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Tuesday, 06 May 2014 20:08

Symphony Preview: Daily Variety + Video

Symphony Preview: Daily Variety
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The symphony closes out its regular season this week as David Robertson returns to the podium for a program that features a dramatic Tchaikovsky symphony, a hallucinatory song cycle by Britten, and a new piece by a French composer of "spectralist" music. Variety? We've got it.

Marc-André Dalbavie

The program opens with "La Source d'un regard," composed on commission in 2007 by Marc-André Dalbavie. An admirer of the influential Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Dalbavie uses fragments from some of the older composer's works in this piece, but his compositional approach makes it unlikely that even the most dedicated admirer of Messiaen will recognize them.

"Dalbavie," writes Paul Schiavo in his program notes, "is one of a number of recent composers, mostly French, who have developed what has come to be called 'spectralism,' a music that derives its harmonies from overtones, the high-pitched resonance that accompanies musical pitches, usually below the threshold of hearing." The result is music so delicate that (as Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin wrote of the work's premiere there) "[a]spects of it—melody, for instance—are so subtle they seem written in invisible ink. Even the occasional sonic jab, while menacing, is not jarring enough to disturb the work's incredibly transporting quality." "Spectral" music is often microtonal—using intervals smaller than those normally heard in Western music—and tosses out conventional idea of harmonic or rhythmic motion. That should make it an interesting challenge for the audience as well as the orchestra.

Benjamin Britten in the 1960s

Benjamin Britten's 1939 song cycle "Les Illuminations" is up next. Begun in Suffolk but completed during a brief period of self-imposed exile in the USA (Britten was put off by what Mr. Schiavo describes as "a deepening political, social, and artistic conservatism" in England), the piece sets to music a collection of wildly imaginative poems by the eccentric French writer Arthur Rimbaud, a remarkable character who lived fast, died young (age 37), and produced his entire literary output before the age of 20. Possibly written under the mind-altering influences of absinthe and hashish, the poems present a succession of surrealistic pictures, culminating in a somewhat nightmarish parade. It's fanciful and fascinating stuff.

Although written for a soprano, "Les Illuminations" is often performed by a tenor. In fact, Britten's life partner (the great English tenor Peter Pears), made a recording of it with the composer conducting the English Chamber Orchestra—one that's regarded as a definitive interpretation. That's fortunate, since the originally scheduled soloist for these concerts—hometown gal Christine Brewer—had to cancel her appearance when it turned out her agent had booked her for a conflicting appearance as the Abbess in Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of "The Sound of Music" (she now has a new agent). It's tough enough when you have to change the soloist; much worse when the music changes as well.

In fact, Ms. Brewer was not the last performer to withdraw from "Les Illuminations". As the symphony announced in an April 29th press release, the tenor listed in the printed program, Andrew Kennedy, has been replaced by Nicholas Phan. The release doesn't give a reason for the change, although it does note that Mr. Phan was named one of National Public Radio's Favorite New Artists of 2011 and points out that he's no stranger to the Powell Hall stage, having appeared in the Bach "Christmas Oratorio" last December. At the time I was impressed with his ability to bring a theatrical sensibility to the role of the Evangelist without compromising the music. In a 2010 interview he talks about being obsessed with Britten, so I look forward to hearing what he does with this music.

Tchaikovsky in 1888

The concerts conclude with one of Pete Tchaikovsky's Greatest Hits, the "Symphony No. 5 in E minor," Op. 64, from 1888. Like the symphonies that bracket it, the fifth deals with the composer's obsession with fate and his attempt to find happiness despite what Mr. Schiavo describes as "difficult personal circumstances" and what I'd describe as the stress of being gay in Czarist Russia. If you need evidence of the pernicious effects of criminalizing sexual orientation, you need look no further than the pain and torment of Tchaikovsky's life.

Somewhat surprisingly (in light of its enduring popularity), Tchaikovsky began the symphony at a time when he thought he might be played out. "Have I written myself out?" he asked in an April 1888 letter to his brother Modest. "No ideas? No inclination? Still, I am hoping to collect materials for a symphony." He continued to question himself after the lukewarm critical reception of the piece at its November 17th, 1888, premiere in St. Petersburg (due, in part, to the composer's poor performance as a conductor). Audiences and musicians, however loved it—not only in St. Petersburg but later in Prague and Hamburg as well. Time, in any event, would vindicate him (if not necessarily during his lifetime).

“There's a monumental, an epic quality to this symphony," observes symphony Principal Horn Roger Kaza in the program book, "as with all of Tchaikovsky's late symphonies, although I find this one less tragic and fatalistic than the Fourth or Sixth. The Fifth is more exuberant throughout, and it contains absolutely brilliant strokes of genius." In an essay for the 1966 Penguin collection "The Symphony," the Austrian-born British music writer Hans Keller goes so far as to suggest that the Fifth "may be the most consistently outstanding" of all Tchaikovsky's symphonies in the way that the orchestration "offers original sounds at every change of texture. If this is not generally recognized, it is only because all these sonorities seem as natural and necessary as the hills."

The essentials: David Robertson conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and tenor Nicholas Phan in Britten's "Les Illuminations," along with Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 5" and the St. Louis premiere of Marc-André Dalbavie's "La Source d'un regard" Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, May 9-11, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. Washington University will sponsor a free informal Q&A session with maestro Robertson on the Orchestra Level immediately following the Friday concert. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via web stream.  For more information:

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