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Friday, 18 October 2013 12:00

Symphony Preview: Invitation to the dance + Video

Design by F. Gaanen for the décor of Act II of Swan Lake, Moscow, 1877 Design by F. Gaanen for the décor of Act II of Swan Lake, Moscow, 1877
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The tragic ending version of SWAN LAKE. Video by

This weekend the St. Louis Symphony is presenting two separate programs: the regular concert series on Friday and Sunday with Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu on the podium and Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma as the soloist; and the annual "Red Velvet Ball" fundraiser concert on Saturday night with David Robertson conducting and celebrity cellist Yo-Yo Ma in the solo spot.  In this article I'll just deal with the regular series.

The unifying theme for this weekend, as Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, is "song and dance"—with the emphasis on the latter.  The concerts open with Bela Bartók’s 1923 Dance Suite, written in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the unification of the Hungarian cities Óbuda, Buda, and Pest to form the national capitol Budapest.  A pioneering ethnomusicologist as well as celebrated composer and pianist, Bartók spent much of 1908 tramping through the Hungarian countryside with fellow composer Zoltán Kodály collecting Magyr folk tunes.  The spiky melodies and complex ployrhythms of that music would strongly influence what both composers produced from then on.

The Dance Suite is an excellent example.  Its six short movements (the entire thing runs around 15-17 minutes) are inspired by (but not direct quotes of) Wallachian, Hungarian, and even Arabic songs and dances—the latter stemming mostly from a 1913 trip the composer took to Algeria.  Even if you're not aware of the complex logic behind the organization of the suite (which you can read about at the Kennedy Center's web site), you'll still be able to appreciate the endless melodic and rhythmic invention involved.

Fun Fact: if you want to know what the kind of music Bartók collected sounds like, check out John Unlemann's Music from the Hills show over at 88.1 KDHX.  The two most recent episodes are available for on-demand listening.  

Simone Lamsma
Photo: Otto van den Toorn

Taking us into intermission is the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 63.  Prokofiev wrote it in 1935, two years after he returned to his native Russia from 15 years of self-imposed exile in the West and one year before he was officially repatriated.  Prokofiev was happy to return home, as the warmth of the main melody of the second movement seems to attest.  But the outer movements have a drama and drive that frankly sounds a bit ominous at times.  It's a piece that demands a high degree of virtuosity from the soloist but given Simone Lamsma's impressive Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 with the symphony back in March of 2011 (I called it a "remarkably seamless and powerful reading") I don't expect that to be an issue.

Fun Fact: The 2nd concerto represents a turn to a simple and more popular style that marks Prokofiev's music in the 1930s.  It's written for a smallish orchestra with a percussion battery that includes castanets—possibly a nod to the fact that the piece was premiered in Madrid.

The concerts conclude with a suite from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet.  Written for the Bolshoi Ballet, the work was not especially well received at its March 3, 1877 premiere—partly because the original choreographer, Julius Reisinger, was (frankly) a hack who failed to do the music justice.  It might have languished in obscurity if it hadn't made such an impression on Marius Petipa who, together with Tchaikovsky's brother Modest, staged the ballet's second act as part of a posthumous tribute to the composer in November of 1893.  It was so successful that a fully revised version was eventually staged for the Mariinsky Theatre in 1895 with considerable success.  Today, Swan Lake is probably the most famous ballet in the world and one of the most frequently performed.

Hannu Lintu
Photo: Kaapo Kamu

The suite for this weekend's concerts skips back and forth among the ballet's four acts.  We get many of the most memorable scenes, including the iconic "Dance of the cygnets"—possibly the best-known en pointe number of all time—and the triumphant finale, in which the famous oboe theme that sets the nocturnal scene for the beginning of Act II undergoes a triumphant transformation in the brasses.  This is sure-fire material and looks like a good match for conductor Lintu's dramatic and commanding presence on the podium (as demonstrated by his appearance here back in February).

Fun Fact: The scenario summary Paul Schiavo cites in his program notes is the one that ends tragically with Odette, the enchanted swan princess, throwing herself into the titular lake and drowning after the unintentional betrayal by Prince Siegfried, who has been seduced into marrying the black swan Odile by the evil magician Rothbart.  Seigfried follows her and drowns himself as well.  Their sacrifice kills Rothbart and breaks the spell that turned the princesses into swans.  As the music turns triumphant and the sun rises, and we see the lovers rising from the lake, united in death.  That scenario was not the one used in 1877, though, and many productions (including the current Mariinsky version) have gone back to the original happy ending in which Siegfried kills Rothbart to the triumphal trumpets, destroying his magic and uniting Odette and Siegfried in life rather than death.  The music works either way, which strikes me as rather cool.

This program will be presented twice: Friday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, October 18 and 20 (no Saturday this time since that's the night of the Red Velvet Ball).  For more information:

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