"Pigeons in Flight" by Francis Blake. Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum

“Invitation to the Dance” (“Aufforderung zum Tanz”), Op. 65, is one of the more popular pieces by Carl Maria von Weber, especially in its 1841 orchestration by Hector Berlioz. It’s also a good description of the concerts Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) will perform this weekend (Saturday and Sunday, March 16 and 17).

[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]

Adam Schoenberg
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

The program consists of only two works: “Picture Studies,” a 2011 suite by Adam Schoenberg (b. 1980), and Music Director Stéphane Denève’s compilation of music from the three concert suites Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) assembled from his ballet “Romeo and Juliet.”

The Schoenberg work was the result of a commission by the Kansas City Symphony and the Nelson-Atkins Museum to write a 21st-century version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), which in its 1922 orchestration by Maurice Ravel has become a staple of the symphonic repertoire.

Mussorgsky’s suite was based on a collection of works by a single artist, the composer’s friend Viktor Hartmann. Schoenberg’s work is a collection of musical invocations of works by by eight different artists (four paintings, three photographs, and one sculpture). The only common thread is that they were all on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. “My main objective,” says Schoenberg in this week’s program notes, “was to create an architectural structure that connected each movement to the next while creating an overall arc for the entire piece.”

Those program notes include not only extensive quotes from the composer but also an interview with choreographer Kervin Douthit-Boyd, whose Big Muddy Dance Company will perform the world premiere of the SLSO-commissioned ballet Douthit-Boyd created for Schoenberg’s music. So rather than write any more about his project myself, I will simply refer you to those notes.

I will, however, make one recommendation: as you read Schoenberg’s commentary of the suite, listen to its world premiere recording by Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra on the SLSO’s Spotify playlist. Granted, this music is so approachable that an advance listen isn’t really necessary, but reading Schoenberg’s thoughts as you experience his music adds a great deal to the experience.

One more thing that will enhance that experience is seeing the art that inspired “Picture Studies.” Here are the links to the works in question, along with their corresponding movements. I have excluded movements I (Intro) and VIII (Interlude) since those are statements of what Schoenberg calls a “Ghost-like piano theme” that’s a nod to the recurring “Promenade” motif in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures”.

Kirven Douthit-Boyd
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

II. Three Pierrots: Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2, a painting by Albert Bloch 1882–1961.
III. Repetition: Repetition, a photograph by Kurt Baasch (1891–1964).
IV. Olive Orchard: The Olive Orchard, a painting by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890).
V. Kandinsky: Rose with Gray, a painting by Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944)
VI. Calder’s World: Untitled, 1937,  a mobile sculpture by Alexander Calder (1898–1976). There’s more than one Calder mobile labeled Untitled, 1937, but based on Schoenberg’s description I think this is the right one. The Nelson-Atkins Gallery, on the other hand, has Untitled, 1936, so the year must might be wrong.
VII. Miró: Women at Sunrise, a painting by Joan Miró (1893–1983).
IX. Cliffs of Moher: Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of Moher, a photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto  (b. 1848). This and the last movement are played without pause after movement VIII.
X. Pigeons in Flight: Pigeons in Flight, a photograph by Francis Blake (1850–1913).

After intermission it’s back to the ballet. This time, though, the dancing will have to be imaginary since we’ll be hearing a good 40 minutes of music from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” suites. The ballet and the suites are quite popular today, but the story of their creation is not a particularly happy one.

Prokofiev emigrated to the West in 1918, first to the USA and then to Europe. In 1936 he was lured back to the Soviet Union with what proved to be false promises of personal and artistic freedom. At first he was allowed to retain his passport and make appearances abroad, including an American tour in 1938. But then, as Dorothea Redepenning wrote in a 2001 article for Grove Online, “the trap snapped shut: he was asked to hand in his passport for the transaction of a formality, but did not get it back, so that there could be no question of further tours abroad.”

With the closing of the trap came the imposition of censorship. Although Prokofiev had completed the score for “Romeo and Juliet” in 1936, he soon found obstacles in the path to an actual performance. And there was also the matter of the ending.

When he began work on “Romeo and Juliet” in 1935, Prokofiev had decided to give the ballet a happy ending, and his score reflected that decision. As the composer dryly noted, "living people can dance, the dead cannot". And, as Alice Jones wrote in a 2008 article for The Independent, there was also “the little-known fact of Prokofiev's deeply held Christian Science beliefs, according to which death does not exist. In Prokofiev's vision, the love of Romeo and Juliet is infinite, transcending all earthly boundaries and existing in a paradise-like realm.” Stalin’s censors disagreed, and “Romeo and Juliet” didn’t get an officially approved Bolshoi production until 1946—and then only on the condition that Prokofiev cut the 20 minutes of “happy ending” music he had originally composed and end the ballet with the death of Romeo and  Juliet.

Prokofiev in 1918

The original “happy ending” version of the ballet was rediscovered and performed at the Bard Summerscape festival outside New York in 2008, but the Stalin-approved version is still the one most often performed today.

As noted above, the “Romeo and Juliet” suites have been popular with audiences. But as Joshua Barone wrote in a 2018 New York Times article, “the suites, which are structured more like symphonies than tone poems, can be unsatisfying for conductors.” That includes Maestro Denève.

“I wish I could call Prokofiev and ask him what is the exact purpose of his three suites,” Mr. Denève said in an interview for the article. “With all my respect, of course, for Prokofiev, I can’t understand his logic.”

When the SLSO performed music from the “Romeo and Juliet” suites in 2016  guest conductor Gilbert Varga was on the podium with seven movements selected to mirror the dramatic arc of both Shakespeare’s play and the revised ballet. Stéphane Denève is doing essentially the same thing this weekend but—based on the number and order of the selections—in somewhat greater depth. You can see a more detailed breakdown in the program notes or just listen to the selections in the Spotify playlist.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in Adam Schoenberg’s “Picture Studies” and selections from the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” by Prokofiev. “Picture Studies” will be accompanied by an SLSO-commissioned ballet performed by the Big Muddy Dance Company with choreography by Kervin Douthit-Boyd. Performances are Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, March 16 and 17, at the Sifel Theatre downtown.

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