The history of music is the story of the changes and evolution that have transformed music across the centuries. Sometimes, too, music itself charts the story of change and evolution, perhaps even teaching us about the times when change erupted into rebellion. Such was the case with the opening concert of the Metropolitan Orchestra of St. Louis at its sixth season opener. Three composers -- Rossini, Mozart and Mendelssohn -- demonstrated the evolution of musical style and of political and religious fervor, all under the baton of Music Director Wendy Lea.

 In the years leading up to the French Revolution, the character of the wily servant Figaro in plays by Pierre Beaumarchais helped incite the populace to disdain of the nobility. Mozart had already immortalized Figaro in his opera The Marriage of Figaro. In 1792, the year after Mozart's death, Gioachino Rossini, the composer who would bring even greater notoriety to the Figaro legend, was born. In 1817 Rossini penned his wildly successful opera, [The Barber of Seville. The overture, which opened the program, is a standard of orchestral repertoire and remains a firm crowd pleaser.   

W. A. Mozart's Symphony No. 36 in C Major, Linz, K.425, the middle work on the program, was conceived and written in the space of four days in 1783 as the composer visited the court of Count Johann Anton Thun of Linz, Austria. Born with a rebellious spirit to begin with, Mozart added his own special touch to the Symphony by opening it with a slow introduction. Although it is difficult to imagine an orchestra without flutes, Mozart decided to omit them from this symphony. (He was known to have a distaste for the instrument, but that is likely due to the fact that the flute of his day was a much more awkward instrument than its graceful counterpart today.) However, he made considerable use of percussion and trumpets in the work, even in the slow movement. 

Before Rossini had even reached the age of 20, Felix Mendelssohn was born in Germany in 1809. The Mendelssohns were a renowned Jewish family who fostered the explosive musical careers of Felix and his sister Fanny. Some rather odd parallels exist between Mendelssohn and Mozart: Both were phenomenal keyboard prodigies, both had sisters who were also musically talented, and, sadly, both died while still in their thirties. 

Fearing prejudice that might harm Felix's career, the Mendelssohn family made the difficult decision to convert to Lutheranism. Although the family never lost sight of their Jewish roots, Felix felt compelled to embrace the Protestant tradition that had rapidly gained prominence in much of northern Europe. In 1829 he composed his Reformation symphony in D Minor, the concluding work on the program, honoring the 300-year commemoration of the Protestant Reformation. The work is famous for its use of the hymn "A Mighty Fortress" in its closing movement.  

After less than six years, the Metropolitan Orchestra continues to expand its impact on the St. Louis arts community with its professionalism and its ongoing commitment to young people. Moreover, the orchestra has championed traditional repertoire since its inception. Too often these days, orchestras are bypassing many of the traditional staples of musical literature in favor of contemporary works, but in so doing they are failing to realize the importance of developing a common musical language and vocabulary that will foster the formation of new generations of listeners. A concert such as this demonstrates the invaluable contribution of "traditional" music as a teacher of history, geography, philosophy and artistry. MOSL has instituted a "Sharing the Music Stand" program that provides talented young musicians with the invaluable opportunity to perform alongside professional musicians within the orchestra. The convenient and accessible auditorium at First Presbyterian in Kirkwood has also greatly aided in bringing serious music to the people.

The woodwind section of the Metropolitan Orchestra shined particularly brightly in this concert, exhibiting a bold yet carefully honed lyricism with superb intonation. However, all the sections of the orchestra display fine technique and careful attention to musical detail. The close working relationship between Wendy Lea and Conductor Laureate Allen Larson is clearly evident. Although orchestras by their very nature are designed to showcase the harmonic relationships of multiple instruments, the linear qualities of melody and rhythm are the guiding force that direct the musical message. The musicians of MOSL clearly show an awareness of line, accuracy and expression.

The next concert in this season will take place on November 5, featuring music inspired by the Hispanic tradition.

 

 

In a new biography, John Suchet calls Mozart "surely the happiest composer who ever lived." We got a great demonstration of that this past weekend as the St. Louis Symphony opened its new season with the first in a series of three all-Mozart programs.

That happiness was most apparent in the first half of the concert, which opened with a spirited and elegant dash through the overture to the 1789 comic masterpiece Le nozze di Figaro. Although it includes no music from the opera itself, the overture nevertheless perfectly captures the freewheeling spirit of the work, and maestro David Robertson honored that spirit of fun.

Up next was the Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, written two years earlier when Mozart was trying to make a living as a composer/pianist in Vienna. One of six that the composer produced that year in a never-ending struggle to engage the attention of the notoriously fickle Viennese public, it's engaging, tuneful, and just sophisticated enough to display Mozart's fine hand at counterpoint. 

Soloist Emanuel Ax delivered a performance of crystalline perfection that allowed all of the joy and ingenuity of this piece to come through. Mr. Robertson and the orchestra supported him beautifully with playing that was light, precise, and classically pristine. Contemporary orchestras are bigger and contemporary pianos far more powerful than was the case in Mozart's day, but Mr. Ax and the orchestra still managed to convey that incredible lightness of being that you don't always experience in "big band" Mozart.

The second half of the concert was devoted to works that represented Mozart's last thoughts on the subject of the piano concerto and the symphony: the Concerto No. 27 (premiered the year of Mozart's death, although likely written a few years earlier) and the monumental Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter," a title Mozart never used for it) from 1788. The contrast between the two is striking.

Back when everyone thought the Concerto No. 27 was produced in the final year of Mozart's life, it was not uncommon to read a kind of end-of-life resignation into this music. It's certainly lyrical and sometimes pensively sad, but it still sounds like the work of the happiest composer who ever lived. It got, in any case, a warm and engaging interpretation from Mr. Ax and Mr. Robertson that brought out peaceful autumnal reflection of this remarkable work.

The Symphony No. 41, on the other hand, bristles with the confidence and self-assertion of a man who had completely mastered symphonic form and was ready, in the words of The Guardian's Tom Service, to see "just how many different expressive and compositional contrasts he can cram into a single symphony." There's a little bit of everything in this music, and Mr. Robertson and his forces brought out all of its kaleidoscopic variety.

I was particularly struck by the simple charm of the Andante cantabile second movement and the "gotta dance" energy of the third movement Menuetto. But it was the propulsive energy of the concluding Molto allegro in all its complex glory that really brought down the house and led to a well-deserved standing ovation. Mr. Robertson and Concertmaster David Halen began the symphony immaculately groomed and ended it with ties slightly askew; that's how much they threw themselves into this performance, and it showed.

The St. Louis Symphony's Mozart festival continues on Friday at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., September 29 -- October 1. The Friday concert  features the Piano Concertos Nos. 14 and 20 and the Symphony No. 39. Saturday and Sunday the program will feature the Concertos Nos. 16 and 17 and the Symphony No. 40. Emanuel Ax will once again be the soloist and David Robertson will conduct.  

The musicians might not be decked out quite as festively as they were for opening night, when many of the orchestra's women wore colorful evening gowns and Concertmaster David Halen sported a sparkly red vest and tie, but if this opening weekend's concert was any indication, the music will still be celebratory.

 

The reflective powers of music are truly remarkable. In a program themed as "Dark Vision and Warm Friendship" (April 29-30) the St. Louis Symphony presented contrasting images of fear, violence, mystery, yet also of warmth, tenderness and the rising of the human spirit.

Although Edward Elgar wrote some of the world's most beautiful music, heaviness and melancholy nevertheless appear in his works. The searing passages of the Cello Concerto in E minor and the heartfelt moments of the mysterious Enigma Variations spring readily to mind. Elgar's life was not as easy nor as quintessentially British as one might think. Curiously, his Serenade for Strings, which opened the program at Powell Hall, held a special place in Elgar's heart, despite its brevity and limited palette of colors and melody. Although no overwhelming sadness is present in this work, it moves with a haunting voice that seems to long for a different age, perhaps, or for memories long forgotten. Conceived for strings only, the piece makes a good vehicle to highlight the velvety blend and tonal accuracy of the string section of the SLSO, which were not lacking.

The program continued with the U.S. premiere of Jerusalem (after Blake) by the contemporary composer Georges Lentz, born in Luxembourg in 1965. The apocalyptic and visionary poetry of William Blake has long fascinated Lentz; Blake's meaning is often baffling and seemingly impossible to decipher, yet the sweep of his vision has captivated readers for generations. Additionally, Lentz was inspired by the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, whose victims, unlike those of 9/11, were unable to make final cell phone calls. Accordingly, brass sounds emanating from mobile phones in the balcony symbolized the calls that could never be made.

In his introductory remarks to the work, Music Director David Robertson stated that he found this to be one of the most beautiful and expressive works he had conducted over the past 25 years. He also assured the audience that the antiphonal brass located in the balcony of Powell Hall would not be overwhelmingly loud. Well...each listener will have to make his or her own decision as to whether to agree with Robertson's notions. Melodically speaking, the piece seemed to rely on the same angular effects produced by atonal avant-garde composers of the early to mid-20th century; rhythmically (and melodically) speaking, the work was somewhat bland, sometimes subsisting on patterns of repeated eighth notes. However, it cannot be denied that the composer possesses a keen sense of empathy for those who have been the victims of the violence and upheaval fomented by the ideologies of the modern era.

One might argue that too many contemporary composers rely on sound effects while ignoring the development and crafting of musical ideas (sometimes even leaving the music to improvisation or chance, as is the case with "aleatory" music). Certainly Lentz utilized a broad spectrum of instrumental timbres, including smart phones, electronic effects, electric guitar and cimbalom (a close relative of the hammered dulcimer and a beautiful instrument that should be heard more frequently). Again, though, listeners must make up their own minds as to the value of each new work. We might ask ourselves how many of the works spawned by government grants and commissions by foundations will be sought by audiences decades and centuries later. Even today, listeners continue to debate the intrinsic merits of composers from the past. 

Like Georges Lentz, the final composer featured on the program, Johannes Brahms, also possessed a keen sensitivity to tragedy. His first piano concerto mirrored the attempted suicide of his close friend and mentor Robert Schumann. Throughout the Brahms repertoire there is a juxtaposition of sadness, pathos, empathy, joy and beauty; perhaps the same could be said of Elgar. However, it was the Violin Concerto in D major, performed by the brilliant young violinist Augustin Hadelich, that was the vehicle to provide the capstone to the concert. The choice was an eloquent one, because the Violin Concerto embodies nearly every emotion that Brahms could express.  Brahms forged deep relationships in his life, similarly to Elgar. Accordingly, this concerto was written for his close friend Joseph Joachim, one of the greatest violinists of the 19th century.  

The 30-something Hadelich is a product of diverse roots, born in Italy to German-Jewish parents, and recently became a U.S. citizen. As a teenager, his career and his life narrowly escaped a tragic end when he was trapped in a fire at his family's farm in Italy.  Despite severe burns, Hadelich made an almost miraculous recovery and emerged stronger than ever. His playing is marked by a soaring lyricism, yet he also can call forth a marked sense of drama when necessary. His finger movements are so well-oiled and liquid as to completely belie the injuries they overcame.

A few times the orchestra seemed to overpower the soloist. In recent years that has been much less of a problem at Powell Hall, but has occasionally been noticeable in the last couple of years. Controlling acoustics and projection is not an easy task. Perhaps it was just imagination, but coming on the heels of the Lentz work and the conclusion of a long weekend of performing, the orchestral accompaniment to the concerto seemed just a bit mechanical, but there was never an audible misstep. The concerto created an artistic and surprisingly upbeat conclusion to a concert faceted with many contrasting faces of humanity.

 

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, like most major American orchestras, can generally be counted upon to deliver a blockbuster season finale. Last year it was Holst's popular suite The Planets paired with works by Berg and Vaughan Williams. This year (May 4th and 6th, 2017), it was another of the orchestra's forays into the world of opera: a complete concert performance of Wagner's 1843 opera Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). And it was, as they used to say in Variety, boffo.

Written when the composer and his first wife were literally starving in Paris, The Flying Dutchman would prove to be not only Wagner's first big success but also the first opera for which he would write both the music and the libretto--a major step on the path that would eventually lead to the Ring cycle. "From here," wrote the composer in an 1851 essay, "begins my career as poet, and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera-texts."

In fact, almost everything in The Flying Dutchman presages the route Wagner would take in his subsequent operas. There are individual themes (leitmotifs) for the major characters, a massive orchestra with a beefed-up brass section, and a libretto that deals with the idea of salvation through the self-sacrificing love of a virtuous woman--a theme Wager found fascinating. When Senta leaps to a watery death at the end of the opera, it's hard not to see it as a precursor to Brünnhilde's more elaborate fiery demise at the conclusion of Götterdämmerung. At least Senta doesn't take all of Valhalla with her.

It also has one of the best opera overtures ever written, vividly conjuring up images of storm tossed seas and ghostly ships--even if it is hard to listen to it without thinking of a certain Warner Brothers cartoon.

Add in the Gothic elements of the ghostly ship with its undead crew, and you have the makings of a potent evening of music drama. Which is exactly what we got Thursday night, thanks to strong performances by the orchestra, chorus, and soloists. That's because Maestro David Robertson, as he did with the SLSO's Aida two years ago, has once again assembled a cast of outstanding singers who are also capable actors. 

Soprano Marjorie Owens, who was so striking in her local debut last year in Ariadne on Naxos at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, impresses once again as Senta, whose dramatic sacrifice at the opera's close saves the Dutchman from his eternally cursed around-the-world cruise. The Act II ballad in which she tells the tale of how the Dutchman is cursed to sail the world forever until redeemed by love is an ingenious conceit on Wagner's part in that it serves both as exposition and insight into Senta's obsession with someone she has only seen in a painting. Ms. Owens infused it with real longing and delivered it flawlessly, building effortlessly to a powerful vocal climax.

Bass-baritone Alan Held, who got such great reviews in the SLSO's Peter Grimes in 2013, cut an imposing figure as The Dutchman -- menacing, stentorian, and tormented. He commanded the stage with his first aria, "Die Frist ist um, und abermals verstrichen sind sieben Jahr" (The time is up, and once again seven years have elapsed) and remained a magnetic figure throughout. A seasoned Wagnerian, his big, solid voice rode easily over the composer's massive orchestra.

Bass Raymond Aceto found the comic side of Senta's venial father Deland without overdoing it and, like Mr. Held, had a voice the projected strongly throughout the houses. Tenor Rodrick Dixon showed real passion as Senta's unfairly scorned lover, Erik, and did it with a clarion-clear voice. His cavatina "Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr entsinnen" (Won't you remember the day you called me to you?) in the third act was a thing of beauty.

Tenor Paul Appleby shone in the small but important comic role of the Steersman. He thoroughly captivated the audience with his big Act I aria "Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer" (With tempest and storm on distant seas), in which his character tries (unsuccessfully) to keep himself awake during his watch by singing a cheerful song about the sweetheart who waits for him on shore. Soprano Joy Boland rounded out this excellent cast as Senta's nurse Mary.

Under Mr. Robertson's skilled baton, the orchestra gave a masterful account of the big, complex score, with expert playing by every section. Mr. Robertson brought out all of Wanger's drama and paced the performance in a way that kept the tension at just the right level while still allowing the quieter moments their due. 

Amy Kaiser's chorus performed heroically as well. The women's chorus sang the Act II spinning song with giddy joy, while the men's chorus threw themselves into the Act III party scene, complete with foot-stomping choreography. The SLSO chorus never fails to impress.

Originally produced for the Sydney Symphony's Dutchman in 2013, S. Katy Tucker's evocative animations--projected, appropriately, on large sails suspended above the orchestra--added to the theatricality of the evening, reflecting the changing moods of the music. Her close-ups of Mr. Held's face were especially striking. I was also very taken with the way in which her lighting design changed the color of the stage and the house to emphasize the dramatic action. This was most apparent at the very end, when Senta's sacrifice dispelled the Dutchman's curse and the entire hall was bathed in blue light as Wagner's music came to a tranquil close. It was a wonderfully effective moment.

Mr. Robertson made inventive use of the Powell Hall space as well, with offstage brass and, in the dramatic final scene, the choristers portraying the Dutchman's ghostly and ghastly crew singing from house left with megaphones to give their voices an eerie hollow sound. My only real issue with the evening was the forest of microphones on stage. They sometimes obscured the soloists, who sang from a raised platform behind the chorus at the very back of the stage. Still, their voices projected from there quite effectively. 

The weekend's concerts opened with an emotional moment that had nothing to do with The Flying Dutchman but everything to do with the great work the orchestra has done over the years, as Mr. Robertson bade a fond public farewell to retiring percussionist John Kasica, who has been with the band since 1971. He has the distinction of having served under five different SLSO music directors (Walter Susskind, Jerzy Semkow, Leonard Slatkin, and Hans Vonk, in addition to Mr. Robertson) and, as his official bio notes, has the unique distinction of having had more solo appearances with major U.S. orchestras than any other percussionist in U.S. history. He'll be missed, but he got a great send-off.

This past weekend's excellent Flying Dutchman closed the formal SLSO concert season, but special off-season events continue through June 23.

 

It was damp and gloomy outside Friday night (April 28) but inside Powell Hall it was all light and cheer as David Robertson conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a festive romp through the last of the Whitaker Foundation's "Music You Know" concerts.

Launched back in November 2014, the "Music You Know" series features familiar classics often mixed with new but highly approachable works. This edition followed the same pattern, but with one charming wrinkle: the first music heard Friday night—the "Sword Dance" from Arbeau's Orchésographie, in a simplified arrangement by Bob Phillips—was played not by the SLSO but by one of the participants in the Symphony in Your School program: the Jennings Jr. High School string orchestra, conducted by their director, James McKay. Preceded by a video in which Mr. McKay, some of the players, and the ensemble's SLSO mentors reflected on the joy of their shared experience, the brief piece was an inspiring beginning to a highly enjoyable evening.

The SLSO part of the program began with a performance of the overture to Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera Der Freischütz that emphasized the work's dark and dramatic themes while still delivering an appropriate rousing finale. An unfortunate moment in the first entrance by the horns not withstanding, it was well played, with fine individual contributions, like the clarinet solo leading into the first statement of the big second theme.

Next up was a the premiere of The Arch, a concerto written for SLSO bass trombonist Gerard Pagano by James Stephenson and inspired by the Gateway Arch. Accompanied by a series of slides showing the construction of the arch, this listener-friendly work was a reminder of a time when America was brimming with courageous postwar optimism. The contrast with our current climate of paranoia and pessimism was both stark and sad. Mr. Pagano's performance was inspirational, though, and earned him a standing ovation.

The first half of the concert concluded with one of my favorite marches, William Walton's Crown Imperial. Intended for the coronation of Edward VIII—who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson before the ceremony could take place—it was finally played to mark the ascension of George VI. It's a certified rouser, with a broad, noble second theme and an inspiring finale. Mr. Robertson and the orchestra gave it an appropriately powerful reading, with an especially high-gloss treatment of that second theme.

The second half of the program opened with a leisurely stroll through Mendelssohn's 1830 musical postcard from Scotland, the Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) Overture. This is vividly evocative music, and while Mr. Robertson's more relaxed treatment didn't always deliver that sense of the wild, storm-tossed Scottish coast, it did feature some exemplary playing, including Scott Andrews and Tina Ward in the important clarinet parts. And Mr. Robertson's approach certainly brought out the strong dramatic contrasts in the score.

A beautifully delicate performance of Debussy's Clair de lune (in the popular André Caplet orchestration) was next, featuring Allegra Lilly's gossamer harp, followed by a real rarity: an orchestration of the 1964 Nocturno for horn and piano by Franz Strauss, father of the celebrated composer Richard. A virtuoso player in his own right, Franz (as Mr. Robertson pointed out in his prefatory remarks) showed Richard what the instrument was capable of—which explains the very challenging horn writing in so many of the younger Strauss's works. The SLSO's own Julie Thayer was the soloist, in a performance that was the auditory equivalent of liquid gold.

The concerts concluded with a bold and fiery run through another musical souvenir, Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien. Written during a visit to Rome in the winter and spring of 1880, the Capriccio shows the composer in an exuberant and dramatic mood. From the opening fanfare (inspired by the bugle calls from the nearby military barracks that woke the composer up every morning), to the irresistible tunes informed by Italian folk songs, to the rousing and dramatic coda, this is the kind of stuff that inevitably brings an audience to its feet—which it certainly did Friday night.

“Tchaikovsky knows what the instruments can do in a virtuoso way," observed conductor JoAnn Falletta in program notes for a 2011 Virginia Symphony performance of the Capriccio. "He brings them to their limit in the most thrilling fashion." And "thrilling" is exactly what Friday night's performance was, with exceptional playing from everyone and a perfectly shaped interpretation from Mr. Robertson. It was an immensely pleasing way to end the evening and the current "Music You Know" series.

Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and vocal soloists in a concert version of Richard Wagner's opera Der Fliegende Holländer better known in English as The Flying Dutchman, with projected visuals by S. Katy Tucker. Performances are Thursday and Saturday, May 4 and 6, at 8 p.m. at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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