April has been Big Piano Concerto Month at the St. Louis Symphony. Last week we had Rachmaninoff's daunting "Piano Concerto No. 3" . This week it's the equally intimidating "Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major," Op. 83, written in 1881 by Brahms.
"Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful." So runs Sammy Cahn's lyric for the 1945 holiday favorite "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" Substitute "music" for "fire" and you have a good summary of this weekend's symphony concerts.
This weekend at the symphony, BBC Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena is on the podium for a series of variations on the theme of the theme and variations. Which is not as confusing as it looks. All three of the works on the program are examples of the "theme and variations" form, in which a single melodic thread is used to spin a complex tapestry of music.
The score of Elgar’s 1910 "Violin Concerto" carries the Spanish preface, "Aqui está encerrada el alma de ....." ( "Herein is enshrined the soul of ....." ). Is it a secret love letter to the wife of a member of Parliament or even, as Elgar biographer Jerrold Northrup Moore suggests, a tribute to several of the composer’s closest friends? And does it really matter anyway?
Every artist has his or her “greatest hit” – a work with which he or she is uniquely identified. Think of Bogart’s Sam Spade, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor”. The Russian composer’s “Isle of the Dead” – an impassioned performance of which opened this weekend’s St. Louis Symphony concerts - never made it to “greatest hit” status (the Symphony hasn’t performed it since 1976), but the painting that inspired it almost certainly was the most popular thing created by the Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin. The stark landscape of an island necropolis towards which a white-robed figure is being rowed apparently struck a sympathetic chord over a century ago and is still compelling today. Böcklin painted five different versions of it (one of which was destroyed in World War II) in the 1880s, and reproductions were apparently common in an early 20th century Europe still reeling from war and influenza.