The phrase "American exceptionalism" gets misused a lot these days, but as this past weekend's concerts of some wonderfully inventive twentieth-century American music demonstrated, sometimes the USA can take credit for things that are, indeed, exceptional.
It's an all-American weekend at Powell Hall this Friday through Sunday as St. Louis Symphony Resident Conductor Steven Jarvi leads the orchestra in a program of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and George Gershwin. It includes two Big Pieces, one of which—Copland's 1926 "Piano Concerto"—is not heard all that often.
Looking for a Thanksgiving weekend treat that avoids the teeming multitudes at the malls and movie theaters? Take my advice and head over to Powell Hall for a bracing concert of American music for this most American of holidays.
"An Experiment in Modern Music" was how bandleader Paul Whiteman billed the February 12, 1924 concert by his Palais Royal Orchestra at New York's Aeolian Hall. This weekend at Powell Hall, the St. Louis Symphony will recapture some of the excitement attendant on that legendary program.
In "West Side Story" saturated colors against shadow-filled backgrounds and the boldly familiar choreography of Jerome Robbins, as reproduced by Joey McKneely, reference the tradition of this now classic show. Troika Entertainment's production at the Fox refreshed that tradition with spectacularly rhythmic dance and an elegantly woven English and Spanish language interplay.
The Muny in Forest Park closes out the 2013 season with "West Side Story," the much-loved musical that's still an audience favorite. Featuring music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and a young Steven Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents, this modern retelling of Shakespeare's classic Romeo and Juliet still feels fresh and exciting, even though it has been more than 50 years since its debut.
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.
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.” – Raymond Chandler, “Red Wind” (1938)
It was a lively and entertaining evening at Powell Hall last night with a dance-infused program that included three of Dvořák’s popular “Slavonic Dances”, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Bernstein’s still-amazing “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story”, and an appropriately hallucinatory reading of Ravel’s death knell for the 19th century, “La Valse”.