Although it's usually a heavily attended event, freezing drizzle and the resulting treacherous streets put a major dent in the turnout for the Mercy Holiday Celebration at the St. Louis Symphony Friday night. And that's a shame, since conductor Steven Jarvi really put his stamp on the evening with an intelligent selection of music that included more than a few works I'd never heard before.

For a pops concert that usually sticks to the tried and true, that was a delightful and welcome surprise. Morton Gould's arrangement of "Jingle Bells'" for example, was ingenious and whimsical with icy harmonics from the violins, a plaintive oboe, muted horns, and a quiet finale that gave the whole thing a kind of pointillist delicacy. The orchestration of "Carol to the King" by Mormon Tabernacle Choir music director Mack Wilberg featured lively "fife and drum" interchanges among the flutes, trumpets, and snare drums. And the "Refried Farandole" by composer/performer/producer Sam Hyken brought the concert to an appropriately rousing conclusion. This virtuoso expansion of the "Farandole" (from Bizet's incidental music for L'Arlesienne, which includes the traditional Provençal carol "The March of the three Kings") was completely new to me and it was tremendous fun, especially when performed with such precision.

Perhaps the most beautiful selection of the evening, though, came from Kevin McBeth's Holiday Festival Chorus, composed of singers from area high schools. For an a cappella performance of the "Ave Maria" by twentieth-century German composer Franz Xaver Biebl, the choir was split in half, with singers and soloists both on stage and upstairs in the dress circle. Heard from our seats on the orchestra floor, this gave the music a wonderful antiphonal quality that called to mind the works of Gabrielli and the other Venetian Renaissance polychoral composers. Mr. Jarvi conducted with a look of real joy that was, I'm sure, shared by many of us in the audience. 

The chorus also distinguished itself in more traditional selections like "The First Nowell" and, most notably, in the decidedly non-traditional "South African Gloria" by William Bradley Roberts, Professor of Church Music at Virginia Theological Seminary. With its syncopated percussion and lively foot stomping from the chorus, this was music guaranteed to bring a smile to the face and joy to the heart. It also sounded tricky to perform, so kudos to Mr. McBeth and his singers for doing so well by it.

That's not to say that the usual trappings of this annual holiday event weren't in place. The concert opened with a swinging, brassy arrangement of "Winter Wonderland." St. Nick (played with engaging jollity by Whit Reichert) showed up for his usual visit and arranged for a child from the audience to "conduct" the orchestra in Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride." And there was a guest appearance by a singer from the world of Broadway and TV: Nicole Parker. 

Ms. Parker is probably best known for her work on MADtv, but she also has extensive musical theatre credits, including the plum role of Elphaba in the first North American tour of Wicked. She had some great moments, including a charming "White Christmas" with the orchestra and chorus and a funny "My Favorite Things" with impersonations of Ellen DeGeneres, Julie Andrews (eerily accurate), Diane Keaton, and Celine Dion (complete with an absurdly ornamented vocal line). Her "Defying Gravity" might not have had much to do with the holidays but it certainly soared.

So, icy streets not withstanding, it was an evening as festive as the holiday decorations in the Powell Hall lobby and as cozy as a red Christmas sweater. Seasonal concerts continue at Powell Hall with the Bach Society Christmas Candlelight Concert on Thursday, December 22 and Disney in Concert on December 29 and 30. The orchestra will round out the year with the annual New Year's Eve gala on December 31. 

 

 

What with the all the hot air lately, both climatological and political, it has been difficult to really get into the holiday mood, but Friday night's St. Louis Symphony concert might just have gotten me over the hump.

It wasn't just the music that did it, although the mostly Tchaikovsky program was certainly chockablock with memorable melodies. The festive mood actually started with the Powell Hall lobby, which is decked out in its annual holiday finery, complete with green garlands gleaming with lights.

Adding to the sense of occasion was the fact that the guest conductor was Ward Stare, the former SLSO Resident Conductor and a popular figure with local audiences. And finally, there was the fact that the soloists were all members of the band: Concertmaster David Halen, Principal Harp Allegra Lilly, and Principal Cello Daniel Lee. Who, to quote Ira Gershwin, could ask for anything more?

The concert opened with the only non-Tchaikovsky piece on the program, the overture to Alexander Borodin's patriotic opera Prince Igor. Left unfinished at the time of the composer's death in 1887, Prince Igor was eventually completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov, and the overture is mostly Glazunov's work.

It is, in any case, a lively and engaging piece, laid out in something like sonata form with a portentous introduction and a lyrical middle section bracketed by energetic statements of themes from the opera. Mr. Stare gave the middle section an extra helping of romance, which made the contrast with the rest of the overture that much more marked. The difference it made was subtle but gave the work more dramatic shape than a more prosaic reading would have produced.

The orchestra played quite well, even though they haven't performed this music in over 45 years. The overlapping brass fanfares that pop up multiple times were especially crisp. Mr. Stare singled out Third Horn Tod Bowermaster and Associate Principal Clarinet Diana Haskell in the curtain call for their work, but everyone sounded at the top of their game.

Speaking of musicians at the top of their game, David Halen (to extend this metaphor a bit) hit multiple homers in the suite of six selections from Swan Lake (1876) and two from Sleeping Beauty (1889) that made up the rest of the first half of this program. With the exception of the familiar opening scene from Swan Lake, the numbers selected all gave Mr. Halen the chance to show the many moods of his virtuosity, from the delicate Sleeping Beauty "Entr'acte" to the fiery "Danse Russe" from Swan Lake. Spontaneous applause broke out after the "Pas de deux: Black Swan" Friday night, and Mr. Halen got a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.

The spotlight wasn't entirely on Mr. Halen, though. The "Pas d'action: White Swan" also gave Ms. Lilly and Mr. Lee a chance to show off in captivating duets with him. All of this was a reminder of what world-class musicians we have in our orchestra. Some visiting "big name" soloists might have generated more excitement in advance, but I strongly doubt that they could have played any better.

The most Christmassy part of the evening, however, came after intermission with the complete second act of Tchaikovsky's popular 1892 Christmas ballet The Nutcracker. Technical difficulties caused a last-minute cancellation of the planned projected images courtesy of Webster University's Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts, but it hardly mattered. Tchaikovsky's music is so filled with colorful orchestral touches that audience members who were familiar with Nutcracker (or with Disney's Fantasia, for that matter) were no doubt able to supply their own visuals.

Opportunities for individual players and sections to take center stage abound in this part of the ballet. So we had icy trills from Mark Sparks and his fellow flautists in the opening scene at the Magic Castle, Karin Bliznik's commanding trumpet in the "Spanish Dance," the sinuous bass clarinet of Tzuying Huang at the end of the "Arab Dance," the lively contrast of Ann Choomack's piccolo and Andrew Cuneo's bassoons in the "Chinese Dance" and, of course, Peter Henderson's star turn with the world's most famous celesta solo in the "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy," complete with the less-often heard coda.

Mr. Stare conducted all this with the obvious joy and enthusiasm that has always marked his time on the podium. This was a well thought-out reading with plenty of variety and a strong sense of theatre. To quote a Noël Coward lyric, "I couldn't have liked it more."

Holiday concerts take up the rest of December, including A Gospel Christmas on December 8, music by Mannheim Steamroller on December 9 and 10, and the annual Macy's Holiday Celebration concerts December 16-18. Visit the SLSO website for more information.

 

There was a lot to be thankful for Friday night as Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program that opened with a pair of late Romantic symphonic poems and closed with one of the greatest of the early-nineteenth century piano concertos.

The first half of the concert was pure "program music," beginning with Pohjola's Daughter from 1906, one of Jean Sibelius's many tone poems inspired by the Kalevala, an epic poem by Elias Lönnrot based on Finnish oral folklore and mythology. This is dark, dramatic music depicting the Finnish equivalent of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, with the mythical hero Väinämöinen trying and ultimately failing to win the heart of the titular daughter of the Northland.

Mr. Spano brought out all the drama and vivid tone painting in the score, starting with the brooding evocation of the stark northern landscape brought to life at the start by the orchestra's deepest voices highlighted by solos from, among others, Danny Lee's cello and Tzuying Huang's bass clarinet. Väinämöinen arrived in a powerful and precise fanfare from the brasses, to which Allegra Lilly's harp and Jennifer Nichtman's flutes replied with a perfectly translucent treatment of the theme for Pohjola's daughter.

The SLSO had, surprisingly, never performed this piece before, but you certainly wouldn't have known that from the quality of the playing. Every section of the ensemble sounded perfect, which made the lack of more enthusiastic applause a bit baffling. Yes, this is a piece that ends as softly as it begins, but I don't think the audience should need (to quote a line from Amadeus) "a good bang at the end...to let them know when to clap."

Up next was Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) the first in Ottorino Respighi's very popular "Roman trilogy" of tone poems composed between 1916 and 1928. In only 15 minutes, the music takes you through a day in Rome as viewed through the lens of four of its famous fountains. We see the sun rise through the mists of the fountain at Valle Giulia, spend the morning frolicking with mythical creatures at the Triton Fountain, marvel at Neptune's majestic chariot at the Trevi Fountain at noon, and finally watch the sun go down behind the Fountain at Villa Medici. "The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, the twittering of birds, the rustling of leaves," wrote Respighi his notes on the score. "Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night."

Like so many of Respighi's scores, Fountains is a virtual textbook of orchestration, with elements of Debussy, Ravel, and even Richard Strauss all mixed with Respighi's own unique point of view to produce a rich palette of instrumental color. You could hear all of that in exquisite detail throughout this performance, beginning with the shimmering violin harmonics and Jelena Dirks's elegant oboe solo in the opening pages. The play of the Triton fountain's naiads was brought to sparkling life by Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout's harps, the high winds, and the percussion section, while the brasses brought out the majesty of the Trevi fountain.

Mr. Spano brought all this together in a reading that favored somewhat brisk tempos, especially in the Trevi movement, that never felt rushed and that missed none of the many wonderful details of the score. It was thoroughly entrancing and warmly received.

After intermission, Stephen Hough joined the orchestra for a noble and graceful reading of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. Although written under the cloud of war and occupation in Vienna in 1809, this is music that opens in a majestic vein, becomes tender and even wistful in the second movement, and then segues without pause into a cheerful and exuberant rondo.

In his performances of the first three Rachmaninoff concertos with the SLSO back in the spring of 2012, Mr. Hough demonstrated that he had plenty of power when that was called for, but also the ability to display real delicacy. You could hear the power immediately in the oratorical keyboard flourishes that open the first movement and the delicacy in the little diminuendo and touch of rubato that concluded the third solo passage, just before the orchestra entered with the commanding declaration of the first theme.

Throughout the concerto, Mr. Hough and Mr. Spano found lots of shading and subtlety in the music, which made the more dramatic declarations that much more potent. The adagio second movement was pure poetry and the rondo finale danced with rhythmic vitality. The performance as a whole had a real feel of forward momentum, in fact.

As Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, this is a concerto that integrates the soloist with the orchestra in ways that were novel at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Mr. Hough and Mr. Spano honored that with a truly collaborative performance.

Although I'm familiar with Mr. Spano's work from recordings, this was my first opportunity to see him in person. He's essentially an upper body conductor, making effective and precise use of his hands and baton, but not much given to the kind of podium choreography that has endeared SLSO Music Director David Robertson to so many of us here. He nevertheless comes across as a warm and engaging character who takes joy in making music. Which is, ultimately, the bottom line.

Next at Powell Hall: Ward Stare conducts the orchestra and violin soloist David Halen in suites from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty ballets along with Borodin's Prince Igor Overture. The Nutcracker selections will be accompanied by projected visuals presented in partnership with the Webster University Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., December 2-4, at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

 

The growing contributions of African-American artists to classical music, both on the community level and on the national and international scene, continue to expand their sphere of influence and leadership. It would be impossible to name every great artist, but in recent decades such names as the Marsalis brothers, pianist Andre Watts and opera star Jessye Norman spring to mind, along with legions of others. Here in St. Louis we are blessed with the presence of such leaders as violinist Darwyn Apple and composer Robert Ray.

Another dominant force in our region is Fred Onovwerosuoke, whose African Musical Arts organization continues to highlight the African heritage and presence in serious music. In its short history, African Musical Arts has presented a wide variety of performances showcasing music of diverse backgrounds and cultures. On November 6, Darwyn Apple headlined a concert showcasing works by composers of African descent. 

The featured composers embodied a rich variety of musical styles, reminding us that composers of African origin cannot be confined to a single tradition. Partly because of the African diaspora and partly because of the diversity of cultures within Africa, no single style or stream of creativity speaks for all. The Five Folksongs for String Quartet by Florence Beatrice Price breathed an almost Impressionistic sheen to a group of spirituals; somewhat differently, the energy and introspection of the African Dances by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor -- hailed as "the African Mahler" -- contrasted with the lyricism and jazz-peppered adventurous style of William Grant Still. Like Gershwin -- but perhaps even more boldly -- Still bridged the gap between jazz and mainstream classical music, aiding the establishment of a uniquely American style. 

The "Kreutzer" Sonata of Beethoven was also highlighted on the program. Increasingly, it is believed that Beethoven's family tree included a branch from Africa. Research has yet to confirm this; however, at the very least we know that there was some Spanish influence in Beethoven's ancestry, which could easily have included African heritage as well. Many people believe that the sheer vibrancy and rhythmic vitality of Beethoven's music were the product of a cultural heritage that perhaps cannot be confined to a single source. If Beethoven is indeed part African, he joins a group of remarkable Europeans that includes Alexandre Dumas, Alexander Pushkin and other notables.

Darwyn Apple has long been a figure of note on the St. Louis concert stage, binging an inspiring intensity and seriousness to the art of the violin. For the solo and duo portions of the program, Apple was joined by pianist Sunghee Hinners for the solo and duo portions of the program. The two performed with a fine balance of dynamics and sense of partnership, and both performed with the solid technical skills we have come to expect. Violist Anna Lackschewitz and cellist Jake Brookman added their talents to the first movement of Beethoven's Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello in G Major, which opened the second half of the program. The three were joined by violinist Joseph Kaminsky for the concluding work of the program, the finale from the String Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, no. 5, by Franz Joseph Haydn. To our knowledge, Haydn did not possess African ancestry, but his work provided an interesting comparison to the other featured works on the program and provided an upbeat conclusion. Again, these performers likewise performed with consummate and well-honed skills.

Even those who feel already well-versed in music history and the contributions of composers of African descent would find much to learn and ponder on this program. Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned is a renewed awareness that creativity can never be stifled, whether it springs from the grip of slavery, the fires of the Holocaust, or the onslaught of war and terrorism.  As human beings, creativity is our shared resource. Moreover, we see that creativity by its very nature can never be confined to a single template.

Special recognition must also go to Fred Onovwerosuoke, who has long labored to build bridges between cultures. Fred has demonstrated time again that honoring one tradition does not diminish any other, and his work has shown that we are all part of the whole. This concert not only honored composers of African descent, but it also honored all musicians and composers who have striven to enrich their art. Ultimately, this was a concert that honored the very soul of music.

 

A grief counselor once noted that even though everyone will sooner or later make an exit from this planet, nevertheless people avoid contemplating their own demise. Perhaps periodically we need to reflect upon the transitory nature of Life on our planet. Last weekend, November 18-20, the St. Louis Symphony brought that realization to life with a program of three works designed to make us contemplate the hereafter and that which lies beyond our knowledge at this point.  

Opening with one of his most sublime works, The Unanswered Question, the American composer Charles Ives reminded us that there yet remain questions that why beyond our ken. Consisting of a brief dialogue between a solo trumpet and strings and woodwinds, this work echoes the frustrations that many of us feel as we ponder our role in the universe. Principal trumpet Karin Bliznik performed eloquently, as we have already come to expect during her brief tenure, as the musical protagonist searching for answers to the riddle of life.  

Conductor David Robertson opted to proceed without interruption to the second work on the program, John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls, written in commemoration of the attacks on 9/11. This was a good choice for two reasons. One, the events of 9/11 triggered many unanswered questions for those of us left behind, and secondly, Adams references Ives' work in the opening section of the piece with a brief trumpet solo. Quoting from other composers is an obsession with John Adams, much like his predilection for referencing family members in his titles. It is difficult to understand why a composer of Adams' stature and talents would trivialize his own work with such a practice, considering that Adams has become the predominant force in contemporary music, sometimes to the exclusion of other talented voices, and his works tend to be obligatory in the repertoire of every American orchestra today. In any case, though, this is a work of great originality and musical craftsmanship. 

The score of On the Transmigration of Souls calls for both adult and children's choruses, as well as spoken quotations from actual families and friends of victims, woven together with great intricacy and subtlety. Throughout the program, Robertson turned in a particularly fine job of navigating the orchestra and voices through both whispered passages as well as through more strident and bold sections, creating a tapestry of remarkable dynamic contrasts. The SLSO Chorus, under the direction of Amy Kaiser, seemed particularly well suited for this work. Their blend with the orchestra was so organic that at times it was difficult to separate instrumental voices from human ones. The St. Louis Children's Choirs, prepared under the supervision of artistic director Barbara Berner, likewise negotiated their part with the skill, intonation and careful phrasing that we would normally only expect of older performers.

The program concluded with Mozart's Requiem in D Minor, completed upon the composer's death by his student Franz Xaver Sussmayr. Again, special kudos must go to Kaiser and Robertson for the organic unity of voices and orchestra in this monumental work that provided the capstone to Mozart's short-lived yet effusive output. Robertson was able to create an effect that was both spontaneous yet reverential. Soloists Caitlin Lynch, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and Kevin Thompson, bass, performed as a well-matched quartet. Each produced a warm, vibrant sound. Occasionally, it would have been nice to hear a bit more projection from each of them, but that is part of the challenge of performing against a full orchestra in a large hall. Now and then it also seemed that chorus and soloists were not using uniform Latin diction, but that is surely a minor point and subject to debate. 

This program was themed "Sorrow, Solace and Mystery." Certainly ruminating upon the afterlife is bound to churn up unresolved sorrows and bring to mind the thirst that we each carry to know what really does lie beyond the mystery of life. Do we find solace in these works? That is something each listener must determine personally. Do we cope with death and loss by facing it squarely, or by acknowledging that life here is indeed transitory? Perhaps the ultimate value of musical works such as these is simply that they make us think.

 

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