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Wednesday, 23 October 2013 06:00

Symphony Preview: Pulitzer prizes

Daniel Lee Daniel Lee danielleecello.com / Tuan Lee
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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This is another “twofer” week when it comes to St. Louis Symphony concerts.  In addition to the regular series as Powell Hall on Friday and Saturday there’s a Pulitzer Series event on Wednesday at the Pulitzer Center for the Arts just west of Powell Hall.  If you’ve never been to the Pulitzer Series, here’s a heads-up.

The first thing you need to know is that the Pulitzer Center is a gallery space, so it doesn’t have a concert hall or anything remotely resembling one.  What it does have is a steep, wide set of stairs leading down to an open area that’s large enough to hold a half-dozen musicians and a piano.  The audience sits on chairs placed on the steps.  Sight lines are not always ideal and the acoustics are very live since there are hard surfaces everywhere.

That said, the times I’ve been there the sound has been pretty decent.  The live acoustics seem to work well for the small chamber pieces that make up the Pulitzer series.

The concerts are usually short (around one hour) and the repertoire tends to be rarely heard pieces composed within the last 100 years.  This past February, for example, mezzo-soprano Debby Lennon and actress Barbara Sukowa joined David Robertson and members of the symphony for arresting performances of Schoenberg’s hallucinatory Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses (“Songs of Madagascar”) from 1926.  Last summer there was a particularly riveting evening of George Crumb’s dramatic Black Angels from 1971 and Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated! from 1975 (the latter in a bravura performance by symphony pianist Peter Henderson).

This Wednesday’s concert features cellist Danny Lee and violinist Helen Kim performing Pierre Boulez’s Anthèmes for Solo Violin and Kodály‘s Sonata in B minor for Solo Cello.  The former is a short (under 10 minutes) piece commissioned by the Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition in 1991 and dedicated to Alfred Schlee (then director of classical music publisher Universal Edition) on the occasion of his 90th birthday.  It’s a characteristically dense and complex work built on a seven-note figure and a trill on the note D.  How complex?  Well, Jonathan Goldman at the University of Montreal wrote an exhaustive analysis of the work in 2001 that runs to 134 pages, including footnotes.  I doubt that it’s required reading, though.

Fun fact: Boulez expanded Anthèmes in 1994.  The new version—twice as long and using live electronic sounds in addition to the violin—became Anthèmes II.  The original solo piece is now known as Anthèmes I.

The Kodály dates from 1915 and is likely to be more approachable.  Like much of the composer’s work, it’s heavily influenced by the folk music he and his fellow composer Bela Bartók recorded during their 1908 musicological tramp through the Hungarian countryside, although the influence of Debussy (whose music he had encountered a couple years earlier) can also be heard.  It’s in three movements (“Allegro maestoso ma appassionato,” “Adagio con grand’ espressione,” and Allegro molto vivace”) and runs around a half hour.  The folk elements are most obvious in the flashy final movement.

Fun fact: Judged physically unfit for military service in World War I, Kodály became part of a group of volunteers tasked with guarding the important national monuments of Budapest.  The sonata dates from those wartime years.

The Pulitzer Concert is at 7:30 PM on Wednesday, October 23rd.  For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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