Cindy McTee’s “Double Play”, the local premiere of which opened this weekend’s symphony concerts, probably counts as “inside baseball” in that it assumes that the listener is fairly familiar with Charles Ives’s 1906 orchestral miniature “The Unanswered Question”. That’s most obvious in the first movement (“The Unquestioned Answer”) of this 17-minute work, which is mostly an expansion on Ives’s original.
As in that original, a slow-moving theme in the strings is frequently interrupted by a “question” theme. In the Ives it’s played by a solo trumpet and never varies. In the McTee a variant of the Ives theme is first stated by the harp and vibes and then (in various transformations) by the winds and brass. A final statement of the theme on wood blocks and cowbells (Spike Jones would have loved that) leads to the lively second movement, “Tempus Fugit”.
Ms. McTee says its fast pace and jazzy harmonies “echo the multifaceted and hurried aspects of 21st-century American society,” but to me it all sounded mostly like a tribute to the “big bands” of the 1950s and 1960s, especially Woody Herman’s various Herds and Stan Kenton. Which, given that Ms. McTee apparently spent her childhood steeped in jazz, is not surprising.
“Double Play” was a great deal of fun to hear, both on Saturday night’s live broadcast with Leonard Slatkin at the podium and again on Sunday at Powell with Courtney Lewis, who replaced Mr. Slatkin for the final matinee. The musicians played brilliantly on both occasions. I hope they enjoyed presenting “Double Play” as much as my wife and I enjoyed hearing it.
The first half of the concert concluded with the first of the two “big” works on the program, Stravinsky’s 1930 “Symphony of Psalms”. Capping the first decade of his “neoclassical” period, the “Symphony” is a work of austere contrapuntal rigor. The high strings (violins and violas) are absent, replaced by the darker sonorities of oboes and the English horn, and the overall mood is somber even when the music is at its most energetic.
It’s not my favorite Stravinsky (philistine that I am, I prefer his earlier “Russian” period), but even so I was very much taken with this performance. The quality of the sound produced by Amy Kaiser’s chorus continues to amaze me, as does their ability to take on challenging music. The orchestra sounded equally fine, including some nice solos by Barbara Orland and Mark Sparks on oboe and flute, respectively, and lovely piccolo trumpet work from Karin Bliznik. Mr. Lewis brought it all together with a sure hand and a nice sense of dynamics and pacing.
For many of us, of course, the big draw on the program was likely Gustav Holst’s suite “The Planets”. Although not performed in public in its full form until 1919 or 1920 (depending on which account you accept), “The Planets” was mostly composed between 1914 and 1917 when Europe was deeply mired in World War I. It’s hard not to hear the influence of that in the mindless violence suggested by “Mars, the Bringer of War”, with its dogged 5/4 march and angry fanfares that go nowhere, as well as in the yearning for tranquility in “Venus, the Bringer of Peace”.
Mostly, though, “The Planets” reflects Holst’s fascination with astrology. He became an avid devotee in 1913, even casting his own horoscopes. His “Planets,” as a result, aren’t so much the gods of Greco-Roman legend (although “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” comes close) or the astronomical bodies as they are aspects of the human psyche supposedly influenced by those bodies. Each one of the seven movements is a mini tone poem capturing, for example, good-humored warmth (“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”), comic pomposity (“Uranus, the Magician”), or even the rage against the dying of the light and ultimate serenity that come with aging (“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”). That last one has particular resonance with me, now that I’m only a few months away from qualifying for Medicare.
“The Planets” is also a brilliant exercise in orchestration. Holst calls for a massive ensemble, including harps, celesta, organ, and rarely heard instruments like the bass oboe (its mournful sound used most tellingly in “Saturn”, beautifully played by Cally Banham). For the conductor, then, the challenge is to do justice to both the big moments and the delicate, ethereal ones. Mr. Lewis certainly did that at Sunday’s performance. From the thunder of “Mars” to the final, otherworldly sounds of “Neptune”, it all worked wonderfully. The orchestra played like a dream and the many exposed solo parts (such as Barbara Orland’s in “Venus”) were flawless. I also like Mr. Lewis’s tempo choices a bit more than Mr. Slatkin’s although, one could hardly argue with either one.
Perhaps the most interesting interpretive choice (presumably Mr. Slatkin’s, but also observed by Mr. Lewis) involved the staging of the final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.” The score calls for a worldess women’s chorus "to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed." The final bar of the music, for voices alone, is "to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance."
The last time I heard the symphony do “The Planets”, Holst was followed to the letter, with the chorus placed offstage right and the stage door slowly closed. This time around, the chorus was placed (as far as I could tell) at the back of the house, so that, at least from our seats in the first row of the dress circle, the sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere—most appropriate for this ethereal music. As the end of the piece approached, the house and stage lights were lowered until, by the time those last two bars were sung, the entire auditorium was in darkness.
I don’t often get to use the phrase coup de théâtre in a music review, but in this case I can’t think of a more appropriate phrase. It was magical.
Next on the calendar: Gilbert Varga conducts Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila” Overture, Bartók’s “Piano Concerto No. 3,” and the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Peter Serkin is the pianist. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3, January 25-27. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org