Symphony Preview: The Grand Tour
By Chuck Lavazzi
Music Director Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are off on their annual European concert tour on March 21st. But before they leave, they’re offering a one night only “bon voyage” concert of the music they’ll be playing on the tour on Thursday, March 16, at 7:30 pm.
[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]
It all starts with the lively and acerbic suite Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) created in 1924 from the score for his 1921 opera “L'amour des trois oranges” (“The Love for Three Oranges”). Prokofiev wrote both the music and the libretto for the opera, which was commissioned by the Chicago Opera Association during the composer’s 1918 visit to the USA. He based it on the 1761 commedia dell’arte farce “L'amore delle tre melarance” by Carlo Gozzi (1720 – 1806) which was itself based on the fairy tale of the same name by 16th century Italian poet Giambattista Basile (1583 – 1632).
|Prokofiev in New York, 1918
Photo by Bain News Service
“The story,” writes Benjamin Pesetsky in this week’s program notes, “is too silly to dwell on.” He’s right, so we won’t (although Wikipedia has a detailed synopsis for the curious). Let’s just say Prokofiev combined his ancient Italian sources with a jigger or two of sarcasm, a pinch of surrealism, shook the whole thing vigorously and served it over ice to an audience which found it somewhat baffling.
The suite is great fun, though, combining the composer’s quirky sense of humor, inventive orchestration, and rhythmic drive to create a colorful musical circus complete with acrobats, clowns, and strutting sorcerers. The third movement “March” was once quite well-known, having been appropriated as the theme for the CBS radio crime drama “The FBI in Peace and War,” which ran from 1944 through 1958. If you’re curious as to what that sounded like, the GSMC Classics podcast network offers all 88 episodes via Apple Podcasts. And probably via every other podcast platform as well.
Denève last conducted the suite with the band in 2007. Sadly, I missed that concert, so I’m looking forward to this one.
Up next is the popular Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16, written in 1868 by Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907). It was his first and only piano concerto. Indeed, it was his only completed concerto of any kind.
|The interior of Grieg's hut at Troldhaugen|
That’s because Grieg was fundamentally a miniaturist. He was at his best in short forms like his “Lyric Pieces” and other works for the piano. Longer works like his “Symphonic Dances,” the “Lyric Suite,” and his incidental music for Ibsen’s gargantuan drama “Peer Gynt” are, ultimately, little more than a collection of short pieces. It’s what he did, and he did it darned well.
It’s not surprising, then, that his piano concerto tends to sound a bit episodic. The episodes are all entrancing, though, and the concerto was an instant hit at its 1869 Copenhagen premiere by the Royal Danish Orchestra with Edmund Neupert as soloist. Neupert, to whom the concerto was dedicated, wrote to Grieg (who was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict) describing the happy event:
The triumph I achieved was tremendous. Even as early as the cadenza in the first movement, the public broke into real storm. The three dangerous critics, [composer Niels] Gade, [pianist/composer Anton] Rubenstein, and [composer Emil] Hartmann, sat in the stalls and applauded with all their might. I am to send you greetings from Rubenstein and say that he is astounded to have heard a composition of such genius. (Cited in program notes by Robert C. Bagar and Louis Biancolli for the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York).
Our soloist this Thursday (and at every performance on the tour) will be Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, who has earned praise for his recordings of everything from Bach to Philip Glass. He was the soloist the last time Denève and the SLSO presented the Grieg concerto in 2021. At the time I wrote that he made “a stunning impression…with a performance that blended nuance and poetry with virtuoso flair.”
|Rachmaninoff in 1921
Public Domain, Wikimeida Commons
During the intermission that follows, you’ll have the opportunity to see why taking an orchestra on tour is just a major logistical effort the SLSO production team assembles large cargo trunks in the foyer. Immediately after this concert, large instruments will be packed into trunks and begin their journey to Europe on Friday.
This evening concludes with the "Symphonic Dances" by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943). It’s a work I have found oddly compelling since I first heard it on a 1961 LP recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, who conducted the work's first performance in 1941. I was immediately struck by the "late night" feel of the piece--and not just because of the chimes in the last movement. It was only later that I learned that Rachmaninoff had, in fact, originally titled the three sections "Noon," "Twilight," and "Midnight." The composer dropped the titles, preferring the let the music speak for itself, and it does so eloquently.
The work is filled with evidence of Rachmaninoff's genius as an orchestrator, with elaborate and complex string writing, inventive use of brasses and winds (including a short but poignant solo for alto sax), and an effective but never overwhelming use of the large percussion battery. This is dramatic music that is nevertheless steeped in autumnal melancholy. The final movement is a struggle between the “Dies Irae” and the “Resurrection” theme from Rachmaninoff’s 1915 “All-night Vigil” which, while emphatically resolved in favor of the latter, still seems to carry the sense of a life approaching its conclusion.
In the program notes for the SLSOs last performance of the work in 2019, Denève described it as “redeeming--it's a piece of hope. The ending is an Alleluia, a triumph over death. It was his last work, and maybe, because he composed this piece, he felt he could die."
The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and pianist Vikingur Ólafsson in a one-night-only preview of the program they will take on the orchestra's March European tour. The concert consists of Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges" Suite, Grieg's Piano Concerto, and Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances." The concert takes place on Thursday, March 16, at 7:30 pm. Stephanie Childress will conduct the SLSO Youth Orchestra and Concerto Competition winner Ayan Amerin in the Allegro non troppo from the Violin Concerto in D major by Brahms and the Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich on Sunday, March 19 at 3 pm. The regular concert season resumes in mid-April.