Music history is full of surprises. This past weekend the St. Louis Symphony juxtaposed the “Six Pieces for Orchestra” by Anton Webern (1883-1945) with the “Four Last Songs” of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and the “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). It was astonishing to realize that the atonal, “avant-garde” pieces by Webern were written nearly 40 years before the lushly romantic songs of Strauss. Moreover, the Webern pieces were composed more than 100 years ago, even though today they still sound brash and innovative.
Quick question: without looking out of a window or using Google, do you know what phase the moon is in tonight? If the answer is "no," don't feel bad; thanks to the ubiquity of electric light, most of us have lost our connection to the moon and stars. Indeed, a nearly complete disconnect from the natural world is both the blessing and the curse of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
John Storgårds, the Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and this past weekend's (October 23and 24, 2015) St. Louis Symphony Orchestra guest conductor, is a big man with a magisterial podium presence. In fact, "magisterial" is how I'd characterize his approach to the Beethoven "Egmont" Overture that opened the program. Tempi were on the slow side and orchestral details were highlighted, which gave the final triumphal pages of the score that much more impact.
One of the things all three composers in last weekend's all-American St. Louis Symphony concerts had in common was that they had all written music for movies. In that respect, they were following a time-honored tradition that goes back centuries.
It's no doubt true, as René Spencer Saller observes in her program notes, that Richard Wagner was Beethoven's biggest fanboy, with an adoration of the latter's "Symphony No. 9" in D minor, Op. 125 ("Choral") that bordered on obsession. I'm less convinced of her statement that Wagner's last opera, "Parsifal," has "a lot in common" with Beethoven's last symphony, though.
Opening night of Michael Tilson Thomas's remarkable "visualization" of Beethoven's towering "Missa Solemnis" with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, soloists, and the Pacific Boychoir last weekend (June 11-13, 2015) stirred up some real passion among us members of the Music Critics Association of North America, who were in town for our annual conference. Not all of it was positive.
If the 1807 premiere of Beethoven's "Mass in C major" at the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy had been as good as the performance we got from David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Friday night, the prince might have been less of a jerk with the composer afterwards.
This weekend two of the three works on the St. Louis Symphony program are making their first appearances on the Powell Hall Stage. That's not exactly news; the SLSO has given local audiences a good many local and even world premieres over the years. What's remarkable is that this time the local premieres are by Beethoven.
Great composers are great because they have important things to say. But it takes a great conductor and great musicians to fully express the composer's ideas. Fortunately, the St. Louis Symphony delivered mightily in all three areas this weekend.
This weekend the St. Louis Symphony presents an all-Beethoven program with violin soloists Helen Kim and Xiaoxiao Qiang (from the SLSO strings) and pianist Orli Shaham. Ms. Shaham will be performing Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” I had a brief chat with her via email regarding both the upcoming concert and her new CD “American Grace,” which features the music of John Adams and Stephen Mackey.