This weekend Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony are offering a pair of symphonies which, while originating in vastly different musical and cultural worlds, still have their roots in a love of nature and the sense of renewal that comes with spring.
Franz Schubert died at age 31 and Mozart never made it to 36. So their music will always have the freshness and enthusiasm of youth.
"Music of a Bygone Era"
Back before the advent of recorded sound, when a home music system was the piano in the parlor, the odds were good that said piano would be accompanied by one or more bound volumes of short pieces intended for amateur performance. They might contain anything from bagatelles by Beethoven or humoresques by Dvorak to occasional pieces by lesser composers to arrangements of popular songs.
If you're going to bring in a singer as a last-minute substitute, it's good to have one like tenor Nicholas Phan, who has clearly internalized the music and made it his own. His performance of Britten's song cycle "Les Illuminations" with David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Friday night was—well—luminous. So was Marc-André Dalbavie's ethereally lovely "La Source d'un regard," a 2007 work getting its local premiere. The evening closed with a bold and dramatic Tchaikovsky "Symphony No. 5" which was not to be missed.
The St. Louis Symphony has a long history with Carl Orff's 1936 “scenic cantata" "Carmina Burana," from its first performance back in 1961 with Edouard Van Remoortel on the podium to David Robertson's nicely balanced performance back in May of 2011. There's even a fine 1994 recording with Leonard Slatkin and an all-star lineup of soloists that is apparently still available both in disc form and as an MP3 download from amazon.com.
When pianist Conrad Tao appeared with the SLSO in February of 2013—as a last-minute replacement for an ailing Markus Groh—I described him as a tremendously talented young man at the beginning of what looked like a very promising career. This weekend Mr. Tao (who is still not 20 years old) validated that judgment with a Saint-Saëns "Piano Concerto No. 2" that was a model of power and delicacy.
Although both Jean Sibelius and Dmitry Shostakovich are both products of the early and mid-20th century, many differences separate the two. Sibelius was more oriented towards traditional harmony and melody, whereas Shostakovich tilted at times to the atonality and abruptness that eventually became a tradition of its own by the end of the 20th century, and perhaps a trite one at that.
The OnMusic Dictionary (at dictionary.onmusic.org) defines attacca as "a musical directive for the performer to begin the next movement (or section) of a composition immediately and without pause." Lately the symphony has been experimenting with playing compositions by different composers attacca as a way of highlighting similarities between the pieces. This weekend's bit of attacca might be the boldest yet, following the prelude to Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" (first performed in 1859) with Arnold Schoenberg's neurasthenic 1909 "monodrama" "Erwartung" ("Expectation").
Highlighting this weekend's St. Louis Symphony concerts is a pair impressive performances of works written right here in the good old USA (including one premiered in St. Louis) by visitors from abroad: Erich Wolfgang Korngold's 1945 "Violin Concerto" and Dvořák's 1893 "Symphony No. 9" ("From the New World").
The text of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, with its apocalyptic images of death and redemption, has inspired composers to produce some of their most profound and idiosyncratic work. The Italian operatic master Giuseppe Verdi, while so indifferent to religion that he was effectively an agnostic, was no exception. His 1874 "Messa da Requiem," inspired by the deaths of Rossini and the Italian poet and patriot Alessandro Manzoni, overflows with brilliantly theatrical moments, from the hair-raising Dies Irae to the heartfelt Recordare and epic Libera Me. A good performance should not spare the drama.