It has been a heavy month or so for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. On November 16th they performed Britten 's dramatic Peter Grimes at Powell, followed by a repeat performance at Carnegie Hall on November 22nd, Britten 's centenary. At the same time they were rehearsing the first three cantatas of Bach 's 1734-35 Christmas Oratorio for concerts this Friday and Saturday (December 6 and 7) with David Robertson and the orchestra.
In case you thought music only got political in the 1960s, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. The great composers whose music fills concert halls these days were often very politically active and weren’t shy about expressing their politics in their music.
Writing in the Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, Donald Paine notes that Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," written for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, "may stand as representative of his genius and of the theme that recurs throughout his work: the indictment of human folly as it shows itself both in the tragedy and wastage of war and in the corruption of human innocence."
Before the first note sounded at Saturday night’s Red Velvet Ball fundraiser concert, the evening was already a success, in that it had raised over $600,000 for the symphony. In return for all that cash, the near-capacity crowd at Powell Hall got a solid evening of great music from the orchestra under David Robertson and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
As I wrote in a previous post, there are two St. Louis Symphony concerts this weekend: the regular concert series on Friday and Sunday with Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu on the podium and Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma as the soloist; and the annual "Red Velvet Ball" fundraiser concert on Saturday night with David Robertson conducting and celebrity cellist Yo-Yo Ma in the solo spot. Here's a preview of the latter.
Saturday night’s concert began with Gershwin's fiery "Cuban Overture" and ended with an appropriate Latin encore from pianist John Kimura Parker—Joplin's wistful "Solace: A Mexican Serenade". In between was a high-energy evening from which the spirit of jazz was never entirely absent.
The first concert of the new symphony season was a study in contrasts, to say the least. For many music lovers, I expect, the Big Event of the evening was probably Kirill Gerstein’s surprisingly lyrical approach to the massively popular Tchaikovsky “Piano Concerto No. 1”. For me, though, Charles Ives's “Three Places in New England”—still sounding fresh and radical over a century after it was first composed—was the star of the evening.
Every now and then the most publicized event in a symphony concert turns out not to be the one that leaves the greatest impression. This weekend all the fuss was about the local premiere of Alexander Zemlinsky’s lavishly scored and slightly exotic “Lyrische Symphonie” ("Lyric Symphony") Op. 18 (1922-23) with baritone Lucas Meachem and local favorite soprano Christine Brewer. For me, though, the real highlight of the program was Maestro David Robertson’s highly charged version of Schubert’s “Symphony No. 8 in B minor", D. 759 (“Unfinished”) from a century earlier.
Just as I was thinking that a concert devoted to American music would be incomplete without including a work by Samuel Barber, I arrived at Powell Hall to discover that—sadly—due to a soloist’s illness, Aaron Copland’s "Quiet City" would be replaced by Barber’s famous "Adagio for Strings". With fervent hopes for the soloist’s recovery, the inclusion of the Barber rounded out a program that was a veritable showcase of some of the many jewels of American music.
"Beautiful" isn't a word you often hear applied to the twelve-tone music of the Second Viennese School, but I can't think of a better one to describe the performance of Alban Berg's 1935 "Violin Concerto" by soloist James Ehnes and the symphony under David Robertson Friday morning.