Napoleon's troops bombard Vienna, 1809

In Act I, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” Leonato, the Governor of Messina, plays down his niece Beatrice’s insulting description of Benedick, saying that there is “a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.”

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

You can hear that wit in the opening measures of the work that opens the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts this Friday and Saturday (March 22 and 23) as Music Director Stéphane Denève leads the band in a performance of the overture to Hector Berlioz's 1862 operatic treatment of “Much Ado About Nothing,” "Béatrice et Bénedict.” The short, playful opening theme immediately calls to mind the thrust and parry of the verbal duel that invariably begins when Beatrice and Benedick meet.

Berlioz in 1832
Painting by Émile Signol

Berlioz wrote the libretto himself (even though he neither spoke nor read English all that well), considerably condensing the original "battle of the sexes" comedy in the process. Huge swathes of plot were axed, along with great comic characters like Constable Dogberry to create what the composer called “a caprice written with a point of a needle.” Written just after the monumental “Les Troyens,” the opera had great success at its Baden-Baden premiere as well as in Weimar a few months later. There was no French performance until 1890, though, and "Béatrice et Bénedict.” has never really made it into the standard repertoire.

The overture has fared better in concert halls. It gets high marks for the skill with which Berlioz uses themes from his score to create a kind of vitamin pill version of the opera, with all the comedic and dramatic ingredients combined into a single eight-minute tone poem. “Though drawn from no less than six different arias or ensembles,” writes Michel Austin at The Hector Berlioz website, “the music is seamlessly fused by Berlioz into a coherent symphonic whole, much as Weber had done in his overtures to Der Freischütz, Euryanthe, and Oberon."

Julia Wolfe
Photo: Peter Serling

Up next is the local premiere of “Pretty” by contemporary American composer Julia Wolfe (b. 1958). A co-commission by the SLSO, Berlin Philharmonic (where the world premiere took place last June), Houston Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the work’s title is frankly ironic. One might even say that it’s at war with the actual music which, based on the brief excerpts I’ve heard at the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, is a high-energy jamboree that’s anything but “pretty” in the conventional sense.

“The word ‘pretty’ has had a complicated relationship to women,” writes the composer on her website.  “It implies an attractiveness without any rough edges, without strength or power…My Pretty is a raucous celebration – embracing the grit of fiddling, the relentlessness of work rhythms, and inspired by the distortion and reverberation of rock and roll.”

War pops up once again as the backdrop for the work that concludes this weekend's concerts, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, op. 73 (“Emperor”). Indeed, the concerto was composed under the cloud of war and occupation.

When Beethoven was writing the concerto in 1809, Vienna was not so much the fabled “City of Dreams” as a metropolis of nightmares. The French laid siege to it with shelling so fierce that at one point the composer took refuge in his brother's house and covered his head with pillows to escape the din. The royal family—including Beethoven's friend and patron Archduke Rudolf—fled, along with many of the notable families with whom the composer had become close.

Left alone and, once the French occupation began, in difficult financial circumstances due to rapid inflation, Beethoven had little else to do but compose. The fifth concerto is probably the most famous work to emerge from this difficult period, although the Op. 81a piano sonata (“Les Adieux”) is probably a close second. Both were dedicated to Rudolph.

As if you didn't know.

Much has been written about the Concerto No. 5 and, in fact, the program notes this week (based on earlier notes by Paul Schiavo and Yvonne Frindle) provide quite a good map of the composer’s stunning musical landscape. The magisterial first movement, the wistful second, and the jolly concluding rondo all show Beethoven at his best.

The soloist this weekend is Tom Borrow (b. 2000), a 2024 Artist-In-Residence with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and winner of the Terence Judd-Hallé Orchestra Award 2023. His big professional break came in 2019, when he was called in at the last minute (the last 36 hours, to be precise) to replace Khatia Buniatishvili in a series of twelve concerts with the Israel Philharmonic. "Tom Borrow is already a star,” wrote Yossi Schiffman of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation, “and we will all surely hear more about him."

I was unable to locate anything by Borrow on Spotify but he does appear in several videos on YouTube, including the second and third movements of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major from that legendary 2019 concert.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and soloist Tom Borrow in the Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) by Beethoven, along with the overture to "Béatrice et Bénedict” by Berlioz and the local premiere of “Pretty” by Julia Wolfe. Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 7:30 pm at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the UMSL campus. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3 and will be available for streaming for a limited time afterward at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra site.

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