes the character's compassion for Mimi in the last act very moving.

As Rodolfo, Andrew Haji (a late replacement for the originally scheduled Anthony Kalil), displays a smooth and appealing tenor voice which is not, unfortunately, quite as powerful as that of his fellow cast members, so he tends to get a bit swamped in ensemble numbers. He also is a bit overpowered by his Mimi, Hae Ji Chang, who has the kind of big, rich soprano required for this "full lyric" role. They're fine singers, but neither seemed to be fully invested in their characters, resulting in performances that felt a bit one-dimensional to me.

Even so, Mimi's death scene, which OTSL General Director Tim O'Leary calls "one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of opera," manages to generate the right amount of pathos, so on the whole I can't really complain.

Bass-baritone Thomas Hammons, whose cameo in Tabarro was so moving back in 2013, shows solid comic chops as the befuddled landlord Benoit and Musetta's equally confused sugar daddy Alcindoro.

Director Ron Daniels, Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez, and Costume Designer Emily Rebholz have moved the action from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, using silent film clips and non-singing actors (including a pair of Charlie Chaplin imitators on roller skates and stage veteran Joneal Joplin as Santa Claus) to set the tone between acts. This makes a certain dramatic sense, in that Paris in the 1920s probably has the same kind of nostalgic feel for the modern audience that the mid-1900s Paris would have had for Puccini's audience at the end of that century.

Mr. Daniels's direction is, in any case, fluid and creates interesting visuals, even if he does have the crowd at the beginning of Act II mill around the stage in circles for a bit too long. He has also found more humor in the opera than I have sometimes seen in the past, especially in the opening scene with Rodolfo and his flat mates.

Conductor Emanuele Andrizzi is making his OTSL debut, and it's an auspicious one. His tempi are well chosen, his vocal/orchestral balances are good, and he keeps everything running smoothly. That includes the complex Café Momus scene, with both adult and children's choruses and even an offstage marching band parading through the house. The orchestra plays beautifully, with a big, rich sound that does Puccini proud.

Finally, I'd like to offer praise for the excellent rhyming English libretto by Richard Pearlman and Francis Rizzo. Too often, translators make little or no attempt to duplicate the scansion and rhyme schemes of the original material. It's nice to see it done so well here.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis's La Bohème may not be perfect, but it's awfully good and gets the company's fourty-first season off to a gratifying start. It runs through June 25 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. Tickets available online or by phone at 314-961-0644.

 

The St. Louis Symphony brought its regular season to a spectacular close this weekend (May 6-8, 2016) with Maestro David Robertson leading a simply excellent performance of Holst's The Planets, preceded by an equally impressive Vaughan Williams Flos campi (featuring Associate Principal Viola Kathleen Mattis) and a powerfully neurasthenic Berg Altenberg Lieder with soprano Christine Brewer.

Holst was a relatively obscure composer teaching at the St. Paul's School for Girls in Hammersmith when his suite The Planets, composed between 1914 and 1916, had its first public performance under Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic in 1918. The piece was an immediate success -- which was not, as it turned out, a welcome development for the rather shy and retiring composer. Indeed, like many composers who became known for a single piece, Holst eventually came to actively dislike his Greatest Hit, feeling that it overshadowed his other work.

He had a point. Holst's many choral arrangements, as well as his music for wind band, chamber orchestra, and symphony orchestra, are well worth hearing (his Fugal Overture and Japanese Suite are favorites of mine) so it's a shame that The Planets is pretty much the only thing that ever makes it on to concert programs. But it's so engaging that it's easy to understand the appeal.

Holst was a mystic and astrologer who cast horoscopes for himself and his friends, so his planets aren't so much astronomical bodies as they are aspects of the human psyche supposedly influenced by those bodies. Each one of the seven movements is a mini tone poem capturing, for example, mindless aggression ("Mars, the Bringer of War"), good-humored warmth ("Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity"), comic pomposity ("Uranus, the Magician"), or even the rage against the dying of the light and ultimate serenity that come with aging ("Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age").

Those portraits are brilliant exercises in orchestration. Holst calls for a massive ensemble, including harps, celesta, organ, and rarely heard instruments like the bass oboe (its mournful sound used most tellingly in "Saturn", beautifully played by Phil Ross). When the full forces of the SLSO were deployed in playing that score -- as in the relentless 5/4 death march of "Mars", with its angry fanfares that go nowhere -- the sound was as overwhelming as it was precise.

But it was in the individual solos that you could hear the real strength of this band. That included Tim Myers on tenor tuba in "Mars," harpists Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout and keyboard player Peter Henderson on celesta in "Mercury," and Roger Kaza and the other horns in "Venus, the Bringer of Peace" -- which also featured Concertmaster David Halen, Principal Cello Danny Lee, and Mark Sparks's flute section. Karin Bliznik's trumpets were wonderfully clear in "Jupiter" and Andrew Cuneo's bassoons had great comic bite in "Uranus," a movement which seems to owe a little something to Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice. There were many others as well, but you get the idea -- we have a great bunch of musicians here.

Mr. Robertson conducted a beautifully shaped performance the brought out all the nuances of the score while still respecting the big, climactic moments. His "Mars" was hair raising, his "Venus" was sheer serenity, and the relentless tread of the passing years in "Saturn" was heartbreaking.

Most remarkable of all, though, was his treatment of the final movement, "Neptune, the Mystic." The score calls for a wordless women's chorus "to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed." The final bar of the music, for voices alone, is "to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance." Mr. Robertson's approach was to put the women of the SLSO chorus in the halls outside of the dress circle so that, at least from our seats in the orchestra parquet, their voices seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. The final fade-out was so subtly done that it was almost impossible to be sure that the piece had really ended; surely those two chords were still being sung somewhere? Leonard Slatkin and Courtney Lewis did something similar when they conducted The Planets here in 2013, to equally magical effect.

The concerts opened with a far less familiar work by Holst's friend and fellow composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Written in 1925, Flos campi [Flower of the Field] is a remarkably beautiful piece written for the unusual combination of viola and mixed chorus along with the orchestra. Cast in six movements and played without pause, it's a series of reflections on texts from one of the most openly sensual bits of the Bible, the Song of Solomon. The texts for each movement are printed in the score and, for these performances, were projected on a screen above the orchestra.

By turns poetic, sensuous, pastoral, and even cinematic, it's quirky stuff. The writing is often very contrapuntal but at the same time completely transparent, so the effect is one of lyrical beauty -- all of which came through clearly in this performance. Kathleen Mattis delivered the solo viola part with real passion, including the arrhythmic, bitonal opening duet with Jelena Dirks's oboe. Mr. Robertson conducted with great sensitivity and the chorus sang their often complex part to perfection. You couldn't have asked for a more blissful opening number.

That made for a very effective contrast with the music that followed. Alban Berg's Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtskarten-Texten von Peter Altenberg [Five Orchestral Songs to Picture-Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg], Op. 4 (aka the Altenberg Lieder) were written around the same time as The Planets, but are as far away from Holst's picturesque mysticism as it's possible to get. The five short songs (one is only a page long) use as their texts elliptical and eccentric poems of Peter Altenberg (real name: Richard Engländer), who sent them to friends on picture postcards -- hence the title of this work.

Berg set these elusively bleak poems to intense and unsettling music scored for a large orchestra -- around 100 players -- that is generally deployed in small groups, so the sound overall is one of chamber music-like delicacy. That means that individual performers and sections are often very exposed and that there's no room for anything less than very polished and sensitive playing -- which is exactly what we got on Friday night. For her part, soprano soloist Christine Brewer sang and acted Berg's songs with real conviction, combining her customary technical prowess with a real commitment to the text.

A final note: on Friday night, Mr. Robertson took a few moments at the top of the second half to say farewell to second violinist Deborah Bloom, who is retiring after 42 years with the orchestra. He praised both her musicianship and her dedication to the orchestra's community partnership program with local schools -- an essential aspect of the orchestra's mission, if we hope to keep the classics alive. I thought it was a gracious gesture, and a reminder of why Mr. Robertson has such a good relationship with the musicians.

The final presentation of this concert on Sunday, May 8 concluded the regular season, but the orchestra will be presenting a number of "special event" concerts in May and June. For more information, visit the orchestra website. [http://stlsymphony.org]

 

Summer is almost upon us, which means it's time for picnics on the lawn, champagne receptions, and great musical theatre in Webster Groves. It is, in short, time for Opera Theatre's annual four-show season.

Travel plans will make it impossible for me to provide my usual detailed preview of each opera, so instead here's a quick look at what you can expect on the stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus starting on Saturday, May 21, and running through June 26.

But first, some basics. For four decades now, Opera Theatre has been presenting four operas in rotating repertory every summer. All operas are sung in English with projected English text, so you won't miss a single word. The orchestra is made up of local musicians, mostly from the St. Louis Symphony, and the cast members are drawn from all over the world. Critics come from all over the world as well, making the annual OTSL season a truly international event.

For the full Opera Theatre experience, come early and have a picnic supper and some wine at one of the many tables set up on the Loretto-Hilton Center's lawn or under one of the concession tents. You can bring your own food and drink or buy boxed dinners from Ces and Judy's catering. Come on opening nights and get an added bonus: a champagne and dessert reception after the show with the cast and crew under the main concession tent.

The season opens on Saturday, May 21, with a recurring favorite: Puccini's La Bohème. Directed by Ron Daniels and conducted by Emanuele Andrizzi, this will be the sixth production of the opera by OTSL. It stars Canadian tenor Andrew Haji as Rudolfo, Kentucky-born baritone Anthony Clark Evans as Marcello, soprano and BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition winner Lauren Michelle as Musetta, and soprano Hae Ji Chang as Mimi.

The Story: Although copies of Henri Murger's 1851 short story collection Scènes De La Vie Bohème are no longer the common sight on bookshelves that they once were, the principal characters have never fallen out of favor. Originally published in a Paris literary magazine, the stories of young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s inspired, among other things, one play, two operas, and most recently, the wildly successful rock musical Rent

It's Puccini's 1896 opera, however, that should probably get most of the credit for embedding the image of the starving artist in a Paris atelier into Western consciousness. The poet Rudolfo, the painter Marcello, and their various young, creative, and broke friends are down on their luck and preparing to burn some of their work to heat their squalid Parisian apartment when the equally poverty-stricken seamstress Mimi comes knocking. Before the first act is over, she and Rudolfo are smitten. The opera chronicles the highs and tragic lows of both their relationship and that of Marcello and the singer Musetta, Our Lady of the Relaxed Virtue.

Highlights: The long, ecstatic love scene between Rudolfo and Mimi at the end of Act I never fails to generate applause, as does the Act II scene at Café Momus, featuring Musetta's famous waltz tune, "Quando m'en vo'" ("When I go along"). And Mimi's death scene at the end of the fourth act can always be counted up on for jerking tears. Director Daniels promises a fresh and breathtaking approach to this old favorite. I look forward to seeing what that means.

Saturday, May 28, brings the local premiere of Verdi's Macbeth. Directed by Lee Blakeley and conducted by OTSL Music Director Stephen Lord, the production stars English baritone Roland Wood in the title role, along with soprano Julie Makerov, last seen here as the homicidal Queen of Hearts in Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland in 2012, as the even more homicidal Lady Macbeth.

The Story: Francesco Maria Piave's libretto sticks fairly close to Shakespeare's original, although there are some inevitable expansions for the opera stage. The three witches, for example, have been turned into an entire cackling chorus. The opera currently exists in two different versions: the 1847 original and an 1865 revision prepared for the Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris. That latter version has been the more popular of the two and it's the one OTSL is using.

In an article for Opera Today, Harvard's Daniel Albright says this later version is "more spacious, sprawling, operatic" and goes on to detail why:

The Parisian ballet-pantomime for Hecate offers a glimpse at fate's control mechanisms; the new chorus for the Scottish refugees has a greater emotional amplitude; and Lady Macbeth's La luce langue is one of Verdi's great arias, a show-stopper. If mixed-mode dramaturgy, opportunities for histrionic display, are Shakespearean, then 1865 is more Shakespearean than its predecessor. 

No matter which version is used, though, this is a dramatic and fast-moving work that keeps the express-train pace of Shakespeare's original intact.

Highlights: I love Act I's Witches' Chorus, as well as Lady Macbeth's famous "letter" scene and the Act II drinking scene, interrupted by the appearance of Banquo's ghost. General Director Timothy O'Leary says we should expect "incredible vocal fireworks." And lots of blood.

On Sunday, June 5, at 7 p.m. OTSL brings us the opening performance of Richard Strauss's seriocomic Ariadne on Naxos, directed by the company's long-time choreographer Seán Curran with music direction by Rory Macdonald. The cast features globetrotting soprano Marjorie Owens as Ariadne, tenor AJ Glueckert (who has garnered praise for his ringing high notes) as Bacchus, South Korean soprano So Young Park as Zerbinetta, and Cecelia Hall as The Composer.

Yes, there is a role for The Composer. Allow me to explain.

The Story: As the comic Prologue informs us, the "richest man in Vienna" has engaged both a production of the tragic opera Ariadne on Naxos and a commedia dell'arte troupe as after-dinner entertainment for his guests. To save time, he decrees that both shows must take place simultaneously. The performers can work out the details. The resulting conflicts between the opera company's Composer (a "pants" role), Music Master, Prima Donna, and Tenor on one side and Zerbinetta and her group of buffoons on the other generate plenty of laughs, most of them at the expense of the self-important composer and his egotistical leading lady.

After intermission, we see the hybrid opera within an opera set up in the Prologue. Abandoned on Naxos, Ariadne (with the help of three nymphs) yearns for death, but her lamentations are repeatedly interrupted by Zerbinetta and company, who are determined to cheer her up. Drama eventually wins out, however, when Bacchus arrives, declares his love, and joins Ariadne in a long, rapturous love duet.

The odd structure of Ariadne on Naxos stems from the fact that it was originally written as a one-act postlude to a German translation (by Strauss's frequent collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal) of Moliere's comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in 1912. The difficulty and expense of mounting a play and an opera on the same bill eventually forced Strauss and Hofmannsthal to produce a rewrite that allowed the opera to stand on its own. It was first performed in 1916 and has been in circulation ever since.

Highlights: Your mileage may vary, but I have always found the comic carrying on of Zerbinetta and company to be some of the best bits. That said, the concluding love duet for Bacchus and Ariadne shows Strauss at his most rhapsodic. Look for distinguished St. Louis -- based actor/singer/playwright Ken Page in the role of the Majordomo.

On Saturday, June 11, at 8 p.m. we get the world premiere of Shalimar the Clown, composed by Jack Perla with a libretto by Rajiv Joseph based on the Salman Rushdie novel of the same name. Tenor Sean Panikkar -- an OTSL veteran most recently seen here in the St. Louis Symphony's captivating presentation of Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette -- has the title role. The production is part of the company's ongoing New Works, Bold Voices series, which emphasizes the creation of American works that tell compelling modern stories with themes of common humanity in today's world.

The Story: Shalimar the Clown is a story of paradise lost in conflict-ridden 1960s Kashmir, set also in Los Angeles and London. In a pastoral Kashmiri village, a young Muslim boy named Shalimar falls in love with a beautiful Hindu girl named Boonyi. They are performers in a traditional folk theater -- he a tightrope walker and she a dancer. Their romance manages to meet with the approval of village elders, resulting in a joyful wedding. But when a new American ambassador meets Boonyi, he seduces her with the promise of a new life, sending Shalimar down a dangerous path of revenge.

Highlights: Who knows? This is a brand-new work, so it's impossible to say what the Best Bits will be. Perhaps the biggest highlight is the fact that Salman Rushdie was in town earlier in the year to support and promote the piece. One interesting aspect will be the scoring, which incorporates traditional Indian instruments like the sitar and tabla. Opera Theatre's commitment to new works is, in any case, a reminder that opera is a vibrant, living art form.

The Essentials: Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents four operas in rotating repertory from May 21 through June 26 in the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. Tickets available online or by phone at 314-961-0644.

 

Unless you've sung in a choir or played in a concert band, you probably know Gustav Holst (1874-1934) only as the composer of his popular orchestral suite The Planets, Op. 32, a performance of which concludes the St. Louis Symphony's regular season this weekend. Singers will probably know Holst's many choral works, and recovering band geeks like yours truly are likely to be familiar with his two suites from 1909 and 1911, or his Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo from 1930. For everybody else, it's The Planets.

Written between 1914 and 1916, The Planets was an immediate hit and made the previously unknown Holst something of a celebrity. This was not, as it turned out, a welcome development for the rather shy and retiring composer. Indeed, like many composers who became known for a single work, Holst eventually came to actively dislike his Greatest Hit. "Holst never wrote another piece like The Planets again," writes Kenric Taylor at gustavholst.info. "He hated its popularity. When people would ask for his autograph, he gave them a typed sheet of paper that stated that he didn't give out autographs."

If you've never heard The Planets before, you're in for a treat. I remember my delight the first time I heard this wonderfully cinematic seven-movement suite performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan on a 1961 London Records disc. Back then my stereo wasn't much to brag about and the recording itself was a bit murky, but even so, from the first aggressive measures of "Mars, the Bringer of War"--an alarmingly mechanistic march in 5/4 time--I was hooked.

Inspired by the mythological and astrological aspects of the planets, the seven movements turn the heavenly bodies into characters and provide musical portraits of each one. "Mars" is all futile violence and dissonant brass. "Venus, the Bringer of Peace" floats in on a gentle horn solo, wafted along by flutes and strings. "Mercury, the Winged Messenger" zips along its triplets tossed around by the harp, strings, woodwinds, and celesta. And so it goes. Pluto hadn't been discovered yet and earth, of course, doesn't count in astrology, hence the seven movements instead of nine.

Holst actually got two hits out of The Planets, as it happens. The big, noble second theme from "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" proved to be so popular that Holst later used it as a setting for Cecil Spring-Rice's poem "I Vow to Thee My Country." That version of the tune became a kind of second national anthem in England, along the lines of "America the Beautiful" over here.

Opening the concert will be a pair of works that are likely to be much less familiar: Ralph Vaughan Williams's Flos campi (Flower of the Field) from 1925 and Alban Berg's Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtskarten-Texten von Peter Altenberg (Five Orchestral Songs to Picture-Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg), Op. 4 (a.k.a the Altenberg Lieder), from 1912. Both have been performed by the SLSO only once--the former in 1975 under Leonard Slatkin and the latter in 1966 with Eleazar de Carvalho at the podium--and neither one has exactly been on the "Top 40" with orchestras elsewhere.

In the case of the Vaughan Williams, it's partly a matter of the forces involved. In addition to the orchestra, Flos campi is scored for solo viola and mixed chorus--an unusual enough pairing to make programming it problematic.

And the piece itself is a bit of an oddity in the composer's output. Cast in six movements and played without pause, it's a series of reflections on texts from one of the most openly sensual bits of the Bible, the Song of Solomon. By turns lyrical, sensuous, pastoral, and even cinematic, it's quirky stuff. Composer Phillip Cooke has called it "one of the silliest, most baffling and (in some parts) most un-Vaughan Williams piece that RVW ever wrote; it is part pastoral elegy, part crazy pagan party." But he then goes on to confess, "I love it."

The score is dedicated to the noted English violist Lionel Tertis and was, in fact, first performed with Tertis as the soloist in 1925 with Sir Henry Wood at the podium. Like Tertis, Vaughan Williams dearly loved the rich, dark sound of the viola and loved writing for it. Discussing the origins of Flos campi, Vaughan Williams's wife Ursula noted that "The viola with its capability of warmth and its glowing quality was the instrument he knew best."

A different kind of darkness figures prominently in the Berg song cycle, which takes as its text the elliptical and eccentric poems of Peter Altenberg (real name: Richard Engländer). Engländer/Altenberg was an odd duck. "He is reputed to have spent most of his adult waking hours in coffeehouses," writes James Guida in a profile of the poet in The New Yorker, [http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-flneur-for-all-seasons] "and the sleeping ones in a hotel that was little more than a brothel. As for writing, his chosen medium was a feuilleton-style prose poem of anywhere from a sentence to a few pages in length, and he did wonders with it." He sent some of those little poems to his friends on postcards, and it's five of those that Berg set to intense and cryptically passionate music.

Like all of Berg's music, the Altenberg Lieder cram a lot of information into a very small amount of time--ten to twelve minutes in most performances. "Each of the songs is symmetrically conceived," writes Alexander Carpenter at allmusic.com, "that is, each begins and ends with similar, if not identical, harmonic or motivic gestures. The songs make considerable use of canon, passacaglia, and variation form." It was all apparently too much for the Viennese audience at the work's 1913 premiere, who booed and hooted like the Paris audiences at the first performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring that same year.

Alas, Berg lacked Stravinsky's massive ego and talent for self-promotion, so instead of turning the audience reaction to his advantage, he retreated from composing songs entirely, choosing instead to concentrate on his orchestral works and his celebrated operas Wozzeck and Lulu. He might have achieved even greater things, but when the Nazis came to power he was denounced as a composer of entartete music ("degenerate music") and then had the misfortune to die in 1935 at the age of fifty from an infected insect bite. Such is the impact of dumb luck on human affairs.

The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus along with soloists Christine Brewer, soprano, and Kathleen Mattis, viola, on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., May 6-8. The program consists of Vaughan William's Flos Campi, Berg's Altenberg Lieder, and Holst's The Planets. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand.

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