Cally Banham. Photo courtesy of Cally Banham.

Losing the featured soloist for a concert need not qualify as disastrous, and the Saint Louis Symphony and its guest conductor for the week, Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan, adjusted well and produced an interesting and enjoyable program last weekend (10 February 2023). The altered lineup of works, all associated with programmatic ideas, by Mendelssohn, MacMillan himself, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, generated its own unique literary tension.

[Find out more about the music with the KDHX symphony preview.]

Upon violinist Nicola Benedetti’s cancellation due to illness, MacMillan authored a simple swap—on paper, a one-for-one substitution of Mendelssohn’s overture “The Hebrides” for the maestro’s own violin concerto, vacated by Benedetti. But works on a concert program form relationships with each other. The resulting change, the reordering, and the nature of the second and fourth works on the new program created a resonance of encroaching danger and entrapment between those two that bridged intermission. MacMillan’s “The World’s Ransoming,” (2nd) which concerns Maundy Thursday, paired more with Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini: A Symphonic Fantasy” (4th) than with the other work concerning Holy Week, Rimsky-Korsakov’s oft-performed “Russian Easter Overture” (3rd). It’s worth noting that in the original order printed in Playbill, Rimsky-Korsakov was to open the concert, while “The World’s Ransoming” and “Francesca” were in fact paired with each other after the interval.

MacMillan addressed the audience before downbeat, expressing pleasure at visiting Saint Louis for the first time, announcing the changes, and providing context, about the Tchaikovsky work and his never-written opera on Paolo and [the historical] Francesca and her murderous husband Gianciotto, and also the relation of MacMillan’s own piece to Rimsky-Korsakov’s, by way of Holy Week. With his well-executed joke about “The Hebrides” depicting “a run of the mill day back in Scotland,” the orchestra began.

In school I was encouraged to think of Mendelssohn’s concert overtures, “The Hebrides” AKA “Fingal’s Cave” (1830), “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” (1826) and “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” (1828) as a loose trilogy. They’re certainly siblings, closely sequenced output during Mendelssohn’s absurdly precocious youth. Lacking operas to precede, they serve as protypes of the  19C symphonic form, the tone poem, with its anchoring in a programmatic idea. MacMillan’s conducting of “The Hebrides,” though, sanded its rougher, more Gothic edges, and drove my thoughts to “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.” After a propulsive opening, the orchestra appeared to chill out. Perhaps as the substitution, this piece was the least-rehearsed. Except for the most martial, forte passages, “The Hebrides unfolded in too-serene mists.” Lovely moments proliferated, especially the B subject in the violoncelli, led this night by associate principal Melissa Brooks. On the reprise thereof, the handoff from the ‘celli to the violins demonstrated the band’s usual fluent dialogue between the string sections. But overall, the concert opened with the impression that MacMillan was the pilot to navigate you safely to the cave on a calmer day, prudently selected.

The second half of the concert opened with more zest than the first. The audience culture of Classical music marinates in shaky clichés people love to repeat; a pleasure then, when those sometimes reveal themselves anew as not only accurate, but strikingly so. Yes, Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration is fire. The “Russian Easter Overture” (1888) hadn’t been heard at Powell Hall since 1999 (with John Adams conducting!), a little too long. So many moments to shine, Brooks again with the opening ‘cello solo, principal flautist Matthew Rothstein, principal clarinet Scott Andrews—everyone enjoyed some fun, the entire trombone section foremost. And even more fun ensues when the pagans show up in the middle section of the Overture; there MacMillan generated animation and drive. In concertmaster David Halen’s solo, I was reminded of the way the violin resembles Ralph Vaugh-Williams’ 20C “The Lark Ascending” (1914). Rimsky-Korsakov served as an exciting and pleasing respite before the concert’s tragic fourth act.

But the second works in each half were the locus of the evening’s storytelling drama. MacMillan’s opening comments connected his own composition, “The World’s Ransoming” (1996) with the “Russian Easter Overture.” On the surface, this makes sense: “The World’s Ransoming” appeared as part of a triptych of works for Holy Week, and samples Catholic prayers for Maundy Thursday. But musically, his work dramatizes menacing Roman danger closing in on Jesus throughout, just as Tchaikovsky’s Paolo and Francesca are stalked by her spurned husband. Aurally, both works enacted continually impending entrapment. This is somewhat unusual where Christ is concerned in Classical music—the Passion and death on the cross usually serve as the focus, and His suffering forms the basis and even the musical language of so many cherished works of the Classical canon, such as the “Crucifixus” of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, or many Stabat Maters, including Poulenc’s, performed so powerfully by the SLSO with Jeanine De Bique earlier this season. But with its focus on Maundy Thursday, “The World’s Ransom” and its lone English Horn depicted, over and over, Jesus in peril, but not yet arrested.

Cally Banham, principal English Horn, was the star of the evening, installed behind the second violins upon the harpist’s platform sans harp, and adorned in a crimson dress suggestive of blood. The unfailing beauty of her timbre made me wish for a concert Act III of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” opera’s greatest showpiece for this instrument. After an opening dissonant crash, she played her first of many solo passages; it soon became clear her instrument is associated in this composition with Jesus Christ. A pattern emerged: Banham, stage right, issued plaintive English horn calls, often like bird song, while eerie bass sounds from stage left pursued her, double basses, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, timpani. Her instrument evoked wandering, sometimes with a Poulenc-esque chromaticism. Perhaps a quarter into the piece, she moved to a higher register, as descending figures in the ‘celli and basses grew insistent, before she fell silent for a while. The lower strings changed to col legno bowing (striking the strings with the wood of the bow)—puzzling until one realizes these small strikes of wood will transition to principal percussionist William James’ bigger hammerlike thuds on wood in the finale—maybe the cross.

While MacMillan’s Jesus experienced increasing aural peril, the orchestra spoke like filmic cues. Light would emerge briefly, and darkness would swallow it. “The World’s Ransoming” features Maundy Thursday litanies “Ubi caritas” and “Pange Lingua,” but they land as though reflected in a funhouse mirror. Banham’s otherworldly Christic bird sang as if snake-charming; angry chimes and much of the orchestra pursued. In a closing section, the English horn last played a long solo, calm, this time accompanied by soft celli and basses, perhaps depicting the peace of Christ’s commandments amid chaos and strife? To end, col legno strings again, giving way to about thirteen punishing thuds from the percussionist, with large wooden mallets upon a larger wooden block. Has Thursday has given way to Good Friday? Your reviewer may not have perceived this program precisely as MacMillan intended, but this is a story the piece told. The audience received “The World’s Ransoming” enthusiastically. During Banham’s curtain calls, she held up the score by the scruff of its binding, in tribute to the maestro.

With that fresh in the mind, even after the intervening “Russian Easter Overture,” Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca Da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy After Dante” (1876) was framed by pursuit, precarity, vulnerability—indeed, MacMillan could separate the two works in the change of program, but he also couldn’t. Tchaikovsky wrote a short narrative for his take on Francesca, in which Dante dies (!) overwhelmed by the lovers’ travails. (Vergil shows him Paolo and Francesca in Canto V of “The Inferno,” so the Dante character’s own untimely demise would excise a supermajority of his subsequent journey in “The Divine Comedy”). Too, the accustomed heteronormativity theater of famed amorous dyads in 19C classical music presents a rather different look when rendered by a gay composer in an oppressive society, as the two lovers are hunted by Francesca’s husband. Shades of Tchaikovsky’s later celebrated Sixth Symphony (“Pathétique,” 1893) emerged from the characteristically lush strings.

MacMillan handled the orchestra sensitively, especially the gorgeous love theme, which the violins play con sordini (with mutes), an appropriate touch for clandestine erotic love. Tchaikovsky so exceled at expressing tenderness. MacMillan’s pre-concert reference to the opera Tchaikovsky didn’t write recalled Riccardo Zandonai’s opera (1914), which does feature a couple devastatingly tender moments as the lovers fall in love at first sight while backed by a women’s chorus and a stunning cello obligato, as well as their third act duet. But Zandonai’s work is driven by a brutal, military energy for long stretches. Tchaikovsky instead caresses the lovers in balletic outpourings of strings, and a sweet solo for principal clarinet. The strings’ erotic dialogue climaxes shortly before Francesca’s husband (and Paolo’s brother) Gianciotto returns in percussion and brass—the lovers receive more momentary relief than MacMillian’s Jesus in “The World’s Ransoming,” but their deaths are likewise authored before the music begins. MacMillan propelled a somewhat dissonant tutti towards the doomed lovers until the final chord’s harmonic resolution. Jesus may end up at the right hand of the Father, and Francesca and Paolo in the Inferno, but the concert united them as the hunted, whose commandment was love, and it eroded a distinction between loves framed in art as sacred and profane. MacMillan and the SLSO gave us a thought-provoking evening in Benedetti’s absence.

Next at the SLSO: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist Tessa Lark in music by Debussy, Chausson, and Ravel, Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 18 and 19. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3. There will also be a special “Crafted” happy hour performance of Debussy’s “Ibéria” and Ravel’s “La Valse” on Friday, February 17. Doors open at 5:30 pm for drink samples and snacks from local vendors, with the concert starting at 6:30.

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