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Thursday, 20 February 2014 23:37

Symphony Preview: Different strokes + Video

Bernard Labadie Bernard Labadie
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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When guest conductor Bernard Labadie takes the podium this weekend, he'll be leading a noticeably downsized St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. But never fear; nobody has been sacked. It's just that he's conducting a program of music written between 1763 and 1792, back when both orchestras and the halls in which they played were substantially smaller than they are now.

Kirstin Ahlstrom

Although only three decades separate the earliest work on the program (a suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1763 opera "Les Boréades") from the latest one (Haydn's 1792 "Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major," Hob. I:105), the difference in style is striking. Rameau had a very long and productive life (he died just short of what would have been his 81st birthday in September of 1764) and continued composing in the Baroque style long after it was seen as outdated and unfashionable. The developments in symphonic style heard in the Haydn and Mozart works on this weekend's program largely passed him by. Nevertheless, he remained popular and prosperous right to the end.

Given that it was written the year before he died, it won't surprise you to learn that Rameau never saw "Les Boréades" performed. What is a little surprising is that nobody who was alive at the time ever saw it performed either. For reasons which are not entirely clear, the first fully staged performance didn't occur until July 1982, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival with early music champion John Eliot Gardiner conducting. The piece is technically a tragédie en musique, which means it's based on a mythological subject and includes a lot of dances. You'll hear eight of them this weekend, including a fanciful "Gavottes pour les heures" in which, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, the composer has the "piccolos whirring over a rhythmically steady accompaniment to imitate the workings of a clock."

Philip Ross

The Haydn "Sinfonia concertante" is next. It dates from a time when the form of the solo concerto was not as well established as it would later become, so works for multiple solo instruments and orchestra were common. Haydn wrote his for the first of his two visits to London, a city that embraced him both artistically and financially (“I made four thousand guilders this evening,” wrote Haydn after the 1795 premiere of his 104th symphony).

It was apparently dashed off quickly, possibly in response to a bit of rivalry. "Londoners had become accustomed to the sinfonia concertante due to the energy of Johann Christian Bach," wrote Scott Fogelsong in the San Francisco Examiner in 2009, "whose many examples stand as some of the finest of the genre. Thus Haydn tossed his hat into the ring with his Sinfonia concertante in B-flat for violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon... His own student Pleyel had been making waves in the London concert scene during the same season, and quite possibly Haydn's work was a direct response to Pleyel's popular works. One gets a sense of Haydn grinning slightly and murmuring OK, hotshot, let the old man show you how it's done."

Andrew Gott

And show them he did. The piece was a hit. "A new concertante from HAYDN combined with all the excellencies of music," enthused the Morning Herald the next day; "it was profound, airy, affecting, and original, and the performance was in unison with the merit of the composition. SALOMON particularly exerted himself on this occasion, in doing justice to the music of his friend HAYDN." The soloists playing those "excellencies" this weekend are all members of the home team: Acting Co-Principal oboe Philip Ross, Associate Principal bassoon Andrew Gott, Associate Principal Second Violin Kirstin Ahlstrom, and Associate Principal cello Melissa Brooks. It's always good to see the local folks in the spotlight.

Melissa Brooks  

The second half of the concert features symphonies by the two giants of the Classical period, Haydn and Mozart. We begin with Haydn's "Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major," nicknamed "The Philosopher" possibly because of what the late Harold Truscott described as "the quizzical, semi-ponderous opening Adagio." The name first appears on a 1790 manuscript copy of the score found in Modena, according to Wikipedia, although we don't know who is responsible for it. To me, that opening movement has always conjured up the image of a thoughtful academic carefully laying out a mathematical proof or explaining a complex philosophical issue, so the sobriquet seems right.

Opening a symphony with an Adagio instead of a conventional fast movement with a slow introduction, by the way, was regarded as quite a novel idea when the piece was composed in 1764. "Nobody up to that time had thought of starting a symphony with a noble slow movement," writes Mark Elder in The Guardian, "nor had anybody ever thought of the extraordinary sound that the symphony begins with: a chorale played by two horns and two cor anglais against an incessant pattern of notes in the strings. It all gives this movement a strange, unexpected beauty."

The final work on the program—Mozart's "Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major," K. 543—is the first of a set of three that the composer dashed off in the summer of 1788. Nobody is really certain of the source of what Arthur V. Berger (in a New York City Symphony program note) called the "sudden efflorescence of inspiration" that produced Mozart's last and, in the estimation of many writers, greatest symphonies, but the results speak (or rather sing) for themselves.

K. 543 gets less attention than the other two, much as a normal human being would be less noticed standing next to a pair of NFL linebackers, but that doesn't make it any less a great composition. "This symphony," writes musicologist Andrew Firmer, "is...a prime example of the composer 's genius that he is not only able to conjure up melodies, but weave them with apparent contradictions that seem to connect with impossible ease." Those contradictions include Mozart's assimilation of the contrapuntal techniques he got from the music of Bach and Handel. "It was this synthesis of 'learned' style with the clean clarity of classicism," writes Brian Robins at allmusic.com, "that caused so much trouble for Mozart's contemporaries, to whom his late style became increasingly 'difficult.'" Today, with over two centuries of hindsight, it's clear that this "difficult" music is both ingeniously complex and wonderfully clear.

Labadie with Les Violons du Roy

Finally, a few words about guest conductor Bernard Labadie. The founder of early music ensembles Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, Labadie is widely regarded as a leading interpreter of music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Reviewing a concert by the former group at London's Barbican Center, the Telegraph called him "[A] fine instinctive musician. He moulds the phrases, plucks out all-important details in the texture and radiates an infectious joy in the music.” So we'll be hearing and expert's take on our Rameau, Haydn and Mozart.

The essentials: Bernard Labadie conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a suite from Rameau's "Les Boréades," Haydn's "Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major" and "Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major," and Mozart's "Symphony No. 39" in the same key. Performances are Friday at 10:30 AM (a Krispy Kreme coffee concert, with free doughnuts), Saturday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 3 PM, February 21-23, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and streaming from the station web site. But, of course, it 's best heard live.

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