Most folks come back from vacations with snapshots or souvenirs. The great French composer Camille Saint-Saëns came back from a winter trip to Egypt with a piano concerto, which was performed with an ideal mix of power and style this weekend by Louis Lortie and the St. Louis Symphony under guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier.
First performed in May of 1896 with the 60-year-old composer at the keyboard, the Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 103 quickly picked up the nickname "Egyptian" in part because Saint-Saëns himself wrote that the it "takes us, in effect, on a journey to the East and even, in the passage in F-sharp, to the Far East." The music is filled with "Oriental" touches, especially in the second movement, the main theme of which Saint-Saëns said he got from boatmen on the Nile. There are even brief passages where the pianist produces a kind of otherworldly sound by playing major tenths two octaves apart. You can almost smell the exotic perfume.
Saint-Saëns was clearly a remarkable pianist, and his fifth concerto calls for a daunting combination of raw virtuosity and sensitivity. Mr. Lortie clearly had plenty of both, delivering a performance with all the flash and power called for in the boisterous finale without short-changing the delicacy of that lyrical second movement. He is, as I have noted in the past, a very visceral performer, with every emotion etched on his face and visible in his body language. His emotional commitment to the music could not have been more total.
That makes him an excellent match for Mr. Tortelier, who seems to love the grand musical gesture as much as the intimate detail. Working without a baton, he uses his very expressive hands to shape phrases one moment and then his entire body to raise a massive orchestral climax the next -- which is exactly what he did in the work that opened the program, Paul Dukas's rarely heard Polyeucte Overture from 1891.
Inspired by a Corneille play about a Roman nobleman who converts to Christianity and suffers the usual deadly consequences, Polyeucte is big and dramatic -- real Technicolor, wide-screen Romanticism. Brooding, tragic passages are frequently interrupted by abrupt orchestral outbursts. Mr. Tortelier attacked this music with real intensity, and the musicians responded with a perfect performance that deserved far more applause than it got from the Friday night audience. It has been nearly a century since the SLSO last played this piece, so it was effectively new music for them, but they played as though they knew it all by heart.
The concert concluded with music the musicians probably do know by heart, Maurice Ravel's popular orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Inspired by an 1874 visit to a posthumous exhibition of the works of Russian artist Victor Hartmann, the piano original is colorful and evocative stuff, made all the more so by Ravel's expansion. Justifiably regarded as an expert orchestrator, Ravel's work here is filled with ingenious touches, like the high woodwinds chirping away in the "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells," the alto sax playing the voice of a troubadour in "The Old Castle," the hair-raising evocation of "The Hut on Fowl's Legs," (home of the witch Baba-Yaga from Russian folklore) and the triumphant finale, based on a sketch for "The Great Gate at Kiev."
That means there were multiple opportunities for individual members and sections of the band to show off, and they made the most of it. For the first curtain call, Mr. Tortelier singled out Principal Horn Roger Kaza for his exemplary work as well as Principal Trumpet Karin Bliznik, whose ringing declamation of the recurring "promenade" theme got things off to such a stirring start and whose entire section performed with such impressive precision in the tricky "Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle" movement. Principal Trombone Tim Myers on euphonium and Nathan Nabb on alto sax also got solo bows for their fine playing in the "Bydlo" and "Old Castle" movements, respectively. Every section of the orchestra sounded stunning, in fact, and the strings had the wonderful richness that has come to typify their work.
Conducting without a score, Mr. Tortelier brought the same sense of high drama and nuance to this music that he had demonstrated throughout the evening. His "Gnomus" had real menace, his "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells" was a masterpiece of brisk precision, and his powerful "Great Gate at Kiev" brought down the house. The applause was loud, long, and entirely justified.
There is one more performance of this program at Powell Hall today, Saturday, April 16, at 8 p.m. The St. Louis Symphony season continues next weekend, April 22-24, as Nathalie Stutzmann conducts the orchestra with violin soloist Karen Gomyo in music by Mendelssohn, Sibelius, and Dvořák. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand.
My wife and I have become dedicated travelers over the last couple of decades, but we can't hold a candle to the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Over the course of his long and prosperous life, his peregrinations took him all over Europe as well as to England, the United States, and even (in 1896) to Algeria and Egypt.
A musical souvenir of the latter trip closes the first half of this weekend's St. Louis Symphony concerts as pianist Louis Lortie joins guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier for the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, op. 103. As Michael Steinberg writes in his program notes for the San Francisco Symphony, the concerto picked up the nickname "Egyptian" from the composer's own comments about the piece:
Saint-Saëns had written the concerto during a winter vacation at Luxor in Egypt, which has some bearing on the second movement and perhaps the third as well. One of the more notable features of the amiable and unpressured first movement is an allusion to Dalila's gorgeous aria "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" from Samson et Dalila. Of the second movement, Saint-Saëns himself wrote that "it takes us, in effect, on a journey to the East and even, in the passage in F-sharp, to the Far East." First comes an extended introductory section, much of it like recitative, and then the music settles into a pleasant and serene song for piano and strings. Saint-Saëns said that it was "a Nubian love song which I heard sung by boatmen on the Nile as I myself went down the river in a dahabieh." The F-sharp major music to which he refers is the pentatonic melody, delicately scored and including the occasional distant vibration of the tam-tam. Some of the orchestral detail in this colorful piece will remind us of the most famous of all "Egyptian" compositions, the Nile scene in Aïda.
The sound of that second movement is so exotic that pianist Steven Hough once wrote a tongue-in-cheek explanation of how to achieve it for the April Fool's Day, 2012, edition of his blog at the Daily Telegraph. It's worth reading.
The "Egyptian" concerto hasn't been heard on the Powell Hall stage since 1977 by the way, so this is a rare opportunity for local classical music lovers to catch it live.
The other big work on this weekend's bill is an old favorite: Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, last performed here in January of 2013. It too was inspired by a trip, but in this case it was just to an exhibit of work by the Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann.
Hartmann may only have been 39 when he died in 1873, but he had already gained considerable fame for his inventive uses of Russian folk traditions in his work. He might have remained unknown outside Russia, however, had he not become friends with the equally innovative composer Modest Mussorgsky. Attending an exhibition of Hartmann's works a year after the artist's death, Mussorgsky was so moved that he immediately dashed off a piano suite based on ten of the pictures at that exhibition. Unfortunately, Mussorgsky himself died -- at the age of 42 -- before the suite could be published.
And there it might have rested had not Maurice Ravel been commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to produce an orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition in 1922. The work was a rousing success that guaranteed Hartmann a prominent place in musical history and Mussorgsky a larger share of concert programs than he might have gotten otherwise.
Ravel was not, of course, the first to orchestrate Mussorgsky's suite; that honor fell to fellow Russian Michail Tuschmalov in 1886, the year in which the suite was first published. But he only arranged seven of the ten pictures and the next attempt -- by Britain's Sir Henry Wood in 1915 -- eliminated some of the reoccurrences of the unifying "Promenade" theme, which represents Mussorgsky wandering through the exhibition. Ravel wasn't even the first to orchestrate the entire piece; the Slovenian Leo Funtek pulled that one off in the same year as the Frenchman. Ravel's has, however, remained the most popular of the over two dozen arrangements of the original, for everything from full orchestra to jazz band to (oddly enough) solo guitar.
This weekend it's the familiar Ravel orchestration that Mr. Tortelier and the band will be performing. If you have never heard it before, I think you'll be delighted by the many opportunities it offers for individual musicians to take the spotlight. Ravel is justifiably regarded as an expert orchestrator, and his expansion of Mussorgsky's original is filled with ingenious touches, like the high woodwinds chirping away in the "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells," the alto sax playing the voice of a troubadour in "The Old Castle," and the hair-raising evocation of "The Hut on Fowl's Legs," home of the witch Baba-Yaga from Russian folklore. This is music that never fails to please.
The concerts open with a work that hasn't been performed by the SLSO since 1920: the concert overture Polyeucte, written in 1891 by Paul Dukas. Inspired by a Corneille play about a Roman nobleman who converts to Christianity and suffers the usual deadly consequences, it was the composer's public debut, written the year he graduated from the Paris Conservatory. So it's probably not surprising (as Renée Spencer Saller writes in her program notes) that it shows the influence of someone who threw a very long shadow back then, Richard Wagner:
The overture opens with a threnody of low strings and moody woodwinds. Out of this luxuriant gloom, violins scurry; timpani rumble and roar. Piercing silences puncture orchestral swells. Plangent winds hint at the tragedy's romantic subplot. The subtle harmonic shifts and haunting timbres make the Wagner comparisons inevitable, but who cares? Fin-de-siècle Wagneriana doesn't get any better than this.
Too true. It's big, dramatic stuff: real Technicolor, wide-screen Romanticism and, at only a little over 15 minutes, considerably shorter than Corneille's five-act tragedy.
The Essentials: Friday, April 15 and Saturday, April 16 at 8 p.m., Yan Pascal Tortelier conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist Louie Lortie in Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No. 5, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and Dukas's Polyeucte Overture. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand.
Childhood is not always as simple as it might seem; we all know that. Composers certainly know that, whether they idealize a child's evolvement, as did Robert Schumann, or whether they ruminate on a tragically somber unfolding, as did Canadian composer Claude Vivier (1948-1983), whose Lonely Child describes much of his own childhood spent in orphanages, foster homes and Catholic seminaries.
Susanna Phillips was soloist in the St. Louis Symphony concerts of April 2-3 in which Lonely Child was performed. Her voice adds sheen and brilliance to any performance. Vivier's score is indeed dark and foreboding, but he is also an imaginative composer, much more so than many of his colleagues of the latter 20th century. Rather than following the atonal avant-garde rhythms and intervals of that era that quickly grew stale and predictable, his choice of mood, dynamics, timbre and pitch was a bit more varied. Initially the orchestra seemed to overpower Phillips' voice, but balance improved greatly as the piece progressed.
Vivier's untimely death in 1983 as a homicide victim of a male prostitute brought a tragic end to a sad life. He died at 34. One wonders what he might have produced today. Like Franz Schubert, though, who died of natural causes at the age of 31, his output is larger than one might expect.
The concert opened with a much broader -- and, interestingly, dramatic -- look at childhood, the Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose) suite by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Originally conceived for piano four-hands, these pieces exude all the excitement that youngsters expect from fairy tales, only here clothed in a slightly more sophisticated tonal impressionist garb for adults as well. Indeed, these pieces are more reflective of actual fairy tales than of nursery rhymes. They are haunting and redolent of our childhood imaginations. The austerity of Ravel's orchestration and harmonies only adds to their effect.
Both the Lonely Child and Ma mère l'oye seemed a bit stiff and mechanical; perhaps this was a result of conductor David Robertson's desire to make sure every musical detail was attended to, which is certainly a laudable goal. Or perhaps the smaller number of players used in these works made their contours more evident. This somewhat hindered the smooth flow of the music. However, the opposite was true in the closing work on the program, the Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), a piece composed around an earlier song of Mahler's, "Das himmlische Leben," which offers a view of heavenly from a child's perspective. Robertson was at his best in this work, and so was the orchestra. The melodies soared with giant wings -- even in the softer moments. Each section of the orchestra (and each individual performer) seemed to sing with a commanding voice, yet each melded into a brilliant whole. Throughout, Robertson seemed relaxed yet solidly in place at the helm.
Susanna Phillips returned for the closing movement of the symphony, which depicts a child's vision of heaven. Her pure and crystalline tone seemed particularly well-suited for this work, although many different sopranos have given varied yet valid interpretations of Mahler's soulful and tuneful treatment of the text. Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to Phillips is that hers is a voice that shines on its own, yet enhances and is enhanced by the orchestra.
This program was a remarkable and thoughtful look at the vagaries of childhood. Once again, the St. Louis Symphony brilliantly demonstrates that its value to our community is both artistic and educational.
Steven Spielberg's blockbuster E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a live concert version of which is on view at Powell Hall this weekend, is 34 years old now and beginning to show its age -- which is not necessarily a bad thing.
A product of a time when pacing in popular films was somewhat less frenetic and music was less omnipresent, E.T. is shamelessly manipulative but skillfully made. The wordless opening sequence, shot from the point of view of the diminutive aliens, makes the humans pursuing them look massive and threatening. The iconic flying sequences still look great. And the final farewell sequence can still tug at the heartstrings.
As with other St. Louis Symphony movie events, of course, the emphasis is on the score, performed live by the orchestra as the film is shown on the big screen above them. The music for E.T. was composed by that most famous and prolific of living film composers, John Williams. It earned him the fourth of his five (to date) Academy Awards, and it's easy to see why it was so honored. It's melodically appealing and vividly evocative stuff, employing the full resources of a late romantic symphony orchestra in creative and sometimes surprising ways. And even though Williams' harmonic palette is fairly conventional, he's not about using dissonance, string harmonics, and eerie glissandi when the dramatic situation calls for them.
Under the baton of Erik Ochsner -- who conducted the SLSO for the concert version of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring back in 2011 -- the orchestra sounded like the finely tuned instrument it has become over the years. For his part, Mr. Ochsner was very engaged with and friendly towards the musicians under his baton -- not an easy task given the need to divide his attention between the printed score and the film (complete with the visual equivalent of a click track) playing out on a monitor mounted on the podium.
It would be easy to dismiss the SLSO movie events as mere potboilers intended to improve the orchestra's balance sheet, but that would require one to overlook the amount of dedication and talent it takes to pull them off. And besides, hearing this music live reveals orchestral details that are only really apparent in a concert hall. I hadn't realized, for example, how often the harp and keyboards (piano and synthesizer) were featured. SLSO Principal Harp Allegra Lilly and keyboard player Peter Henderson (who, for reasons which escape me, is still not the Principal for that section) were kept quite busy and were the first soloists to asked to stand at the end as a result.
There is one more showing of the concert version of E.T. today, Sunday, at 2 p.m. It's genuine family fun and highly recommended. You might even find yourself tempted to come back this Friday or Saturday when Yan Pascal Tortelier conducts the orchestra with piano soloist Louie Lortie in Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Egyptian") and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in the familiar Maurice Ravel orchestration. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information, visit the St. Louis Symphony web site.
Of all the Beethoven repertoire, the Violin Concerto in D Major occupies a unique place. It was not designed for sheer virtuosity, although that is required, but exudes an elegant simplicity and refined melodic line that approach the sublime. Like the Ninth Symphony, its basic melodies can be hummed by children, yet they soar to lofty heights under Beethoven's careful development.
Concertmaster David Halen, long a favorite of St. Louis audiences, performed the Violin Concerto on the weekend concerts of the SLSO of March 18-20, led by guest conductor Jun Märkl, who has established a distinguished reputation as an interpreter of German music. Märkl opted for a smaller ensemble of musicians for both the concerto and the Overture to "Fidelio" that opened the program. A smaller orchestra means that all musicians must articulate very carefully, being more tonally exposed, but it also ensures a level of good balance between the orchestra and soloist. Although the resulting effect seemed a bit tightly held, both Halen and the orchestra turned in a clean and well-sculpted performance. Halen's stage presence was particularly well-suited for this concerto, since he seemed intent on remaining part of a team, striving not to be the center of attention, but rather the voice of Beethoven.
Both Beethoven works were solidly performed, with careful attention to detail. Halen clearly knew the concerto well and understood the phrasing. However, both seemed to lack a spirit of spontaneity. Beethoven is known for his ebullience and ingenuousness. Those qualities were certainly not lost, but were not as fully expressed as one might have hoped.
Interestingly, however, the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major by Robert Schumann, known as the "Rhenish," sparkled with spontaneity. A listener could easily imagine sailing up the Rhine River near Dusseldorf amidst splashing waves and bright sunlight. Schumann had characterized the river as a "majestic father" and "a German god," and its iconic status is undeniable. Hearing Schumann's bold and youthful portrayal of the Rhine, it is sobering and difficult to realize that in 1854 Schumann, in the throes of mental illness, would attempt to end his life by plunging into the river's icy winters during winter. But in 1850, when he first conceived of the symphony, the Rhine was Schumann's friend and muse.
Jun Märkl and the orchestra delivered a shining and rhythmically vivacious outpouring of Schumann's music. Listeners seemed to be captivated, and the symphony's half-hour or so of length seemed to fly by. Märkl conducted from memory, and it was evident that he knew every inch of this work. Perhaps the balance between the magnificent brass sections and the strings and woodwinds was not as carefully weighed as in the Beethoven works, but that didn't seem to matter; this symphony pealed across the hall like bells ringing from cathedrals along the Rhine.
The works presented on this program spanned scarcely 45 years of music history, all emanating from the Germanic tradition, and yet they demonstrated just how rich and original that tradition is.