Three of the four composers whose music David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony will perform this weekend were ardent musical Nationalists, which means they used their compositions to advocate for the cultures of their native countries. Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) and Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) were Czech patriots promoting the artistic and (in the case of Smetana) political independence of their homeland from the Austro-Hungarian Empire while Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was passionate about the legends and landscape of Finland. The fourth composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928- ), isn’t generally regarded as a Nationalist per se, but he does draw inspiration from the Finnish countryside and folk tales.
Smetana’s music often has specific references to Czech legend and lore, so it’s only right that he’s represented here by two of the six tone poems that make up his epic cycle Má vlast (My Fatherland): Vyšehrad and the massively popular Vltava (more popularly known by its German name, The Moldau).
Vyšehrad, which opens the program, begins with a long introduction depicting the song of the bard Lumir, playing inside the great hall of the castle of Vyšehrad. A more dramatic central section suggests the strife that would characterize Czech history, after which the calmer voice of the bard returns. A few troubled final bars, though, suggest that the calm won’t last. When you listen to Vyšehrad, notice how important the harp is as the voice of the bard. In the program book, principal harpist Allegra Lilly notes that the “big, rolled chords which are interspersed with arpeggiated passages” in the introduction help to “create a magical sound, a mystical element appropriate to the piece.”
Vltava (which closes the program) is straightforward scene painting, vividly illustrating the course of the river Vltava from placid mountain stream to raging torrent at the St. John rapids (which manifest themselves as big crashing chords towards the end). The bard’s theme from Vyšehrad pops up again near the end as well, to provide some artistic unity. When I was young, The Moldau (as it was usually known) was very popular with teachers of “music appreciation” courses (do they still have those?) because it was short (around 12 minutes) and the structure was simple. It’s very appealing stuff.
Dvořák’s nationalism tends to show itself more in reverence for the Czech countryside, which is very much on display in In Nature’s Realm, op. 91. “Dvořák’s pure woodwind colors,” writes René Spencer Saller in her program notes, “and richly layered strings perfectly evoke the cries of birds, the murmuring of woodland streams, the sighing of wind in the trees.” It’s musical painting of a high order; some of Dvořák’s most profound and touching work was inspired by his love of nature.
Originally the piece was the first of a cycle of three symphonic poems with the omnibus title Nature, Life, and Love. “His intention,” writes Denby Richards, the late editor of Musical Opinion magazine, “was to explore every possible facet of nature and life and the effect they have had on the soul of man.” These days the three works are usually performed separately under the titles In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, and Othello. Which is rather a pity, as there are thematic relationships among them that make more sense when they're performed as Dvořák originally intended.
Sibelius is represented by his Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47. The violin was Jean Sibelius’s first musical love. He began playing as a child and showed great promise as a performer, despite an elbow fracture that impeded his bowing technique. Even after it became clear that his real talent was for composition, he continued to play in chamber ensembles and even teach the instrument. It’s no surprise, then, that his Violin Concerto—originally presented in 1903 and then again in a substantially revised form in 1905—is both thoroughly idiomatic and incredibly demanding. The long solo passages in the first movement and virtuoso fireworks in the finale will test the mettle of the best performers.
Fortunately, the symphony has one of the best violinists around as soloist this weekend: Joshua Bell. Born in Bloomington Indiana, Mr. Bell, who turns 46 on December 9th, began taking violin lessons at age four. By 14 he was already appearing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He made his Carnegie Hall appearance at the age of 17 with our own St. Louis Symphony. Today he is very much in demand as a soloist with notable orchestras worldwide. As of 2011, he also became the music director of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the Fields—the first person to hold that post since the orchestra was founded in 1958 by Sir Neville Marriner. He recorded the Sibelius concerto for Sony in 2000, so he should be very comfortable with the piece.
Like many music lovers, I expect, I discovered the last composer on this weekend’s program, Einojuhani Rautavaara, via a recording of his most well known work Cantus Arcticus (1972). Subtitled “Concerto for Birds and Orchestra,” this three-movement work uses recordings of birds from near the Arctic Circle to weave a remarkable musical tapestry.
It seems only fitting, then, that the Rautavaara piece we’ll hear this weekend—Lintukoto (Isle of Bliss) from 2001— is inspired by a Finnish poem about the mythical isle of Lintukoto, a paradisaical place where birds migrate for the winter and where all the inhabitants are dwarves because the sky is so close to the ground. There’s a kind of hallucinatory wildness to the music which should make for an interesting contrast from the Dvořák that precedes it and the Smetana the follows it. Still, all three pieces are fine examples of nature rendered as music, which makes for a nice through line in the second half of the concert.
David Robertson and The St. Louis Symphony, with violinist Joshua Bell, perform Smetana's Vyšehrad, Sibelius's Violin Concerto, Dvořák’s In Nature's Realm, Rautavaara's Lintukoto (Isle of Bliss), and Smetana's Vltava at Powell Hall in Grand Center on Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. For more information: stlsymphony.org.