The power and magnificence of choral music is almost palpable at this time of year. Here in St. Louis we are blessed to host in our midst on of the nation's premier choral ensembles, the Bach Society, recently accorded the honor of having their annual Candlelight Christmas Concert named by the BBC Music Magazine as one of the top 20 Christmas concerts in North America. If that weren't enough, matching gifts to the Bach Society have recently provided the means for performances of the Bach Mass in B Minor every three years.

Now entering his 31st year as Music Director and Conductor, A. Dennis Sparger has helped mold the artistry of the Society chorus throughout his tenure. His hallmarks are a remarkable sense of balance between voices and orchestra, as well as fostering an amazing command of diction that renders every consonant audible throughout Powell Hall and amidst the soaring mix of voices and instrumental timbres. 

Although the Candlelight Procession is an annual component of the concert that audiences look forward to each year, Sparger does not rely primarily on visual effects. Richness of variety is ensured through the antiphonal effects of singers processing throughout the aisles, audience participation, and the use of instrumental media, as well as sensitive attention to dynamics and the use of creative arrangements of traditional carols. The percussion section of the orchestra performed brilliantly throughout the program, showing with the glockenspiel and chimes that melody and percussion do go hand in hand. 

The centerpiece of the first half of the program on December 22 was the setting of the Magnificat by John Rutter, whose treatment and expansion of the biblical text provided a contemporary insight into the heart of a young Jewish girl poised to alter history, yet retaining enough traditional flavor to make the music accessible to first-time listeners. Rutter is a composer of tremendous talent, with a flair for adding just the right touch of modern spice to traditional harmony. Occasionally his rhythms seem a bit lodged in mid-20th century idioms more suitable for wind and percussion ensembles, but there were some remarkable moments of deep lyricism and reflection within the movements of the work.

Soprano Emily Birsan was soloist in the Magnificat and, later, in "Lullaby for the Christ Child" by Ruth Watson Henderson. Birsan's voice slides over even the most difficult passages with well-oiled flexibility and the same careful phrasing we have grown to expect from the Society chorus. Her sense of pitch seemed well-targeted and accurate. Although she was always audible, it would have been good to hear her beautiful and bell-like voice projected a bit more strongly throughout the hall, and she seems to possess the power to do so.

An unexpected treat on the program was the inclusion of the young voices of the St. Louis Children's Choirs (Choristers and Concert Choir), directed at this performance by Elizabeth Hogan McFarland and Barbara Berner. These young people sang with the same diction, blend and intonation that we would normally expect only of adults. The profound skill of these remarkable young people is a tribute to themselves, their families and the work of their gifted directors. The Choirs sang some challenging arrangements of traditional carols--"Ding, Dong! Merrily on High," "What Child," "O Come, All Ye Faithful"--and joined with the Society for the finale of "Jingle Bells" and "A Merry Christmas."

The audience was also provided the opportunity to join in on some of the traditional carols, demonstrating that this concert was very much a group effort. It must never be forgotten that musicians--and the families who support them--whether they be professionals or amateurs, students or seasoned veterans, nevertheless must lead lives filled with the same responsibilities of all of us, sometimes even entailing the necessity of day-jobs to support the addictive habit of filling the world with music. Hats off to the wonderful children, singers, soloists, orchestral musicians, conductors, office personnel, administrators and moms and dads whose immense effort made this concert a smashing success and a part of the very fabric of life in the heartland.

 

For some time now, the last weekend in December has been the time for the St. Louis Symphony to present a family-friendly concert--often with a cinematic theme--designed to pull in big audiences and contribute to the economic bottom line.

This year was no exception with "Disney in Concert: Tale as Old as Time." A production of Symphony Pops Music, the concert package provides clips from animated Disney films, both classic and contemporary, accompanied by live music played by the SLSO and orchestrated by a regular army of arrangers. Also included are a scripted narrative and a quartet of singers to deliver that narrative along with a cornucopia of songs from the movies.

The result, as the Thursday night (December 29) concert clearly demonstrated, was an entertainment powerhouse, in which the lively and precise performance by the SLSO musicians under the baton of guest conductor Aram Demirjian (Associate Conductor of the Kansas City Symphony) was more than matched by the theatrically on-target work of the singers. I often found myself more drawn to their smart and well-choreographed stage show than to the film clips which, after all, were already familiar to many of us in the audience.

As was the case with "The Magical Music of Disney" (the last Symphony Pops production I saw at Powell back in 2012), the featured singers were all experienced and engaging musical theatre professionals who were always completely in the moment and in character. 

Whitney Claire Kaufman, who has appeared as the guest soloist in previous SLSO holiday concerts, once again demonstrated an impressive combination of vocal power and theatrical conviction in songs like "When Will My Life Being" (Tangled) and "Reflection" (Mulan). Lisa Livesay was also a sparkling presence in Randy Newman's "Almost There" (The Frog Prince), among others. She and Ms. Kaufman did an excellent job sharing the various princess roles throughout the evening.

Andrew Johnson and Aaron Phillips displayed great versatility as well in a wide variety of male roles, from dashing princes to evil magicians. Mr. Johnson's "Under the Sea" (The Little Mermaid) was lively fun and his "Friends on the Other Side" (The Frog Prince) deliciously evil. He was also a powerful presence in the "The Circle of Life" (The Lion King), an unlisted but obviously scheduled encore that brought the audience to its feet for the second standing ovation of the evening--the first having been generated by the rousing medley of tunes from Frozen that finished the official program.

Mr. Phillips had some of the best character songs, including the lyrically flashy "Friend Like Me" (Aladdin) and "Be Our Guest" (Beauty and the Beast). He did some of the best character voices, which is what you might expect from an actor with so many animation and voiceover credits.

All too often the phrase "family entertainment" equates to "suitable only for preschoolers." Not so with the symphony's "Disney in Concert: Tale as Old as Time." This was a program that entertained all three generations in our party but, judging from the response, the rest of the standing room only crowd as well. The opening "Disney Memories Overture" was especially moving for me, with its musical and visual clips from classics like Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Fantasia. For a few moments, I was once again that enraptured child who made his long-suffering Italian uncle sit through three successive showings of Lady and the Tramp.

Now there's some movie magic for you.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is taking a much-deserved break right now, but the regular season returns the weekend of January 13 when David Robertson conducts Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World") and the Korngold Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham as the soloist. 

 

 

What with the all the hot air lately, both climatological and political, it has been difficult to really get into the holiday mood, but Friday night's St. Louis Symphony concert might just have gotten me over the hump.

It wasn't just the music that did it, although the mostly Tchaikovsky program was certainly chockablock with memorable melodies. The festive mood actually started with the Powell Hall lobby, which is decked out in its annual holiday finery, complete with green garlands gleaming with lights.

Adding to the sense of occasion was the fact that the guest conductor was Ward Stare, the former SLSO Resident Conductor and a popular figure with local audiences. And finally, there was the fact that the soloists were all members of the band: Concertmaster David Halen, Principal Harp Allegra Lilly, and Principal Cello Daniel Lee. Who, to quote Ira Gershwin, could ask for anything more?

The concert opened with the only non-Tchaikovsky piece on the program, the overture to Alexander Borodin's patriotic opera Prince Igor. Left unfinished at the time of the composer's death in 1887, Prince Igor was eventually completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov, and the overture is mostly Glazunov's work.

It is, in any case, a lively and engaging piece, laid out in something like sonata form with a portentous introduction and a lyrical middle section bracketed by energetic statements of themes from the opera. Mr. Stare gave the middle section an extra helping of romance, which made the contrast with the rest of the overture that much more marked. The difference it made was subtle but gave the work more dramatic shape than a more prosaic reading would have produced.

The orchestra played quite well, even though they haven't performed this music in over 45 years. The overlapping brass fanfares that pop up multiple times were especially crisp. Mr. Stare singled out Third Horn Tod Bowermaster and Associate Principal Clarinet Diana Haskell in the curtain call for their work, but everyone sounded at the top of their game.

Speaking of musicians at the top of their game, David Halen (to extend this metaphor a bit) hit multiple homers in the suite of six selections from Swan Lake (1876) and two from Sleeping Beauty (1889) that made up the rest of the first half of this program. With the exception of the familiar opening scene from Swan Lake, the numbers selected all gave Mr. Halen the chance to show the many moods of his virtuosity, from the delicate Sleeping Beauty "Entr'acte" to the fiery "Danse Russe" from Swan Lake. Spontaneous applause broke out after the "Pas de deux: Black Swan" Friday night, and Mr. Halen got a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.

The spotlight wasn't entirely on Mr. Halen, though. The "Pas d'action: White Swan" also gave Ms. Lilly and Mr. Lee a chance to show off in captivating duets with him. All of this was a reminder of what world-class musicians we have in our orchestra. Some visiting "big name" soloists might have generated more excitement in advance, but I strongly doubt that they could have played any better.

The most Christmassy part of the evening, however, came after intermission with the complete second act of Tchaikovsky's popular 1892 Christmas ballet The Nutcracker. Technical difficulties caused a last-minute cancellation of the planned projected images courtesy of Webster University's Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts, but it hardly mattered. Tchaikovsky's music is so filled with colorful orchestral touches that audience members who were familiar with Nutcracker (or with Disney's Fantasia, for that matter) were no doubt able to supply their own visuals.

Opportunities for individual players and sections to take center stage abound in this part of the ballet. So we had icy trills from Mark Sparks and his fellow flautists in the opening scene at the Magic Castle, Karin Bliznik's commanding trumpet in the "Spanish Dance," the sinuous bass clarinet of Tzuying Huang at the end of the "Arab Dance," the lively contrast of Ann Choomack's piccolo and Andrew Cuneo's bassoons in the "Chinese Dance" and, of course, Peter Henderson's star turn with the world's most famous celesta solo in the "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy," complete with the less-often heard coda.

Mr. Stare conducted all this with the obvious joy and enthusiasm that has always marked his time on the podium. This was a well thought-out reading with plenty of variety and a strong sense of theatre. To quote a Noël Coward lyric, "I couldn't have liked it more."

Holiday concerts take up the rest of December, including A Gospel Christmas on December 8, music by Mannheim Steamroller on December 9 and 10, and the annual Macy's Holiday Celebration concerts December 16-18. Visit the SLSO website for more information.

 

Although it's usually a heavily attended event, freezing drizzle and the resulting treacherous streets put a major dent in the turnout for the Mercy Holiday Celebration at the St. Louis Symphony Friday night. And that's a shame, since conductor Steven Jarvi really put his stamp on the evening with an intelligent selection of music that included more than a few works I'd never heard before.

For a pops concert that usually sticks to the tried and true, that was a delightful and welcome surprise. Morton Gould's arrangement of "Jingle Bells'" for example, was ingenious and whimsical with icy harmonics from the violins, a plaintive oboe, muted horns, and a quiet finale that gave the whole thing a kind of pointillist delicacy. The orchestration of "Carol to the King" by Mormon Tabernacle Choir music director Mack Wilberg featured lively "fife and drum" interchanges among the flutes, trumpets, and snare drums. And the "Refried Farandole" by composer/performer/producer Sam Hyken brought the concert to an appropriately rousing conclusion. This virtuoso expansion of the "Farandole" (from Bizet's incidental music for L'Arlesienne, which includes the traditional Provençal carol "The March of the three Kings") was completely new to me and it was tremendous fun, especially when performed with such precision.

Perhaps the most beautiful selection of the evening, though, came from Kevin McBeth's Holiday Festival Chorus, composed of singers from area high schools. For an a cappella performance of the "Ave Maria" by twentieth-century German composer Franz Xaver Biebl, the choir was split in half, with singers and soloists both on stage and upstairs in the dress circle. Heard from our seats on the orchestra floor, this gave the music a wonderful antiphonal quality that called to mind the works of Gabrielli and the other Venetian Renaissance polychoral composers. Mr. Jarvi conducted with a look of real joy that was, I'm sure, shared by many of us in the audience. 

The chorus also distinguished itself in more traditional selections like "The First Nowell" and, most notably, in the decidedly non-traditional "South African Gloria" by William Bradley Roberts, Professor of Church Music at Virginia Theological Seminary. With its syncopated percussion and lively foot stomping from the chorus, this was music guaranteed to bring a smile to the face and joy to the heart. It also sounded tricky to perform, so kudos to Mr. McBeth and his singers for doing so well by it.

That's not to say that the usual trappings of this annual holiday event weren't in place. The concert opened with a swinging, brassy arrangement of "Winter Wonderland." St. Nick (played with engaging jollity by Whit Reichert) showed up for his usual visit and arranged for a child from the audience to "conduct" the orchestra in Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride." And there was a guest appearance by a singer from the world of Broadway and TV: Nicole Parker. 

Ms. Parker is probably best known for her work on MADtv, but she also has extensive musical theatre credits, including the plum role of Elphaba in the first North American tour of Wicked. She had some great moments, including a charming "White Christmas" with the orchestra and chorus and a funny "My Favorite Things" with impersonations of Ellen DeGeneres, Julie Andrews (eerily accurate), Diane Keaton, and Celine Dion (complete with an absurdly ornamented vocal line). Her "Defying Gravity" might not have had much to do with the holidays but it certainly soared.

So, icy streets not withstanding, it was an evening as festive as the holiday decorations in the Powell Hall lobby and as cozy as a red Christmas sweater. Seasonal concerts continue at Powell Hall with the Bach Society Christmas Candlelight Concert on Thursday, December 22 and Disney in Concert on December 29 and 30. The orchestra will round out the year with the annual New Year's Eve gala on December 31. 

 

 

The growing contributions of African-American artists to classical music, both on the community level and on the national and international scene, continue to expand their sphere of influence and leadership. It would be impossible to name every great artist, but in recent decades such names as the Marsalis brothers, pianist Andre Watts and opera star Jessye Norman spring to mind, along with legions of others. Here in St. Louis we are blessed with the presence of such leaders as violinist Darwyn Apple and composer Robert Ray.

Another dominant force in our region is Fred Onovwerosuoke, whose African Musical Arts organization continues to highlight the African heritage and presence in serious music. In its short history, African Musical Arts has presented a wide variety of performances showcasing music of diverse backgrounds and cultures. On November 6, Darwyn Apple headlined a concert showcasing works by composers of African descent. 

The featured composers embodied a rich variety of musical styles, reminding us that composers of African origin cannot be confined to a single tradition. Partly because of the African diaspora and partly because of the diversity of cultures within Africa, no single style or stream of creativity speaks for all. The Five Folksongs for String Quartet by Florence Beatrice Price breathed an almost Impressionistic sheen to a group of spirituals; somewhat differently, the energy and introspection of the African Dances by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor -- hailed as "the African Mahler" -- contrasted with the lyricism and jazz-peppered adventurous style of William Grant Still. Like Gershwin -- but perhaps even more boldly -- Still bridged the gap between jazz and mainstream classical music, aiding the establishment of a uniquely American style. 

The "Kreutzer" Sonata of Beethoven was also highlighted on the program. Increasingly, it is believed that Beethoven's family tree included a branch from Africa. Research has yet to confirm this; however, at the very least we know that there was some Spanish influence in Beethoven's ancestry, which could easily have included African heritage as well. Many people believe that the sheer vibrancy and rhythmic vitality of Beethoven's music were the product of a cultural heritage that perhaps cannot be confined to a single source. If Beethoven is indeed part African, he joins a group of remarkable Europeans that includes Alexandre Dumas, Alexander Pushkin and other notables.

Darwyn Apple has long been a figure of note on the St. Louis concert stage, binging an inspiring intensity and seriousness to the art of the violin. For the solo and duo portions of the program, Apple was joined by pianist Sunghee Hinners for the solo and duo portions of the program. The two performed with a fine balance of dynamics and sense of partnership, and both performed with the solid technical skills we have come to expect. Violist Anna Lackschewitz and cellist Jake Brookman added their talents to the first movement of Beethoven's Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello in G Major, which opened the second half of the program. The three were joined by violinist Joseph Kaminsky for the concluding work of the program, the finale from the String Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, no. 5, by Franz Joseph Haydn. To our knowledge, Haydn did not possess African ancestry, but his work provided an interesting comparison to the other featured works on the program and provided an upbeat conclusion. Again, these performers likewise performed with consummate and well-honed skills.

Even those who feel already well-versed in music history and the contributions of composers of African descent would find much to learn and ponder on this program. Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned is a renewed awareness that creativity can never be stifled, whether it springs from the grip of slavery, the fires of the Holocaust, or the onslaught of war and terrorism.  As human beings, creativity is our shared resource. Moreover, we see that creativity by its very nature can never be confined to a single template.

Special recognition must also go to Fred Onovwerosuoke, who has long labored to build bridges between cultures. Fred has demonstrated time again that honoring one tradition does not diminish any other, and his work has shown that we are all part of the whole. This concert not only honored composers of African descent, but it also honored all musicians and composers who have striven to enrich their art. Ultimately, this was a concert that honored the very soul of music.

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