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.
Since the inception of the "Music You Know" programming in November of 2014, I have become a great admirer of the St. Louis Symphony's concert series devoted mostly to relatively short works -- most of which are likely to be familiar to SLSO regulars -- paired with an equally accessible new piece.
Yesterday (Friday, April 19, 2016) was the last concert in the 2015/2016 series sponsored by the Whitaker Foundation, and like those that have gone before, it was a jolly business all the way around, with Maestro David Robertson conducting and chatting about the music in between selections.
The fun began with a pretty much perfect run through the lively and tune-filled overture to Leonard Bernstein's 1956 operetta Candide. A standard encore for the orchestra on its tours, the piece is an ideal distillation of Bernstein's skills as a melodist and orchestrator, as well as a display of the sunny optimism once characteristic of America.
Up next was an equally accomplished performance of the "Dance of the Hours" from Amilcare Ponchielli's 1876 opera La Gioconda. It was distinguished by, among other things, some lovely work by harpists Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout in the opening measures, along with pristine playing throughout the piece. It has become hard to take this music seriously after the comic demolition jobs it received from Walt Disney in Fantasia in 1940 and Allan Sherman in his 1963 LP My Son, The Nut, but a performance this good makes it easier to banish thoughts of dancing ostriches and Camp Granada.
The first half concluded with the Chaconne in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, a work attributed to Baroque composer Tomaso Vitali, despite the fact that it contains some very un-baroque key changes. Whatever its origins, Second Associate Concertmaster Celeste Golden Boyer did a splendid job with the solo part, delivering all the dark passion inherent in the music.
The second half started with another winner, the prelude to Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 opera Hänsel und Gretel. Humperdinck (the original German composer, not the 1960s singer who appropriated his name) was a protégé of Richard Wagner, and there's more than a hint of Die Meistersinger in the piece, especially in the big contrapuntal section towards the end. It's big, complex music and the SLSO musicians more than did it justice. A shout-out is due to Roger Kaza's horns for the powerful, burnished sound of their many exposed passages here.
More images from Fantasia are inevitably summoned up by the next selection, Paul Dukas's popular 1897 tone poem The Sorcerer's Apprentice, partly because -- as Mr. Robertson reminded us -- the music so vividly depicts the story that Disney's animators put on the screen. It's a piece filled with brilliant orchestral details, from the delicate opening measures for flutes, clarinet, harps, and strings, to the comically animated broom depicted by the bassoons, to the massive orchestral climaxes as the hapless apprentice tries to bring that broom under control. This was another bravura performance by the orchestra, with tips of the hat due to (among others) Andrew Cuneo's bassoons and the flutes under Associate Principal Andrea Kaplan.
The new work was next: Cyrillic Dreams by cellist and composer Stefan Freund, an associate professor at the University of Missouri and co-founder of the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound. Inspired by a visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg, the work is essentially a short concerto grosso in which a solo string quartet consisting of the leaders of the first violins, second violins, violas, and cellos is set against the orchestral strings. The work opens with soaring, yearning opening theme on cello, which is then taken up by the viola, the violins, and eventually the full orchestra. Over the ensuing nine minutes the music rises to rapturous heights in a way that reminded me of the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams.
The solo quartet consisted of Principal Cello Daniel Lee, Assistant Principal Viola Jonathan Chu, Principal Second Violin Kristin Ahlstrom, and (substituting for the originally scheduled David Halen) Associate Concertmaster Heidi Harris. They sang with their instruments flawlessly, as did the entire string section. If only the audience member with the nonstop cough had been polite enough to leave the auditorium instead of hacking all the way through the piece, the experience would have been ideal.
The evening came to an appropriately blazing finish with the horns and brasses in particularly fine form in Wouter Hutschenruyter's orchestral arrangement of "The Ride of the Valkyries" from Wagner's Die Walküre.
"Just look at this orchestra's recent birth rate," quipped Mr. Robertson at one point during the evening: "They are a happy group of active people." Indeed they are, and their joy in making music inevitably spills over into the audience.
Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts orchestra with tympani soloist Shannon Wood on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., April 30 and May 1. The program consists of William Kraft's Timpani Concerto No. 2, "The Grand Encounter," and Schubert's Symphony No. 9. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand.
The big news about the St. Louis Symphony concerts this weekend (April 29-May 1) is the local premiere of the Timpani Concerto No. 2, "The Grand Encounter," written in 2005 by former Los Angeles Philharmonic Principal Timpani William Kraft. SLSO Principal Timpani Shannon Wood will be the soloist. We chatted briefly via email about the music and his relationship with his instrument of choice.
Chuck Lavazzi: I imagine when most people hear the words "timpani concerto" they probably wonder how much music you can really get out of a few kettledrums. But Kraft's concerto actually calls for a virtual timpani orchestra. Tell us about what people will actually see at Powell this weekend.
Shannon Wood: It's true that the very words "timpani concerto" summon a loud, bangy, 'drummy' sensibility to most, but Kraft steers away from cliché devices and rhythmic patterns that often become trite and he instead pushes the limits of range by incorporating nine tenor timpani suspended on a rack written for C#-A above staff (bass clef). On the floor he writes for six pedal drums ranging from a low C below staff to a high C above staff. The entire range of the concerto spans nearly three octaves. This collection of 15 drums allows for extensive lyrical writing resulting in a musical composition full of melodies and phrases. The sheer set up is enthralling and captivating. Kraft is a jazz lover and his use of 7th, 9, 11 and 13 chords is throughout the concerto. The Epilogue even has a section that is reminiscent of a jazz combo consisting of solo timpani, percussion, piano and harp. The Timpani are muted and played with bundles of rattan in place of traditional mallets, which to me depicts a jazz kit played by brushes on coated heads.
Chuck: How do you see Kraft's Second Concerto comparing with other works in the form that you've had experience with? You mentioned the lyricism and jazz; what do you see other differences or similarities?
Shannon: I see more melodic use of the Timpani compared with other works of the same form. The writing is more mature and less gimmicky. The melodic motifs are developed and built upon throughout the work. This concerto also stretches the limits of the performer. It's very athletic and the range of motion is vast. The work also demands the player to stand while pedaling, which is challenging.
Chuck: That suggests my next question: Aside from the aerobics, are there other aspects of the Kraft concerto makes that make it different from what a timpanist normally does with the orchestra? Are there things you've had to do to prepare for it that are a stretch for you?
Shannon: Yes, there are several aspects to this concerto that call upon the player to do things outside of the traditional boundaries of orchestral repertoire; the first being reading above the staff. It's rare a Timpanist has written notes higher than a C above the staff. This work has notes written as high as an A above staff. The range of motion is extreme, calling upon the player to rotate in a complete 360 at times and reaching far beyond the normal playing sphere radius. It also calls upon the player to perform glissandos across six pedal drums continuously without pause or interruption with one foot while standing on the other.
A few things I've had to do in preparation of this concerto that have been a stretch for me is expanding my range of motion and memorizing placement / location of timpani in places I usually don't have drums as well as reading above the staff which is unusual for me. I normally sit while playing, however it would be impossible to sit because of the high degree of athleticism involved. Standing on one foot while pedaling a glissando across six drums is very difficult as well.
Chuck: One final question: I've always wondered what motivates musicians to choose particular instruments. I remember being fascinated with the euphonium, for example, when they first introduced us to the school band back in fifth grade and I went on to play it and other low brass right through high school. What made you choose percussion in general in the timpani in particular? What's the source of the appeal for you?
Shannon: I gravitated towards drums at a very early age. My parents bought me a toy drum set when I was around 5 and the match was made. At 7, I was turning my mother's show boxes upside down, drawing circles in the center imitating black dots reminiscent of REMO black dot drum heads and I'd use chop sticks to play on the makeshift drums. At age 9, my father got me drum set lessons as a birthday present. In fourth grade I started a rock band which consisted of my brother on bass, best friend on guitar, and me on drums. We played together through college writing mainly our own material, which was prog-rock (YES, RUSH, King Crimson). I journeyed through the public school system music program playing percussion and upon graduation decided to major in music in percussion performance. I continued on with grad school and after a few stops in several other places landed here. Although I've always had a love for percussion and drum set, I started to focus solely on Timpani after grad school in private studies and that's when I knew I wanted to play Timpani exclusively.
The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the Orchestra in two different programs April 29-May 1. With violin soloist Celeste Golden Boyer, he presents a Whitaker Foundation "Music You Know" concert on Friday, April 29, at 8 p.m. featuring works by Ponchielli and Dukas as well as a new work by Stefan Freund. On Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., he conducts the local premier of William Kraft's Timpani Concerto No. 2 with soloist Shannon Wood, as well as Schubert's monumental Symphony No. 9, "The Great."
You might have noticed that there's no Friday, April 29, performance this weekend of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert featuring William Kraft's Timpani Concerto No. 2 and Schubert's Symphony No. 9. That's because Friday's "Storytelling" program is the last of the season's Whitaker Foundation "Music You Know" concerts. David Robertson is on the podium, SLSO violinist Celeste Golden Boyer is the soloist, and here's what you can expect.
Bernstein: Candide Overture -- Leonard Bernstein's 1956 operetta Candide, based on the satire by Voltaire, has been through almost as many changes as its titular hero. By the time it opened on Broadway, it had already gone through a string of lyricists (including Dorothy Parker and James Agee) and over a dozen revisions by Lillian Hellman of her original book. Various incarnations of the show continued to pop up for the ensuing decades, including a 1973 Harold Prince "revival" that jettisoned half of the score and (after moving to the Broadway Theatre the following year) ended up over $150,000 in the red despite a string of Tony and Critics Circle awards. Somehow, the lively and tune-filled overture has remained largely intact.
Ponchielli: "Dance of the Hours" from La Gioconda -- Fans of Disney's Fantasia will, of course, recognize this as the music that accompanies a zoological ballet, while fans of the late Allan Sherman will immediately think of his hit "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter from Camp)." Some of us think of both simultaneously, but that's another story. In Ponchielli's opera (which still gets performed now and then, especially in Italy), the title of which translates literally as "The Happy Woman," the ballet sequence comes towards the end of an otherwise dramatically grim Act III, the action of which includes the apparent suicide of the protagonist.
Vitali (orch. Charlier): Chaconne in G minor for Violin and Orchestra -- The chaconne is a series of variations on a repeating figure in the bass line. The form was popular during the Baroque period, which is when Tomaso Antonio Vitali (March 7, 1663 -- May 9, 1745) was composing. This chaconne is just about the only one of his works which is played with any frequency these days--which is somewhat ironic, given that it's not entirely clear whether or not he actually wrote it. This arrangement is by Léopold Charlier, about whom even less is known than about Vitali. Celeste Golden Boyer will be the violin soloist.
Humperdinck: Prelude to Hänsel und Gretel -- Engelbert Humperdinck (the original German composer, not the 1960s singer who appropriated his name) was a protégé of Richard Wagner, so it's not surprising that the prelude to his 1893 opera sounds more than a little bit like the one his mentor wrote for Die Meistersinger (note, in particular, the contrapuntal section towards the end). It's big, complex music for a modest fairytale story.
Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice -- Speaking of Fantasia, Paul Dukas's popular 1897 tone poem has, perhaps, become far too closely associated with a certain animated rodent for its own good, so it's always good to hear it live, in an environment in which those delicate opening measures can emerge from complete silence. The inspiration for both the music and Disney's animation was a 1797 poem by Goethe, Der Zauberlehrling. Dukas wrote other works that deserve at least as much attention as this one, by the way. His 1896 Symphony in C, for example, is a very dramatic and colorful piece that deserves far more attention than it has gotten.
Stefan Freund: Cyrillic Dreams -- The "Music You Know" concerts always include at least one work that you probably don't know, but should. This time around, that work is by a composer who is an associate professor at the University of Missouri, the cellist and one of the co-founders of the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, artistic director of the Mizzou New Music Initiative, and the principal conductor and music director of the Columbia Civic Orchestra. Which is not a bad collection of accomplishments for someone in his early forties. The composer is quoted in Eddie Silva's program notes as saying that Cyrillic Dreams was inspired by a series of dreams in which he was surrounded by the daunting and foreign letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, as well as by "the colorful domes and clamorous bells of Moscow and St. Petersburg," which he visited in 2008.
As my friend Dean Minderman pointed out to me in a recent email, this is one of just eight works by living composers on this year's schedule, and marks the second time in three seasons the SLSO has played a work by a Missouri composer. The last time it was Stephanie Berg's entertaining Ravish and Mayem back in 2014.
Wagner: "Ride of the Valkyries" (arr. Hutschenruyter) from Die Walküre -- Maybe you associate this music with the words "kill da waabit." Or possibly with "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Or maybe just with the image of women in helmets singing very forcefully. It is, in any case, an integral part of the musical DNA of the Western world and an appropriately rousing final work for the concert.
The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Celeste Golden Boyer on Friday, April 29, at 8 p.m. The performance takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand.
The St. Louis Symphony concerts this weekend (April 22-24, 2016) offered a remarkable study in contrasts, with familiar classics by Mendelssohn, Sibelius, and Dvořák getting novel, idiosyncratic, and very compelling interpretations by French singer and conductor Nathalie Stutzmann in her SLSO debut.
Ms. Stutzmann's dual career path as both a singer and conductor is unusual, if not unique. And while I don't want to read too much into that, it's hard not to hear in her performances the kind of direct emotional connection that I get from an accomplished singer.
In the cabaret world we talk a lot about the importance of having a strong emotional connection to the music and lyrics of our songs. That's the kind of strong connection I heard in Ms. Stutzmann's approach to the oft-heard works on the program this weekend. It made me hear them in different ways that shed new light on the music. In this respect she reminded me of the late Leopold Stokowski, whose work I admired tremendously even when it wasn't entirely to my taste--which was sometimes the case with Ms. Stutzmann.
The exceptionally delicate and slow opening of Mendelssohn's The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) Overture, for example, suggested an overblown and even lethargic approach to this depiction of the Scottish seacoast. But while Ms. Stutzmann's extreme contrasts of tempo and dynamics sometimes felt more appropriate to Bruckner than Mendelssohn, the overall result was fascinating and even revelatory at times. To pick just one example: the full-orchestra climaxes, with Shannon Wood's tympani projecting forcefully over the rest of the band from his position on an elevated platform upstage center, vividly evoked the stormy landscape that had so impressed Mendelssohn. I wouldn't call this a definitive interpretation by any means, but I'm glad I heard it.
There was a similar interpretive freedom in the Sibelius Violin Concerto which, like the Mendelssohn, opened so quietly that the first few notes were almost inaudible, with soloist Karen Gomyo's entrance seemingly floating in from another plane of existence. This was another ear-opening performance, with orchestral details revealed in high contrast. It made the long-winded first movement feel even more discursive than it usually does, but the overall result was stunning in its impact.
It helped that Ms. Gomyo is such a technically proficient and artistically committed performer. The violin was Jean Sibelius's first musical love and his concerto is both thoroughly idiomatic and incredibly demanding. The long solo passages in the first movement and virtuoso fireworks in the finale will test the mettle of the best performers. Ms. Gomyo handled it all with aplomb, delivering the intense passion of the second movement and fireworks of the third with equal credibility. She was also completely in synch with Ms. Stutzmann, often moving and (seemingly) even breathing together.
The concluding work on the program, Dvořák's Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 has always been a favorite of mine, for reasons that are difficult to articulate. I can't hear it without thinking of a long journey down a dark mountain river. Flashes of light illuminate the trip, but we don't see the sun until the work's final moments, when the tonality changes from D minor to D major.
Maintaining a strong rhythmic pulse and a sense of momentum, then, have always been the hallmarks of a great Dvořák Seventh for me. Ms. Stutzmann's interpretation had both, despite an opening tempo which felt a bit slow but turned out in the end to be exactly right for the musical structure she was creating. By the time she got to the end of the energetic third movement Scherzo, she had built up such a head of steam that the decision to go straight to the final movement attacca (without pause) felt not just right but actually inevitable. I wouldn't want this to be anyone's only exposure to Dvořák's masterpiece, given the number of fine recordings available out there, but it was entirely original and, taken on its own terms, entirely successful.
Ms. Stutzmann's style on the podium, by the way, is as uniquely personal as her conceptualization of the music. She sways and dances with the music, virtually sculpting phrases out of the air with gestures that could be encompass everything from her fingers to her entire upper body. And she does it all with a delighted smile that suggests a real pleasure in the business of making music. That sense of joy on the part of a performer is always infectious and goes a long way towards winning over an audience.
Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the orchestra in two different programs April 29 through May 1. With violin soloist Celeste Golden Boyer, he presents a Whitaker Foundation Music You Know concert on Friday, April 29, at 8 p.m. that features works by Ponchielli and Dukas as well as a new work by Stefan Freund. On Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., he conducts the local premier of William Kraft's Tympani Concerto No. 2 with soloist Shannon Wood, as well as Schubert's monumental Symphony No. 9 ("The Great"). For more information, visit stlsymphony.org.