The Big Muddy Dance Company in "Picture Studies". Photo courtesy of the SLSO.

During the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s (SLSO) “Operatic Favorites” concert a few weeks ago, Music Director Stéphane Denève reminded us that for much of its history opera has been accompanied by ballet. It seemed only appropriate, then, that when regular subscription concerts resumed this past weekend (March 16 and 17), ballet was front and center—both figuratively and literally.

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

The ”literally” part refers to the fact that for the first half of the concert, the area of the Stifel Theatre stage in front of the podium was turned into a dance floor for the Big Muddy Dance Company. They were there to perform the world premiere of a ballet commissioned by the SLSO to accompany “Picture Studies,” a 2011 suite by Kansas City–based composer Adam Schoenberg (b. 1980). That work was also the result of a commission, this time from the Nelson-Atkins Museum, who were looking for a 21st-century version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881).

Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2
Photo coutesy of
Nelson-Atkins Museum

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 eight different artists (four paintings, three photographs, and one sculpture). So the challenge for Big Muddy Artistic Director Kirven Douthit-Boyd was to create a ballet that reflected both Schoenberg’s music and the works of art that inspired it.

He succeeded admirably. The combination of Douthit-Boyd’s choreography, Schoenberg’s music, and the polished performances of both the Big Muddy dancers and the SLSO added new layers of meaning to the original works of art. Here are a few examples.

Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2 (The Three Pierrots Nr. 2) is a 1911 painting by Albert Bloch 1882–1961. The three figures in the painting may look dark and a bit creepy, but Schoenberg has given them light and mischievous music more in keeping with their commedia dell’arte origins. The dancing linked those two different sides of Pierrot, with a trio of women in polka dot dresses moving in tight formations that mirrored the grouping in the picture.

Repetition Photo courtesy of 
Nelson-Atkins Museum

Repetition, a 1913 photograph by Kurt Baasch (1891–1964), is the spatial opposite of Der Drei Pierrots. Here, four widely separated pedestrians are captured in their own individual worlds on a strangely empty midday street. The music reflects a less empty and more energetic scene while the dance presents us with the four isolated figures, each with their own style of movement.

Rose with Gray, a 1924 painting by Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), is all jagged edges, blocks of color, and a general feeling of edgy energy. Schoenberg’s music matches the mood of the image, as do the choreography and lighting. The latter projects angular abstract shapes on the stage that are a match for the aggressive movements of the dancing.

Rose with Gray Photo courtesy of
Nelson-Atkins Museum

It was, in sum, a memorable mix of sight and sound. I think projecting images of the original art in synch with the music and dance might have given the audience a better idea of how it all fit together, but that could also have acted as a distraction. It was a hit in any case, with both composer Schoenberg and choreographer Douthit-Boyd on hand to share the curtain call.

The second half of the concert brought us back to the ballet with Denève’s compilation of music from the three concert suites from the “Romeo and Juliet” ballet by Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953). The suites have been popular with audiences. With conductors, not so much.

In his comments before the performance, Denève noted that both he and his fellow conductors often struggle with the odd sequencing of the suites, and said he wished he could call up Prokofiev up and ask him what he had in mind. As a result, performances of the ballet suites often consist of individual numbers reassembled to match the musical vision of the conductor. Gilbert Varga did that, in fact, when the SLSO last played this music in 2016.

Denève said that his R&J suite was “a Romantic suite” intended to follow the arc of the play. Which, to my ears, it certainly did. The “Balcony Scene” was as lush and achingly lovely as I have ever heard it, with a positively ethereal end. “Friar Lawrence” emphasized the sympathetic warmth of the character.

“Montagues and Capulets” (the first movement from the Suite No. 2) was turned into two separate movements, with the break coming right after the dissonant opening fortissimo brass chords and the pianissimo string chorale that follows. Denève then jumped directly to the “Minuet” (the fourth movement from Suite No. 1), not returning to “Montagues and Capulets” until after the puckish “Masks”  (Suite 1, number V). At that point he picked up at rehearsal number 1, which is a repeat of the same ominous opening followed by the lead-footed Allegro pesante “Dance of the Knights.”

Stéphane Denève conducts the SLSO in
Romeo and Juliet
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

The dramatic impact of that contrast was palpable, as was the radical shift to the “Balcony Scene” immediately afterwards. “Death of Tybalt” was an electrifying exercise in virtuosity by the orchestra and the final death of Juliet had a tragic delicacy that echoed the Prince’s final lines from Shakespeare’s play: “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

It was all beautifully played and conducted with Denève’s customary attention to detail. At around 40 minutes, it felt more like a symphonic poem based on Prokofiev’s score than a mere collection of excerpts. Nicely done, everyone.

Next from the SLSO: 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. The final performance is Saturday, March 23, 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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