Jack frost may be nipping at our noses this week in St. Louis, but the members of our St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Music Director David Robertson won't be feeling it. That's because, in an example of very serendipitous timing, they're off on a tour of sunny California--Mr. Robertson's last tour as Music Director, I'm sorry to say.
Through Friday, January 19th, violin soloist Augustin Hadelich, and the orchestra will be serenading residents of the west coast with the program of Shostakovich, Britten, and Thomas Adès that got such well-deserved applause here last weekend. Or at least they will once they're all in California.
Today (Monday the 15th) they're playing the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert (78 degrees and sunny), but because of flight delays about third of the orchestra was delayed in Denver so long that they never made it to the concert. So instead of the originally-scheduled Britten Violin Concerto, Augustin Hadelich is playing the Mendelssohn concerto as part of a new program of works better suited to the reduced forces.
Tuesday is another big travel day, with a three-hour bus trip to Santa Barbara (64 and sunny) where the full orchestra plays the original program at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara. Wednesday it's on to the Mondavi Center at UC-Davis (61, partly sunny), and finally the Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University on Friday where, for a change, it will be 55 with a chance of rain.
At least that will give them a chance to decompress a bit before returning home, where we're expected to have highs in the 50s by the weekend.
They'll be coming back just in time for the SLSO to celebrate 50 years at Powell Hall with a day-long open house, culminating in a showing of the classic musical The Sound of Music. The film was the last one to be shown in the old St. Louis theatre in 1966 before it was closed down for the renovations that would transform it into elegant Powell Hall.
As Sarah Bryan Miller of the Post-Dispatch reminds us in her brief history of Powell Hall, the transformation was one devoutly wished, since at the time the SLSO was effectively without a home and was playing in the rather unsuitable Khorassan Room of the Chase Hotel after their long-time home the Kiel Opera House (now the Peabody Opera House) was no longer available. The opening of the 2600-seat Powell, with its European-style gilt and red velvet, was welcomed by audiences, musicians, and critics alike.
It's not just the SLSO that's celebrating the hall's anniversary, by the way. On Tuesday, January 16th, the St. Louis Public Library opens an exhibit at the central library downtown of historical posters, conductor's sheet music, photographs and other memorabilia from Powel Hall's half century. It'll be on view daily through March 17th.
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra resumes its regular season on Friday and Saturday, January 26 and 27, as violinist Julian Rachlin joins Mr. Robertson for a program of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, John Adams's Harmonielehre, and the American premiere of Elegie: Remembrance for Orchestra, written in 2014 by German composer/conductor Peter Ruzicka.
The audience might have been grayer than usual at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's 10:30 am Coffee Concert Friday (January 12, 2018), but the music was all the work of composers in the prime of their youth.
The concert opened with a suite from the chamber opera (four singers and a small pit band in its original form) Powder Her Face, which premiered in 1995 when composer Thomas Adès was only 24. Based on the life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (1912-1993), whose elegant and fashionable life took a bizarre turn after a near-fatal fall down an elevator shaft in 1943 turned her into something of a sex addict, the opera has generally gotten good reviews despite (or maybe because of) the R-rated nature of its story.
You can hear a fair amount of the eccentricity in the suite--a 2017 co-commission by the SLSO along with four other notable orchestras and Carnegie Hall--which uses a full-size orchestra and a huge percussion battery. The tango-style Overture sounds like a dance band in hell complete with discordant, wailing saxophones (played with bluesy precision Friday morning), but the music soon gives way to an almost saccharine Scene with Song featuring impeccable solos by Concertmaster David Halen and Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews that wouldn't have sounded out of place in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. There's also an intoxicated Waltz with icy string pizzicatos and a Hotel Manager's Aria with the horns, at the bottom of their register, acting as the voices of death.
There's humor, ingenuity, and aural variety in this music--more than I recall hearing in my only other exposure to Mr. Adès's work, his In Seven Days (Concerto for Piano With Moving Image), which the SLSO performed in 2012. It was, in fact, great fun to hear--something I find myself saying all too rarely about a lot of newer music--and performed with genuine élan (in the French sense of mouvement d'amour) by conductor David Robertson and his forces.
Up next was the Violin Concerto by Benjamin Britten, written in 1938 and 1939 when the composer was in his mid-twenties. Composed in response to the horror of the Spanish Civil War, the concerto was described by Britten as "without question my best piece," but he went on to say that it was "rather serious I'm afraid."
That it is. As an indictment of modern warfare with its ensuing trauma, I'd put it right up there with Nielsen's fifth symphony and Vaughan Williams's fourth. The concerto opens with a five-note figure on the tympani that's soon joined by an anguished, ascending theme on the violin. The two ideas dominate the rest of the movement, sometimes in opposition to each other, sometimes joined so closely that it's hard to tell them apart. The second movement is a wildly virtuosic scherzo that feels like one of Hieronymus Bosch's creepier paintings set to music. It's almost monothematic, based largely on a triplet figure that's first stated by the violin and then gurgles away in the bassoons before moving on to the rest of the orchestra. A cadenza leads to the final movement. Marked "Andante lento," it's a passacaglia (a series of variations on a repeating theme in the bass line) that moves contrapuntally around the orchestra and drips with anguish until the work concludes on a hushed and uncertain note, vacillating between major and minor but never really settling on either.
The soloist has his work cut out for him here. In a 2010 interview for violinist.com, violinist Janine Jansen describes the concerto as "quite demanding," and she's not exaggerating. The Vivace second movement is especially hair raising, with lots of "double stops and even double-stop harmonics" (to quote Ms. Jensen again), but the cadenza that leads into the Passacaglia is no less fearsome.
Nor are all the challenges technical. The emotional profundity of both the opening Moderato con moto and the closing Passacaglia demands a musician who has heart as well as nimble fingers. I'm happy to say that the young Italian-born violinist Augustin Hadelich is just such a performer.
His commitment to the music was obvious from the first notes, as both his facial expressions and body language displayed a deep, intense connection to both Mr. Britten and Mr. Robertson. Yes, his skill in negotiating the flashy stuff on his 1723 Stradivarius was unassailable, but what really made this performance work was his ability to put across the intense feeling behind those notes.
Mr. Robertson did a superb job shaping the music, bringing out all the drama and passion. He began slowly, on the low end of moderato, which made the build to the fervent central section of the first movement that much more powerful. He and Mr. Hadelich produced a second movement that hummed with energy, leading into a monumental final movement.
Music blogger Ben Hogwood once wrote that hearing this was like being in a "massive church." After Friday's performance, I see what he meant. I especially liked the fact that Mr. Robertson allowed the silence after the uncertain ending to linger before finally lowering his baton and accepting the applause. It was an incredibly dramatic moment.
The concert concluded with the Symphony No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich, written when the composer was still a student at the Leningrad Conservatory and first performed when he was 19 years old. It's a remarkable study in contrasts, with chamber music-style solo passages cheek by jowl with the full-tilt swagger of the composer's more popular works. Perky melodies reminiscent of the stuff Shostakovich probably heard during his work as a cinema pianist pop up in the first and second movements, standing in stark juxtaposition to the brooding and sporadically anguished gloom of the third. And the final Allegro molto wraps everything up in a classic flourish of brass and percussion, reflecting the young composer's brash confidence while still retaining the sense of sarcasm that is always just below the surface.
It's rather like a noisy and diverse party in which the guests have nothing much in common other than their relationships to the host.
There are a lot of great solo moments in this piece, such as Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks's plangent solo in the third movement, Mr. Halen's Korngold-esque moment in the finale, and Shannon Woods's tympani break in that same movement. There was excellent playing as well by Principal Flute Mark Sparks, Associate Principal Trumpet Thomas Drake, Principal Cello Daniel Lee, Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo, and Associate Principal Clarinet Diana Haskell. I'm told the reed players were a bit concerned about the effects of this weather on those little bits of cane that are the heart and soul of their instruments, but they sounded just fine to me.
The Shostakovich First is, to say the least, episodic, often coming to a complete halt while the composer shifts gears. Mr. Robertson's interpretation gave it a real sense of momentum nevertheless, building up considerable excitement in the more bombastic sections and bringing out all the details in the more transparently scored moments. Great work, and well deserving of the standing ovation it got.
There's one more performance of this program Saturday night, January 13th, at 8 pm. It will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio, but this is big, Technicolor music that should really be heard live.
Speaking of hearing it live, the SLSO will be taking this program on the road January 16-19, with performances at multiple venues in California at Palm Desert, Santa Barbara, UC-Davis, and Stanford. The season locally resumes the weekend of January 26-28.
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's 2017 New Year's Eve concert was, I expect, a somewhat bittersweet occasion for both the audience and conductor David Robertson. It was the last one he will conduct as Music Director--his contract expires at the end of this season--and over the dozen seasons of his tenure he has endeared himself to local audience as well as to yours truly.
Although I have been covering the SLSO for many years now, this was my first opportunity to attend the annual New Year's Eve celebration. I had read about what a festive occasion it was and I was not disappointed. With Mr. Robertson chatting and cracking jokes between numbers, the evening was nicely balanced mix of classics both light and substantial, along with more popular numbers and even an excerpt from the score Charlie Chaplin wrote for his film Modern Times.
The orchestra first performed the Modern Times score back in 2007 as the film played out on the screen. Associate Principal Oboe Cally Banham played the English horn solo in the film's big tune, "Smile," back then in her first season with the SLSO and she repeated it on Sunday, to beautiful effect, along with Principal Horn Roger Kaza.
Mr. Robertson has always been effusive in his praise of the SLSO musicians, and the program he put together for his final New Year's concert gave many of them chances to shine. That included, but was hardly limited to, Principal Trumpet Karin Bliznik in the Liszt/Doppler Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Mr. Kaza in Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte, and the entire percussion section in John Adam's dynamic Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
Concertmaster David Halen also turned in an impressive violin cadenza in the Hungarian Rhapsody, immediately following which Mr. Robertson held up a sign that said "Wow!" It was one of the many funny bits that Mr. Robertson distributed freely throughout the concert, and which added to the celebratory atmosphere. This was an evening as bubbly as the champagne available at the bar.
That's not to say that there weren't more solemn moments. Reflections of the way the SLSO became a representative of the St. Louis area after the events in Ferguson led to a moving performance, with members of the IN UNISON Chorus and Symphony Chorus, of the setting of the spiritual "Deep River" that concludes Michael Tippet's oratorio A Child of Our Time. It was preceded by an equally powerful a cappella rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," with IN UNISON director Kevin McBeth taking the podium so that Mr. Robertson could join the singers.
Mr. Robertson would take the vocal solo spot later in the evening [delete comma] with "Trouble" (from The Music Man), accompanied by the chorus and orchestra under the baton of Chorus Master Amy Kaiser, who tap danced her way out to the podium. Like, I said: bubbly.
There was also a haunting performance of Moonlight (from Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes), in recognition of the orchestra's highly praised Carnegie Hall performance of the complete opera back in 2013. This is music that demands a lot, especially in the delicately scored opening and conclusion, but the SLSO musicians did it to perfection.
Speaking of perfection, what could possibly have been better than SLSO violinists Xiaoxiao Qiang and Joo Kim, in their bright formal gowns, playing the hell out of Sarasate's flashy Navarra? This short work is typically demanding of its two soloists, with rapid passages and a LOT of harmonics, but they carried it off in excellent style.
The concert concluded with a rousing Candide Overture (another piece that asks a lot of the orchestra), followed by an unexpectedly charming encore as Mr. Robertson's young sons Nathan and Alex took up violin and piano, respectively, to join the band in "The Missouri Waltz" while their mom, pianist Orli Shaham, captured them on video with her smartphone. After which, we all sang "Auld Lang Syne" and made our various ways home, filled with both seasonal cheer and the understanding that this was something like the end of an era.
Like I said: bittersweet.
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra resumes its regular season January 12th and 13th, as Mr. Robertson conducts the orchestra and violinist Augustin Hadelich in Britten's Violin Concerto, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1, and a suite from the opera Powder Her Face by Thomas Adès. The concerts are, as always, at Powell Hall in Grand Center.
In the introduction to his chapter on Shostakovich in the 1967 Penguin Books edition of The Symphony, British musicologist Robert Layton described the Russian symphonist somewhat dismissively as a "documentary composer, far more bound up with this time than...Prokofiev, or any other of his Soviet contemporaries."
These days that would probably be a minority view. Yes, Shostakovich was heavily influenced by the economic and political turmoil that characterized 20th century Russian history. How could it be otherwise? But even in the early Symphony No. 1, which David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will perform this weekend (January 12 and 13, 2018), you can hear how he transmuted those external experiences into a sound that was uniquely his own.
Written as a Leningrad Conservatory graduation piece and first performed in 1926 (when the composer was only 19), Shostakovich's First Symphony is a remarkable study in contrasts, with chamber music-style solo passages cheek by jowl with the full-tilt bombast of the composer's more popular works. Perky melodies reminiscent of the stuff Shostakovich probably heard during his work as a cinema pianist pop up in the first and second movements, standing in stark juxtaposition to the brooding and sporadically anguished gloom of the third. There's a piano part that calls to mind Stravinsky's Petrushka. And the final Allegro molto wraps everything up in a classic flourish of brass and percussion, reflecting the young composer's brash confidence while still retaining the sense of sarcasm that is always just below the surface.
It is, in short, a collage of external influences unified by Shostakovich's unique sensibility. It's not a documentary, it's art, even if it's a bit rough around the edges.
Also on the program is a piece that Mr. Layton might also have considered a "documentary" work in that it was inspired by the geopolitical news of the day. It's the Violin Concerto Op. 15, written by Benjamin Britten in 1938 and 1939 and later revised in 1950. Composed for Spanish violinist Toni Brosa, the concerto reflects the composer's sorrow over the Spanish civil war, which tore the nation apart from 1936 to 1939, ending with the triumph of Franco's brutal fascist regime.
Britten was very fond of the work. "It is without question my best piece," he observed. "It is rather serious I'm afraid." That was putting it mildly. Running around 40 minutes, the concerto is a dramatic and sometimes disturbing piece that combines fierce technical challenges with strong emotional content.
The concerto opens with a short (five note) figure on the tympani (a possible reference to the opening of Beethoven's Violin Concerto) that's soon joined by an anguished, ascending theme on the violin. The two ideas dominate the rest of the movement, sometimes in opposition to each other, sometimes joined so closely that it's hard to tell them apart. The second movement is a wildly virtuosic scherzo that feels like one of Hieronymus Bosch's creepier paintings set to music. It's almost monothematic, based largely on a triplet figure that's first stated by the violin and then gurgles away in the bassoons before moving on to the rest of the orchestra.
A cadenza leads to the final movement. Marked "Andante lento," it's a passacaglia (a series of variations on a repeating theme in the bass line) that drips with anguish. "I began to feel as if I was in a massive church," writes Ben Hogwood in his Good Morning Britten blog, "the horns intoning a chant that gets taken up by the strings, as if the orchestra is slowly standing in response to the soloist's pleas for peace. Here the music sounds more like Shostakovich than any Britten so far, but at no point is it derivative. The closing notes are, in a sense, infuriating, because Britten deliberately plays between the major and minor key. The home 'note' of D isn't in question, but he creates continued uncertainty by refusing to resolve, and that stays with the listener afterwards".
Much, I imagine, like the uncertainty about the future one might feel when one's country has fallen under the heel of fascism.
"It's quite demanding, definitely," notes violinist Janine Jansen in a 2010 interview for violinist.com about her recording of the concerto with Paavo Järvi and the London Symphony. "There are some places, like the Scherzo, in the second movement, where it's very fast and there are a lot of double stops, and even double-stop harmonics. So it's quite tricky...But it is written so well, it's really an amazing piece to play, even with its difficulties. One doesn't think about it during the performance because one is so taken by the music and especially, for me, the end of the piece. The whole coda --this is the most impressive moment. It starts like a prayer, but it ends in a kind of scream, it's incredible. Every time one plays it, one can't move afterwards, physically and emotionally."
The soloist this weekend is Augustin Hadelich. I last heard him here in 2013 in a performance of Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1 that combined virtuoso flash with real emotional sensitivity. He'll certainly need both of those skill sets for the Britten concerto.
The concert opens with a newly assembled suite from the 1995 chamber opera Powder Her Face by contemporary British composer Thomas Adès. The opera is based on the life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (1912-1993), whose elegant and fashionable life took a bizarre turn after a near-fatal fall down an elevator shaft in 1943. She emerged from the ordeal with no sense of smell or taste and a voracious sexual appetite--a great deal of which was on display in the notorious 1963 divorce trial that ended her marriage to Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. A lavish lifestyle and bad investments eventually led to a penniless death but (to quote a Tom Lehrer lyric about a very different historical figure) "the body that reached her embalmer / was one that had known how to live."
The suite, a 2017 co-commission by the SLSO along with four other notable orchestras and Carnegie Hall, consists of three dance episodes from the opera (published in 2007 as Dances from Powder Her Face and performed by the SLSO in October 2013) along with five additional movements. The original scoring for a 15-piece pit orchestra has been expanded to symphonic proportions, with a large percussion battery that includes a pop gun, a washboard, two whips (!) and a paper bag.
"I'm not making this up, you know," as Anna Russell once said.
The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist Augustin Hadelich Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, January 12 and 13. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.
For two decades now, DreamWorks Animation has been very shrewd about producing animated movies that appeal to both kids and adults, with plenty of fast, colorful 3-D action mixed with sophisticated humor and sly parodies of pop culture. It has also engaged some of Hollywood's leading composers to write scores for its hit films.
This weekend (December 29 and 30, 2017), the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra presented DreamWorks in Concert, a program of suites from some of the company's most popular animated features, synched with film clips on the big screen suspended above the orchestra. The selection of movie excerpts was varied and perfectly paced, and the music was a delight.
The evening got off to a lively start with scenes from a dozen or so films (I quickly lost count) set to music from How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell, Mr. Peabody and Sherman by the prolific Danny Elfman, Over the Hedge by Rupert Gregson-Williams, and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas by his older brother Harry. Fun stuff, and musically varied enough to provide a real workout for the band, under the baton of guest conductor Nicholas Buc.
A few words about Mr. Buc might be in order here. A graduate of New York University and a recipient of the Elmer Bernstein award for film scoring, he has written for film and TV world-wide and has conducted a number of "in concert" film programs, including Pixar in Concert, Raiders of the Lost Arc, and Back to the Future. That experience clearly showed in the precision and authority of his conducting Friday night.
As is often the case with these film events, the orchestra was huge, including six horns, four trumpets, four trombones, and tuba, along with a good complement of strings, a massive percussion battery, and three keyboard players (two on synthesizers and one on piano). There was also a classical guitarist who did a brilliant job with the Flamenco-style riffs in Henry Jackman's "dance fight" sequence from Puss and Boots.
The percussion section was kept quite busy throughout the evening, by the way, but their most impressive work came early on, in the elaborate training sequence from the John Powell/Hans Zimmer score for Kung Fu Panda.
There were many striking musical moments in the program. I loved concertmaster David Halen's solo Ginormica Suite from Mr. Jackman's Monsters vs. Aliens score, for example, as well as the comical xylophone-based "perpetual motion" music that opened the selections from How to Train Your Dragon in the second half of the concert.
I do wish the orchestra hadn't been amplified, though. I can see why you might need to put a mic in front of the guitarist, but for the rest of the ensemble it hardly seemed necessary and added a layer of distortion and aural mud.
Back during the golden age of animation--basically the 1930s through early 1950s--it was taken for granted that the audience for it would mostly be adults. In the 1960s, though, animation came to be seen as mostly "kid stuff," and it wasn't until companies like DreamWorks and Pixar began producing more sophisticated fare that we finally came full circle and began treating 'toons as something for the whole family.
If Friday night's audience was any indication, DreamWorks in Concert is a true all ages show. There were plenty of kids, of course, but also their parents, young folks with no children, and plenty of us boomers as well. I wish the crowd at Powell Hall had been larger, though. This was a quintessentially family friendly show and it's a pity more families didn't get to see it.