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.
It has been over two and one-half years since renowned pianist Emanuel Ax last appeared on the Powell Hall stage. Based on the stunning performance he and David Robertson gave us of the Brahms Second Concerto this past Sunday, that's at least two years too long. Combined with an impeccable version of Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro" and a new work by Detlev Glanert, it made for a thoroughly satisfying afternoon at the symphony.
When the German drama and Romanticism of Beethoven and Richard Strauss are infused with the Gallic charm of guest conductor Stephane Deneve, combined with the work of young American composer Patrick Harlin, the result is a remarkable audience appeal that not only endeared the composers and performers to listeners, but enhanced their appreciation and understanding.
As I have noted before, Ward Stare (who completed his tenure as Resident Conductor of the symphony in 2012 and is now in demand as both and operatic and symphonic conductor) is someone to watch.
As anyone who has ever taken a “music depreciation” course will recall, “program music” is the label applied (sometimes dismissively) to any composition either inspired by or intended to depict something non-musical. That usually means the dramatic, literary, or visual arts, although history and nature figure prominently as well.