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Thursday, 20 March 2014 19:20

Symphony Preview: A New World + Video

Jascha Heifetz, who premiered the Korngold Violin Concerto with the SLSO in 1947 Jascha Heifetz, who premiered the Korngold Violin Concerto with the SLSO in 1947
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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This weekend David Robertson conducts the symphony in three "American" works. Granted, only one was written by an American; but all three were composed here and one even had its premiere in St. Louis.

Ingram Marshall

The music that opens the concerts, Ingram Marshall's "Bright Kingdoms," was first performed in Oakland, California, back in 2004. It's unusual in that it uses both live and recorded sounds—a compositional technique that Mr. Marshall has been playing with since his days as a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1960s. In 1971 a summer study trip to Indonesia exposed him to gamelan music with its altered sense of time and so that, too, became part of his vocabulary.

In his notes for the 2004 premiere, Mr. Marshall wrote that the recorded sound consists of "processed recordings" of a Swedish children's choir, including a boy singing a hymn whose words, in English, are: "Through the bright kingdoms of this early, go we to paradise with song."

"Unconsciously," he went on, "the music turned out to be about innocence, the kingdoms of innocence and the dissolution of those kingdoms. Several sections of the piece are for orchestra alone, one in particular being a threnody for strings about half way through, another being a series of brightly orchestrated passages near the beginning that might be heard as 'kingdoms.' Otherwise, the orchestra and 'soundtrack' are cohabitants."

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

The orchestra has plenty of experience playing along with recorded sounds—they did an entire program of it last week with "Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II," for example—so this is nothing new for them. Although I expect Mr. Marshall's stuff might be a bit more challenging than "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat."

Up next is Erich Wolfgang Korngold's "Violin Concerto in D major," op. 35, which first saw the light of day right here in Mound City back in 1947. Jascha Heifetz was the soloist, and on the podium was the French conductor Vladimir Golschmann. Golschmann was music director of the SLSO from 1931 to 1958 (the longest-reigning SLSO music director to date) and made a number of recordings with the orchestra.

Korngold's name will be familiar to classic film fans. Born in Moravia in 1897, Korngold was a child prodigy hailed as a "musical genius" by Gustav Mahler. He composed his first ballet at age 11 and his most famous opera, "Die tote Stadt," at 23. In 1934 director Max Reinhardt enticed Korngold to Hollywood to write the music for his lavish film version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (well worth seeing, despite the many cuts in Shakespeare's text). He returned to Austria, but was drawn back to California in 1938 to write the score for "The Adventures of Robin Hood." While he was there, Hitler's Anschluss of Austria took place, and Korngold became an émigré ("We thought of ourselves as Viennese," he would recall later; "Hitler made us Jewish.")

Dvořák with his friends and family in New York

Even if you didn't know Korngold was a film composer, you could guess it by the lush romantic sound of this music. You might also recognize some of the themes, as he recycled material from the films "Juarez" (1939), "Anthony Adverse" (1936), "Another Dawn" (1937), and—in the lively finale—"The Prince and the Pauper" (1937). It's flashy stuff and should fit nicely under the hands of soloist Gil Shaham (who is Mr. Robertson's brother-in-law).

Closing the concerts is the "Symphony No. 9 in E minor," op. 95, (“From the New World”) by Antonín Dvořák. The Czech master wrote it during a visit to America in the early 1890s and while he never explicitly quotes any American folk material, there's still something about this music that strongly suggests America. From the flute theme in the first movement that seems to echo "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," to the second movement Largo that has (at least for me) always evoked the majestic solitude of the plains (Dvořák said he wrote it after reading Longfellow's "Hiawatha"), to the "bluesy" flatted seventh chords of the finale, Dvořák "New World" symphony just shouts "USA"—even if it does so with a strong Czech accent.

Some critics have complained of the symphony's structural weaknesses and its episodic nature, but even they have had to confess that it's never anything less than tremendously appealing. It's one of the first "classical" works I ever encountered, and I've never lost my affection for it. If you've never heard it before, I'd bet it will strike you the same way.

The essentials: David Robertson conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist Gil Shaham in Marshall's Bright Kingdoms, Korngold's Violin Concerto, and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" on Friday at 10:30 AM and at 8 PM, and Saturday at 8 PM March 21 and 22, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM, HD 1, and on the Internet from the station web site.

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