This weekend (December 8--10) the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is continues its mini Baroque festival with the emphasis on the music of one of the most prolific composers of the period, Antonio Vivaldi (1678--1741). Unlike last week, when it was all Vivaldi all the time, this time around Antonio has some company: his fellow Venetian Alessandro Marcello (1669-1747) and a younger German guy named J.S. Bach. You might have heard of him.

The concerts will open with music by Vivaldi, though: the overture to his opera L'Olimipade, first performed in 1734. The libretto by Pietro Metastasio, whose work would prove so popular with composers in the 18th century, involves a lot of sturm und drang at the ancient Greek Olympics. The opera is rarely (if ever) performed today, but you needn't worry about that to enjoy the spirited overture.

The Bach piece (which comes next) is actually a late addition to the program, which originally included concertos by Corelli and Torelli, with British harpsichordist, organist, and conductor Laurence Cummings at the podium. But Mr. Cummings cancelled at the end of October, to be replaced by Chicago-born harpsichordist Jory Vinikour. Then, just a week ago, the Corelli and Torelli works were replaced by Bach's Italian Concerto, to be played by Mr. Vinikour.

The thing about the Italian Concerto is that it's neither Italian nor a concerto. It is, instead, a work for a two-manual harpsichord (i.e. one with two keyboards) "after the Italian taste" (as Bach described it), in which the different manuals of the instrument are used to represent the solo and tutti (orchestral) sections of a full concerto.

Bach wasn't the first composer to come up with this idea and he would be far from the last, but he was apparently one of the most skilled. Even Bach's pupil Johann Scheibe, who could sometimes be critical of his former teacher, had to admit, in a 1739 review, that Bach's was a "pre-eminent" example of the form: "Who is there who will not admit at once that this clavier concerto is to be regarded as a perfect model of a well-designed solo concerto? It would take as great a master of music as Mr. Bach to provide us with such a piece, which deserves emulation by all our great composers and which will be imitated all in vain by foreigners."

Scheibe, as you might have gathered from that last sentence, was a bit of German snob when it came to music, regarding the more ornamental Italian style of composition as overly complex and complicated. This was, in fact, his chief beef with Bach: his style of composition was too Italian.

That means Mr. Scheibe would probably not have appreciated the piece that closes the first half of the concert, Marcello's D minor Oboe Concerto. Not only is it very Italian, but it also, as Benjamin Pesetsky points out in his program notes, shows a strong operatic influence. "The first movement, Andante e spiccato," he writes, "could be a mid-tempo aria, while the Adagio is lyrical and mournful. The vigorous finale, Presto, resembles the "rage" arias of Baroque operatic heroes." In the solo spot for the concerto will be SLSO Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks.

The concerts will conclude with Vivaldi's popular The Four Seasons, in an unusual arrangement for mandolin and orchestra by the noted Israeli mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital, who will also play the solo part. That may sound a bit odd but, given that (as Mr. Pesetsky points out) the mandolin and violin share the same range and tuning, not as odd as you might think.

In its original form The Four Seasons was composed around 1720 (as with many aspects of Vivaldi's life, dates are foggy) and originally published as part of a set of twelve concertos titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest Between Harmony and Invention"). Each of the four three-movement concertos describes--often very vividly--aspects of a particular season. They were even accompanied by sonnets (anonymous, but probably by Vivaldi himself) that provide narratives for each concerto. You'll find English translations in this week's SLSO program notes.

Combine that almost cinematic tone painting with Vivaldi's gift of melody and you have music that was destined to be popular. And it was, at least during Vivaldi's time. After his death, though, that all changed. Interest in his work faded, and copies of his music became scarce.

That began to change in 1926 when a boarding school in Piedmont discovered a huge cache of old manuscripts, including hundreds of works by Vivaldi. It aroused the interest of scholars and conductors, including Bernardino Molinari (1880-1952), who was then the conductor of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia.

He was also, as it happened, about to become a guest conductor at the St. Louis Symphony.

In January of 1928, Molinari brought the four newly rediscovered concertos that make up The Four Seasons to St. Louis for what would turn out to be their first American performances. He stretched the four concertos out over an entire month--"like the magazine serial stories," as the Post-Dispatch music critic, Thomas B. Sherman, wryly observed in his review of the first set of concerts. "Spring" was performed in a pair of concerts on Friday and Saturday, January 6 and 7. "Summer" was the following week, and the final two concertos were performed in concerts on January 27 and 28.

Mr. Sherman loved the SLSO performances, in any case, calling them "ingratiating, warm, and transparent" and describing the strings as "rich and unified." The Four Seasons would not appear as a unit on an SLSO program until 25 years later, when Vladimir Golschmann conducted them on February 20, 1953.

Interesting footnote: the Vivaldi was somewhat overshadowed in the January 27-29 concerts by the piano soloist. It was the "young Russian pianist" Vladimir Horowitz, who had arrived in the USA just two weeks before and had already created a sensation with the New York Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham. Mr. Sherman loved Horowitz ("a powerful tone and a sparkling and expertly controlled technique") but hated the piece he played, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, calling it "as dull a thing as the noted Muscovite expatriate has ever done." History has rather overruled him that one.

The essentials: Jory Vinikour conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with soloists Avi Avital, mandolin, and Jelena Dirks, oboe, on Friday at 10:30 am, Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, December 8--10. The performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

This weekend (December 1 and 2) and next (December 8--10) the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is giving us a mini Baroque festival with the emphasis on the music of one of the most prolific composers of the period, Antonio Vivaldi (1678--1741). He was a guy whose life and reputation had enough ups and downs to rival some roller-coasters.

It started the day he was born. Atypically for the time, he was baptized immediately after his birth in the family home in Venice. It's not entirely clear why--the earthquake that struck the city that day is one explanation, as is the possibility that he was a sickly newborn and not expected to survive--but in any case the official church baptism would wait for two months.

The young Vivaldi was a frail child, possibly suffering from asthma, but he nevertheless proved to be an adept violinist early in life. He joined the priesthood as a teenager and by the age of 25 was appointed maestro di violino (violin master) at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy), a girls' orphanage in Venice. He would remain there for the next three decades, cranking out the vast majority of his huge output, including around 500 concertos for various combinations of instruments.

Judging from the difficulty of many of those pieces, girls at the Ospedale were pretty respectable musicians. Here's the French politician and writer Charles de Brosses enthusing about them, cited in an article by Hugo Ticciati at The Guardian: "There is nothing so charming as to see a young and pretty nun in her white robe, with a sprig of pomegranate blossoms over her ear, leading the orchestra and beating time with all the grace and precision imaginable." Jean-Jacques Rousseau, no less, described the music he heard there as "voluptuous and affecting." Vivaldi's skill at the violin was much admired as well.

Even so, Vivaldi's relationship with the board of directors as the Ospedale was apparently rocky. His contract came up for renewal every year and the vote was often close. They actually failed to renew it in 1709, but two years later, seeing the error of their ways, hired him again. This time the vote was unanimous.

Over the years, Vivaldi's fame spread to the major European music capitals, including Paris, Prague, and Vienna. But towards the end of his life his compositions were seen as unfashionable and dated. He wound up dying in poverty in Vienna. Interest in his work faded, and copies of his music were hard to come by. "For nearly 200 years," writes Peter Gutmann at classicalnotes.net, "Vivaldi was a historical footnote, although a somewhat influential one...His only lasting recognition came from the fervent admiration of Bach, who modeled his own concerto style after Vivaldi's and adapted for keyboard nine Vivaldi violin concerti (even though Bach devotees tended to disparage the source)."

That began to change in the early 20th century when his cause was taken up by, among others, the composer Alfredo Casella and the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini. These days, works like the Gloria for chorus and orchestra (which we'll hear this weekend) and The Four Seasons (next weekend) are concert standards.

This weekend's concerts offer a real feast for Vivaldi fans. In addition to the Gloria, there are three concertos, four opera arias (he claimed that he wrote over 90 operas, although only 46 survive), and a number from a cantata written as a commission for the marriage of Louis XV of France. René Spencer Saller offers detailed descriptions of all of them in her program notes, so I won't try to duplicate that here. Instead I'll just note that the soloists for all the concerti are members of the SLSO, which doesn't happen often enough, in my view.

Conducting all this will be the wonderfully energetic Nicholas McGegan, who invariably lights up a concert stage with his enthusiasm. When I saw him bound out to the podium for a program of Baroque favorites back in 2013, I marveled at how his face lit up with a cherubic smile. His body language was saying: "this is going to be FUN!" That kind of spirit is as infectious as the cold I'm currently trying to shake.

"Vivaldi," Igor Stravinsky once declared, "is greatly overrated--a dull fellow who could compose the same form so many times over." I beg to differ. After this weekend, I expect you will as well.

The Essentials: Nicholas McGegan conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in an all-Vivaldi program, featuring Vivaldi's Gloria, Friday and Saturday, December 1 and 2, at 8 pm. The performance takes place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

Music lovers have a lot to be thankful for this weekend (November 24 -- 26, 2017), as Jun Märkl conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program of classical favorites. It's a real feast for the ears to match the one your stomach will probably still be digesting.

The concerts will open with Ravel's colorful tone poem Alborada del gracioso, written as a solo piano work in 1905 then orchestrated in 1919. The work's title is, as Ravel admitted, essentially untranslatable. The composer explained it this way in a letter to Ferdinand Sinzig of Steinway and Sons in New York on September 14, 1907 (cited in the 2011 biography Ravel by Roger Nichols):

I understand your bafflement over how to translate the title 'Alborada del gracioso'; precisely why I decided not to translate it. The fact is that the gracioso of Spanish comedy is a rather special character and one which, as far as I know, is not found in any other theatrical tradition. We do have an equivalent, though, in the French theater: Beaumarchais' Figaro. But he's more philosophical, less well--meaning than his Spanish ancestor. The simplest thing, I think, is to follow the title with the rough translation 'Morning Song of the Clown' [Aubade du buffon]. That will be enough to explain the piece's humoristic style.

Humorous it certainly is, and with a distinctly Iberian flair reflecting the composer's love of Spain. The brilliant orchestration includes a large percussion battery with, of course, castanets.

Up next is the Poéme for violin and orchestra, composed in 1896 by Ernest Chausson, a composer whose music does not, in my view, get quite as much attention as it deserves. His Symphony in B flat (1890) is a particular favorite of mine, but live performances seem to be rare.

Inspired by Turgenev's 1881 novella The Song of Love Triumphant, the Poéme originally had the same title as the book, but Chausson changed it before the piece was published, apparently to avoid associating it too closely with the novel. I think it was a wise decision; this music has a haunting beauty that doesn't need any extra-musical connections.

The Poéme has been massively popular with violinists ever since it was first performed by the great composer/violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, who commissioned the piece and may have helped with some of the details of the violin part. "When Ysaÿe introduced the Poéme in Paris," writes Michael Steinberg in The Concerto: A Listener's Guide, "the applause rang on and on. Chausson's friend the novelist Camille Mauclair recalled that the bewildered composer kept repeating 'I can't get over it.'" Sadly, it wouldn't last; only two years after the work's 1897 premiere, Chausson lost control of a bicycle and smashed into the wall of his country villa. He was only 44.

The violin remains in the spotlight with the last work in the first half, the flashy 1883 Carmen Fantasy by the virtuoso violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate, based on Georges Bizet's massively popular 1875 opera Carmen. Like Chausson, Bizet died young; he shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 36 from a heart attack a few months after the opera opened to tepid reviews and public apathy. So he went to his grave not knowing that he had composed what would become one of the most popular operas ever written. Operabase statistics for the 2015/2016 season, in fact, show it as number 3 worldwide, surpassed only by Verdi's La Traviata and Mozart's The Magic Flute.

This mini-concerto weaves virtuoso fireworks out of a number of tunes from the opera, starting with the Aragonaise that serves as the entr'acte between Bizet's Acts III and IV and ending with the Danse bohème from the top of Act II, as Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès dance for some army officers in Pastia's Inn. Along the way you'll also hear the famous Habanera as well as the Seguidilla, both from Act I. It's pure melodic fun that offers the violinist a chance to strut his or her stuff, especially in the breakneck finale.

After intermission, the Spanish theme continues with a performance of Manuel de Falla's 1925 revision of a ballet that premiered in 1916, El amor brujo (usually translated as "Love, the Magician"). Originally commissioned by flamenco dancer Pastora Imperio, the ballet is infused with Andalusian folk elements and, of course, the spirit of flamenco.

The spooky scenario reads like something that would have been more appropriate around Hallowe'en. Here's a summary from John Henken's program notes for a 2015 performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

The tale in its final version concerns Candelas, a young widowed gypsy haunted by the ghost of her jealous husband. To free her from his unwanted attention, Candelas and Carmelo, her new lover, must exchange a kiss of perfect love. In a series of dances the ghost first frightens the couple (Dance of Terror), Candelas tries to exorcise it (Ritual Fire Dance), and then her friend Lucia seduces it. While the ghost is distracted by Lucia, Candelas and Carmelo kiss, and then mock the ghost in the final dance (Dance of the Game of Love).

Most concertgoers will be familiar with the "Ritual Fire Dance," but there's much to relish in this colorful and highly evocative score. There's even a part for a mezzo-soprano (sung this weekend by soprano Catalina Cuervo), acknowledging the influence of the Andalusian tradition of cante jundo, a dark and dramatic style of singing associated with the flamenco tradition.

The concerts close with one of the most popular orchestral works ever written and certainly the best-known thing Maurice Ravel ever produced: Bolero. Composed originally on commission for the dancer Ida Rubinstein, Bolero was first performed by her at the Paris Opéra on 22 November 1928, with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and designs by Alexandre Benois.

"Inside a tavern in Spain," runs the scenario printed in that first program, "people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated." In program notes for the New York Philharmonic, the late New York Times music critic Louis Biancolli goes into greater detail. "The men gathered in the public room of the inn eye the dancer fixedly. As her movements grow more animated, their excitement mounts. They beat out an obbligato with their hands and pound their heels. At the peak of the crescendo, where the key abruptly shifts from C major to E major, the sharpening tension snaps. Knives are drawn and there is a wild tavern brawl."

Sounds like a hell of a party. There will be no weapons at Powell Hall this weekend, fortunately, so you will be able to enjoy Ravel's Greatest Hit in safety.

The essentials: Jun Märkl conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with soloists Karen Gomyo, violin, and Catalina Cuervo, soprano, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 24 -- 26. The performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

There's a lot to be thankful for at Powell Hall this weekend (November 24 -- 26, 2017) as Jun Märkl conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a colorful program that is a feast for the eyes and ears.

Things got off to a festive start Friday night with a performance of Ravel's 1919 Alborada del gracioso that positively sparkled with grace and wit. Inspired by the mischievous and vulgar clown figure of 16th century Spanish comedy--the gracioso of the title--this lively and brilliantly orchestrated work got crisp and precise direction from Mr. Märkl and brilliant playing from all the musicians. That included Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo, who had just the right touch in the seriocomic solo that introduces the elegiac middle section, as well as the trumpets and horns in the rapid-fire triplets in the lively beginning and end.

More brilliant playing followed, this time by violin soloist Karen Gomyo. Decked out in a red floor-length gown, she cut a striking figure as she took the stage for wonderfully sympathetic reading of Ernest Chausson's haunting 1896 miniature, Poème. Inspired by a romantic novella by Turgenev, the Poème rises from a hushed, mysterious introduction to a passionate and technically demanding cadenza before eventually dying away in a flurry of soft trills--equally demanding, if less flashy. Ms. Gomyo handled all the demands with apparent ease, and did so without stinting on the dark romanticism at the heart of the music.

The first half of the concert concluded with a straightforward virtuoso vehicle, the 1883 Carmen Fantasy by the Spanish violinist/composer Pablo de Sarasate. Sarasate's skill was legendary and this mini-concerto assembled out of themes from Bizet's opera bristles with technical challenges, including an elaborately ornamented version of the famous Habanera and the insanely fast finale, based on the Act II Danse bohème. Ms. Gomyo took it all in stride, bringing out all the yearning of the former as well as the flash and fire of the latter. As was the case in the Poème, her focus on the music was intense.

After intermission, the Spanish theme continued with a performance of Manuel de Falla's 1925 revision of a ballet that premiered in 1916, El amor brujo (usually translated as "Love, the Magician"). Originally commissioned by flamenco dancer Pastora Imperio, the ballet is infused with Andalusian folk elements and the percussive spirit of flamenco.

The spooky scenario, about a young woman trying to free herself from the obsessive intentions of her unfaithful husband's ghost, reads like something that would have been more appropriate around Halloween. There is dark, brooding music here--especially in the opening sequence, with its vivid evocation of a nocturnal cavern--but also moments of brilliance, like the famous "Ritual Fire Dance." There are even a few smoldering, passionate songs for the smoky tones of a mezzo soprano--a nod to the cante jondo, a dark and dramatic style of singing associated with the flamenco tradition.

This is immensely compelling stuff, and it got a powerfully theatrical performance from Mr. Märkl, the orchestra, and vocal soloist Catalina Cuervo. Although a soprano and therefore presumably singing at the bottom of her range, Ms. Cuervo nevertheless sounded entirely comfortable with her three highly charged, "take no prisoners" songs, delivered with a fierce intensity that was completely compelling. She also cut a commanding figure on stage with a form-fitting red gown, silver nails, and some very flamenco poses and foot stomping.

Mr. Märkl's interpretation exuded that same dramatic intensity, and was filled with neat little details, like the pointed snap of the viola trills in the "Ritual Fire Dance." He got great playing from the orchestra, including powerful moments from the horns and heartfelt solos from Principal Cello Daniel Lee and Concertmaster David Halen in the "Dance of the Game of Love." I can't recall the last time I saw any version of El amor brujo live (the SLSO hasn't done it since 1998), so it was a pleasure to see it performed so well.

Friday night's concert ended with one of the longest crescendos in musical history, Ravel's 1928 Boléro. Ravel himself apparently began to view it in somewhat the same way that Rachmaninoff came to view his equally popular Prelude in C sharp minor: as a career milestone that eventually became a millstone. But it's still a piece that never fails to entertain.

It certainly did that Friday night, with a brilliantly conceived performance that built expertly from the almost inaudible opening with snare drum and plucked strings to the massive orchestral crash of the final pages. Yes, Boléro is almost guaranteed to work as long as the conductor doesn't get in Ravel's way, but even so this was a performance that packed a real punch and brought down the house.

It helped, of course, that Mr. Märkl had an ensemble of virtuosos to work with. That includes, but is certainly not limited to, Associate Principal Clarinet Dana Haskell, Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo, Associate Principal Flute Andrea Kaplan, and Principal Trombone Timothy Myers. Guests Nathan Nabb and Jeffrey Collins on soprano and tenor sax, respectively, brought the same jazzy feel to their solos that they did the last time the SLSO played this piece in 2015. And let's hear it for Principal Percussionist Will James. Seated just behind the violas, he had the difficult and somewhat thankless role of playing the same snare drum figure repeatedly for around 17 minutes. There ought to be a medal for that.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's mostly Spanish post-Thanksgiving feast repeats Saturday night at 8 and Sunday at 3, November 25 and 26, at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. The music continues next weekend with an all-Vivaldi program conducted by Nicholas McGegan.

The reverent and magisterial performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis by David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Saturday, November 18th, reminded me of what a challenging piece was when it was first performed back in 1824--and still is today.

For singers, it's something of a marathon. Running around 75 minutes or more, it's the longest concert piece Beethoven wrote and the chorus sings for nearly all of it. The four soloists often do little more than add emphasis. Add in the fact that Beethoven was not especially adept at writing for the human voice and you have a work that can be a tough nut for vocalists to crack.

It's a challenge for listeners as well. The musical structure is large and ungainly, with a tendency to ramble. In his book Nineteenth-Century Romanticism in Music, British musicologist Rey M. Longyear went so far as to dub the Missa Solemnis as "one of the greatest failures in the history of music." "Despite its sublime moments," he wrote, "especially in the outer movements (Kyrie and Agnus Dei), the work is uneven, even patchy, and the overlong conclusions of the Gloria and Credo simply stupefy rather than edify."

I wouldn't go that far, but I must admit that this is a piece that sometimes conjures up a bewildering variety of sonic environments. This is music that looks back to the counterpoint of the Baroque but also forward to the massive sound blocks of Bruckner. It's ancient and modern, reverent and raucous.

So, yeah, the Missa Solemnis is a real workout for both the performers and the audiences. It is, therefore, a real tribute to Mr. Robertson and the SLSO that they did such a fine job with it when I heard it Saturday night.

The Kyrie was every bit as sublime as Mr. Longyear says it is, beginning with a deliberate tempo and building to an imposing climax that prepared us for the power of the Gloria that followed. The big fugue on "in Gloria Dei Patris. Amen." may, indeed, be longer than necessary, but the chorus certainly sang it with authority and clarity.

The central Credo that followed is the very heart of the piece and benefitted from heartfelt performances by the soloists: soprano Joélle Harvey and bass-baritone Shenyang (both so remarkable in the San Francisco Symphony's Missa Solemnis in 2015), mezzo Kelley O'Connor, and tenor Stuart Skelton. All four have operatic experience, a fact very much apparent in the way they invested the "Crucifixus etiam" section with real anguish. They're strong singers--perhaps a bit too strong in Mr. Skelton's case, as his Wagnerian heldentenor sometimes overwhelmed his fellow soloists. The chorus once again sang heroically here, especially in the massive double fugue that concludes the movement.

The Sanctus featured soaring vocals from Ms. Harvey and Ms. Skelton on "pleni sunt coeli" and the entire quartet blended nicely with Concertmaster David Halen in what Sir Donald Francis Tovey (quoted in Christopher H. Gibbs's program notes) called an "aria-concerto of violin, voices, and orchestra." This is another one of those sublime moments, and Mr. Halen has never sounded better.

The concluding Agnus Dei is probably the most obvious example of Beethoven's colliding sound worlds, including the juxtaposition of sharply contrasting textures like the noisy "battle music" that pops up in the middle of the calls for peace and an idiosyncratically low key finale. Once again, Mr. Robertson and his forces made it work, bringing this difficult but important masterpiece to a satisfying conclusion.

The SLSO's performances of the Missa Solemnis on Saturday and Sunday, November 18th and 19th marked the last time David Robertson will conduct the chorus before his tenure as Music Director ends in the spring of 2018. It was, I expect, a moving experience for the members of the chorus and, in fact, Chorus Master Amy Kaiser did seem to be holding back tears as she took her much-deserved bows Saturday night.

Next at Powell Hall: Jun Märkl conducts the orchestra with soloists Karen Gomyo, violin, and Catalina Cuervo, soprano, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 24 - 26. The concert consists of Ravel's Alborada del gracioso, Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy, Chausson's Poéme, Falla's El amor brujo Ballet Suite, and Ravel's Bolero. The performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

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