There was a lot to be thankful for Friday night as Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program that opened with a pair of late Romantic symphonic poems and closed with one of the greatest of the early-nineteenth century piano concertos.

The first half of the concert was pure "program music," beginning with Pohjola's Daughter from 1906, one of Jean Sibelius's many tone poems inspired by the Kalevala, an epic poem by Elias Lönnrot based on Finnish oral folklore and mythology. This is dark, dramatic music depicting the Finnish equivalent of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, with the mythical hero Väinämöinen trying and ultimately failing to win the heart of the titular daughter of the Northland.

Mr. Spano brought out all the drama and vivid tone painting in the score, starting with the brooding evocation of the stark northern landscape brought to life at the start by the orchestra's deepest voices highlighted by solos from, among others, Danny Lee's cello and Tzuying Huang's bass clarinet. Väinämöinen arrived in a powerful and precise fanfare from the brasses, to which Allegra Lilly's harp and Jennifer Nichtman's flutes replied with a perfectly translucent treatment of the theme for Pohjola's daughter.

The SLSO had, surprisingly, never performed this piece before, but you certainly wouldn't have known that from the quality of the playing. Every section of the ensemble sounded perfect, which made the lack of more enthusiastic applause a bit baffling. Yes, this is a piece that ends as softly as it begins, but I don't think the audience should need (to quote a line from Amadeus) "a good bang at the end...to let them know when to clap."

Up next was Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) the first in Ottorino Respighi's very popular "Roman trilogy" of tone poems composed between 1916 and 1928. In only 15 minutes, the music takes you through a day in Rome as viewed through the lens of four of its famous fountains. We see the sun rise through the mists of the fountain at Valle Giulia, spend the morning frolicking with mythical creatures at the Triton Fountain, marvel at Neptune's majestic chariot at the Trevi Fountain at noon, and finally watch the sun go down behind the Fountain at Villa Medici. "The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, the twittering of birds, the rustling of leaves," wrote Respighi his notes on the score. "Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night."

Like so many of Respighi's scores, Fountains is a virtual textbook of orchestration, with elements of Debussy, Ravel, and even Richard Strauss all mixed with Respighi's own unique point of view to produce a rich palette of instrumental color. You could hear all of that in exquisite detail throughout this performance, beginning with the shimmering violin harmonics and Jelena Dirks's elegant oboe solo in the opening pages. The play of the Triton fountain's naiads was brought to sparkling life by Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout's harps, the high winds, and the percussion section, while the brasses brought out the majesty of the Trevi fountain.

Mr. Spano brought all this together in a reading that favored somewhat brisk tempos, especially in the Trevi movement, that never felt rushed and that missed none of the many wonderful details of the score. It was thoroughly entrancing and warmly received.

After intermission, Stephen Hough joined the orchestra for a noble and graceful reading of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. Although written under the cloud of war and occupation in Vienna in 1809, this is music that opens in a majestic vein, becomes tender and even wistful in the second movement, and then segues without pause into a cheerful and exuberant rondo.

In his performances of the first three Rachmaninoff concertos with the SLSO back in the spring of 2012, Mr. Hough demonstrated that he had plenty of power when that was called for, but also the ability to display real delicacy. You could hear the power immediately in the oratorical keyboard flourishes that open the first movement and the delicacy in the little diminuendo and touch of rubato that concluded the third solo passage, just before the orchestra entered with the commanding declaration of the first theme.

Throughout the concerto, Mr. Hough and Mr. Spano found lots of shading and subtlety in the music, which made the more dramatic declarations that much more potent. The adagio second movement was pure poetry and the rondo finale danced with rhythmic vitality. The performance as a whole had a real feel of forward momentum, in fact.

As Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, this is a concerto that integrates the soloist with the orchestra in ways that were novel at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Mr. Hough and Mr. Spano honored that with a truly collaborative performance.

Although I'm familiar with Mr. Spano's work from recordings, this was my first opportunity to see him in person. He's essentially an upper body conductor, making effective and precise use of his hands and baton, but not much given to the kind of podium choreography that has endeared SLSO Music Director David Robertson to so many of us here. He nevertheless comes across as a warm and engaging character who takes joy in making music. Which is, ultimately, the bottom line.

Next at Powell Hall: Ward Stare conducts the orchestra and violin soloist David Halen in suites from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty ballets along with Borodin's Prince Igor Overture. The Nutcracker selections will be accompanied by projected visuals presented in partnership with the Webster University Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., December 2-4, at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

 

A grief counselor once noted that even though everyone will sooner or later make an exit from this planet, nevertheless people avoid contemplating their own demise. Perhaps periodically we need to reflect upon the transitory nature of Life on our planet. Last weekend, November 18-20, the St. Louis Symphony brought that realization to life with a program of three works designed to make us contemplate the hereafter and that which lies beyond our knowledge at this point.  

Opening with one of his most sublime works, The Unanswered Question, the American composer Charles Ives reminded us that there yet remain questions that why beyond our ken. Consisting of a brief dialogue between a solo trumpet and strings and woodwinds, this work echoes the frustrations that many of us feel as we ponder our role in the universe. Principal trumpet Karin Bliznik performed eloquently, as we have already come to expect during her brief tenure, as the musical protagonist searching for answers to the riddle of life.  

Conductor David Robertson opted to proceed without interruption to the second work on the program, John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls, written in commemoration of the attacks on 9/11. This was a good choice for two reasons. One, the events of 9/11 triggered many unanswered questions for those of us left behind, and secondly, Adams references Ives' work in the opening section of the piece with a brief trumpet solo. Quoting from other composers is an obsession with John Adams, much like his predilection for referencing family members in his titles. It is difficult to understand why a composer of Adams' stature and talents would trivialize his own work with such a practice, considering that Adams has become the predominant force in contemporary music, sometimes to the exclusion of other talented voices, and his works tend to be obligatory in the repertoire of every American orchestra today. In any case, though, this is a work of great originality and musical craftsmanship. 

The score of On the Transmigration of Souls calls for both adult and children's choruses, as well as spoken quotations from actual families and friends of victims, woven together with great intricacy and subtlety. Throughout the program, Robertson turned in a particularly fine job of navigating the orchestra and voices through both whispered passages as well as through more strident and bold sections, creating a tapestry of remarkable dynamic contrasts. The SLSO Chorus, under the direction of Amy Kaiser, seemed particularly well suited for this work. Their blend with the orchestra was so organic that at times it was difficult to separate instrumental voices from human ones. The St. Louis Children's Choirs, prepared under the supervision of artistic director Barbara Berner, likewise negotiated their part with the skill, intonation and careful phrasing that we would normally only expect of older performers.

The program concluded with Mozart's Requiem in D Minor, completed upon the composer's death by his student Franz Xaver Sussmayr. Again, special kudos must go to Kaiser and Robertson for the organic unity of voices and orchestra in this monumental work that provided the capstone to Mozart's short-lived yet effusive output. Robertson was able to create an effect that was both spontaneous yet reverential. Soloists Caitlin Lynch, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and Kevin Thompson, bass, performed as a well-matched quartet. Each produced a warm, vibrant sound. Occasionally, it would have been nice to hear a bit more projection from each of them, but that is part of the challenge of performing against a full orchestra in a large hall. Now and then it also seemed that chorus and soloists were not using uniform Latin diction, but that is surely a minor point and subject to debate. 

This program was themed "Sorrow, Solace and Mystery." Certainly ruminating upon the afterlife is bound to churn up unresolved sorrows and bring to mind the thirst that we each carry to know what really does lie beyond the mystery of life. Do we find solace in these works? That is something each listener must determine personally. Do we cope with death and loss by facing it squarely, or by acknowledging that life here is indeed transitory? Perhaps the ultimate value of musical works such as these is simply that they make us think.

 

 

Last Saturday, November 12, former music director Leonard Slatkin conducted the St. Louis Symphony in a highly entertaining program of works by American composers. Ironically, given the outcome of our recent election, the evening was a celebration of our nation's diversity, with music informed by African-American and Jewish-American culture, as well as two major works by gay composers: Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto and Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid ballet suite.

Commissioned in 1959 by the piano manufacturer G. Schirmer as a vehicle for John Browning, the Barber concerto is heavily influenced by the big, muscular sound for which the late American pianist was famous. Resplendent in a shimmering turquoise gown, soloist Elizabeth Joy Roe -- a late substitute for the scheduled Olga Kern -- proved to be more than equal to the work's technical challenges, tearing the place up with a display of steely power that belied her diminutive appearance. You could hear that most obviously in her pristine rendering of the fire hose of notes that Barber pours out in the first movement cadenzas, as well as in the rapid-fire virtuoso flourishes of the last movement.

In a review for Classical Source, Colin Anderson called Ms. Roe's recording of the Barber concerto last year with the London Symphony "full of power and crusade and with no shortage of subtlety." I couldn't agree more. Her encore, a Rachmaninoff-esque arrangement of Gershwin's "The Man I Love," was an ideal choice, melding virtuosity to lyricism. This was a very promising local debut for the young Chicago-born pianist. I hope to see more of her here in the future.

Mr. Slatkin and the orchestra haven't played the concerto since 1992, when Mr. Browning was the soloist, but they sounded entirely comfortable with it Saturday night.

The second half of the concert opened with the suite from the 1938 ballet Billy the Kid by our second gay composer, Aaron Copland. Composed to a scenario by Lincoln Kirsten for Ballet Caravan, Billy the Kid was the first of Copland's two "cowboy" ballets (the other one is the popular Rodeo) and the first major work to display the popular "open" sound that would come to characterize his most often-played pieces. 

Mr. Slatkin and the SLSO recorded the entire ballet for EMI back in 1985, and it was interesting to compare the two performances. His tempi are more brisk than they were back then, but otherwise the grandeur, drama, and the flashes of droll humor in the score came through with the same clarity. The orchestra sounded great in the many solo and small ensemble moments Copland sprinkles throughout the work, and the percussion section deserves a shout-out for the "Gun Battle" sequence.

The concerts closed with Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture for Orchestra by the noted composer and arranger Robert Russell Bennett. It's a work featuring African-American musical ideas translated for the stage by a Jewish-American composer and then arranged by a native Missourian who would go on to work with some of the biggest names in Broadway and Hollywood -- a quintessential example our nation's rich, multicultural heritage.

Bennett includes pretty much all of the "greatest hits" from Gershwin's original score, although the fact that they're out of sequence can feel a bit disconcerting if you know the opera well. Still, he intelligently expands on Gershwin's orchestrations while still respecting the composer's intent, and Mr. Slatkin conducted the musicians in a smartly turned out performance that did full justice to all of Gershwin's and Bennett's colors. 

There was excellent work here by Cally Banham on English horn and Karin Bliznik on offstage trumpet in the opening sequence, and by the four additional sax players in the grand seduction of "There's A Boat that's Leavin' Soon for New York." "It Ain't Necessarily So" had real sinuous ease, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" had true heart and soul, and the finale ("Lord, I'm on My Way") had the same mix of triumph and tragedy as the operatic original. I still love Gershwin's own Catfish Row suite, but Mr. Slatkin and the SLSO musicians made a fine case for the Bennett suite as well.

Mr. Slatkin followed the Gershwin up with an unexpected encore: an American folk music pastiche by his father, Felix Slatkin, titled "Devil's Dream." The original is from the 1962 LP Hoedown! The Fantastic Fiddles of Felix Slatkin that I still remember with fondness (it includes a truly memorable "Orange Blossom Special"). All of the original arrangements have been lost, but Leonard Slatkin's wife, composer Cindy McTee, has been painstakingly reconstructing them from the master recordings. If "Devil's Dream" was any indication, she's doing one hell of a job.

Speaking of Felix Slatkin, the concerts open with Kinah (Hebrew for "elegy") written by Leonard Slatkin and first performed by him last December with the Detroit Symphony, where he is currently Music Director. It's a memorial to his late father, who died at the tragically young age of 47 the day before he and his wife, the cellist Eleanor Aller, were scheduled to perform the Brahms Double Concerto in public for the first time.

Written in a style that is both obviously contemporary and deeply romantic, Kinah struck me, from the very first notes, with a sense of delicate beauty, longing, and loss. The work is based on a four-note motif drawn from the second movement of the Brahms concerto, but that actual passage isn't heard in its original form until the very end, after a vast wall of sound that could have come straight from the pen of Alan Hovhaness. In the ensuing hush, an offstage violin and cello try, but always fail, to complete the phrase, just as the elder Slatkin and Ms. Aller never completed their performance. It was profound and heartbreaking and beautifully done. 

In an added personal touch, the offstage cellist was the man who played the part at the work's Detroit premiere, Mr. Slatkin's brother Frederick Zlotkin. The violinist was SLSO Associate Concertmaster Heidi Harris.

Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the orchestra and chorus with soloists Caitlin Lynch, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and Kevin Thompson, bass in Mozart's Requiem and John Adam's On the Transmigration of Souls, along with The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 18-20, at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

 

Through December 3, Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting its first-ever production of Hector Berlioz's mammoth 1858 drama Les Troyens. For many Chicago opera lovers, that makes it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Which puts them one up on Berlioz.

As I wrote in my review of the 2014 San Francisco production of Les Troyens, by the time Berlioz died in 1869, only the last three of his five acts had been performed, and then only in a drastically truncated and badly produced version by the Théâtre Lyrique, the Paris Opéra having dithered over it too long. The first full production didn't take place until 1890, and even then it languished for most of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, taking on the reputation of (in the words of Berlioz biographer Ian Kemp) "a monster so unwieldy that it had to be split in two and trimmed to size."

That reputation wasn't entirely undeserved. Running around four hours and 45 minutes in Lyric's slightly trimmed version (a full-length production can run five hours and some change) and requiring a huge cast, massive orchestra, and (at least in the composer's original conception) elaborate stage machinery, Les Troyens requires both pockets and a talent pool of considerable depth.

The Lyric production certainly has that deep talent pool--and a good thing, since this modern dress version comes up short on visual impact. Troy is represented by a massive, semicircular, partly collapsed wall, mounted on a turntable and taking up the entire stage. Carthage is the same wall rebuilt and painted a bland white on the inside. The Trojan horse is literally a shadow of its legendary self, being reduced to a simple gobo that projects the horse's shadow on the ruined wall of Troy. The result is something less than the spectacle that Berlioz had in mind and that I had expected.

The story of Les Troyens begins on the eve of the fall of Troy, as the Greek army has apparently fled the scene, leaving behind only the fabled horse, which despite the dire warnings of Cassandra, the Trojans take into the city. The opera goes on to chronicle the fall of Troy, the suicide of the Trojan women, and Aeneas' tragic affair with the Carthaginian queen Dido. It ends with Dido's suicide and a chorus of vengeance by the Carthaginian people.

Through it all Berlioz (who wrote his own libretto, after Virgil's Aeneid) cannily mixes intimate solos and duets, massive choral scenes, elaborate ballet sequences, and vivid instrumental writing (he was, after all, a master orchestrator) in ways designed to keep the viewer engaged. Even without the visuals, this Troyens gives us the great sweep of historical events and the implacable hand of fate but never lets us lose sight of the intimate human relationships that are at the core of the story.

Heading the cast is mezzo Susan Graham as Dido, a part with which she has become strongly associated. When I saw her in the San Francisco production of Les Troyens two years ago, I wrote that her voice had a full, silky quality that, combined with her tasteful acting, made her character's heartbreak all too real. I see no reason to change that appraisal now.

Matching her in every respect was tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas. Although coping with a cold when we saw him, he displayed no signs of vocal strain. His long love duet with Dido in Act IV was flawless and his acting was never less than credible.

Soprano Christine Goerke was a deeply troubled Cassandra, almost physically incapacitated by the strength of her prophetic visions. The role is written for a mezzo, but Ms. Goerke was vocally powerful even if her lowest notes. Moreover, the migraine-level intensity of her prophecies made it easy to understand why they're deemed unbelievable, even by her doomed lover Chorebus. That role was sung with great authority by baritone Lucas Meachem.

Mezzo Okka von der Damerau brings a self-aware amusement to the role of Dido's sister Anna that made the character very engaging. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, who was so imposing as Dido's minister Narbal in San Francisco, reprises the role here with equal effect.

There is a host of other fine performances in smaller roles, including tenors Mingjeie Lei and Jonathan Johnson in the cameo roles of Iopas and Hylas, respectively. Each character has one lyrical spotlight aria, and both singers did very well by them. Bass-baritone Bradley Smoak, a familiar face at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, was properly fearsome as Hector's Ghost.

The chorus has a lot to do in Les Troyens, and Chorus Master Michael Black's singers deserve applause for singing with great clarity and force. Sir Andrew Davis leads a huge orchestra (including a sizeable complement of offstage players) in an authoritative interpretation of Berlioz's wonderfully varied and bracing score.

Ballet plays an important role in Les Troyens as well. The French always loved seeing dances in their operas, but Berlioz uses dance for narrative purposes as well as for sheer spectacle. The "Royal Hunt and Storm" sequence of Act IV is probably the most famous example, with Dido and Aeneas becoming separated from a hunting party during a storm and consummating their lover affair in a sheltered grotto. Unfortunately, director Tim Albery has tossed out everything leading up to that consummation, instead choosing to show (in his words) "multiple Didos and Aeneases living out her dream of a passionate affair with him."

Practically speaking, that involved choreographer Helen Pickett's lithe dancers dashing about in what came close to a parody of an orgy with an impressively three-dimensional forest projected on the wall as scenery. It doesn't match up with the story vividly depicted in Berlioz's music very well.

There's a lot to admire in the Lyric's Troyens, but in the final analysis the decision to make it drably contemporary robbed it, at least for me, of some of the epic sweep of the narrative. For information on upcoming performances, visit the Lyric Opera web site.

 

Music makes history come alive. The November 6 performance of the Metropolitan Orchestra of Saint Louis presented three works by composers who all shared common Germanic roots but who collectively portrayed a panorama of the evolution of thought and culture. Once again we see the value of music and the arts as both a reflection and sculptor of humanity.

Throughout his career, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) worked in the service of the nobility and the church. His station did not prevent him from achieving international fame, but his style of composition was influenced by the formal elegance and austerity of the Classical period. Deeply creative, he nevertheless adhered to the rules of systematic composition laid down by the European traditions of harmony and form. His Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat Major for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon was written during his triumphant tour of London in the 1790s. The work is a well-crafted showcase for the contrasting capacities of each instrument. Hearing two woodwind instruments juxtaposed against two string instruments demonstrates the beauty of each family of instruments.  

MOSL players Ann Homann, oboe; Donita Bauer, bassoon; Cathie Lehr Ramos, cello; and Marilyn Park Ellington, violin, joined forces as a quartet of soloists. Together, they formed a tight, solid group of able performers. They seemed united in their conceptual approach to phrasing and dynamics, and all displayed well-honed technical command. Once again, the orchestra, led by Music Director Wendy Lea, provided a firm backup without overpowering the quartet.

The Sinfonia Concertante was composed during the period of the French Revolution, whose course and aftermath changed the course of European history forever. Scarcely twenty years later, Ludwig van Beethoven penned his Symphony No. 8 in F Major in 1812. Yet this ebullient work marks an amazing departure from the style of Haydn. The Eighth Symphony shows Beethoven at his jolliest and most uninhibited best; the melodies seem to fly about the hall as they are chased by the instruments of the orchestra. The brass and percussion add constant emphasis and punctuation to the melodic lines. Unlike Haydn, it becomes clear that Beethoven is throwing off the old and declaring his independence. Whereas Haydn employs a formal and stylized elegance, Beethoven builds on the traditional framework of harmony and form to express his own uniqueness. The juxtaposition of these two works is an almost startling illustration of how quickly the tides of history can alter a people and their tastes.  

By 1870 the Classical period in music had long given way to the Romantic era, ignited by the fire of Beethoven and characterized by increasing individualism and a willingness to explore new styles. It was then that Richard Wagner composed his Siegfried Idyll, the opening work on this program, for his lover Cosima von Bulow. In marked contrast to the Haydn and Beethoven pieces, it is a meandering work of tremendous inner contemplation, dreamlike in character. The listener feels like a wanderer in a mythic forest created from Wagner's own poetic and fertile imagination. Some have argued that the work is repetitive and perhaps too long, but the melodies are hauntingly beautiful, filled with the sounds of bird calls, wind and running water. Listening to the three works on this program, one can hear a succession from the more impersonal style of the 1700s to the deeply personal style of the 1800s and beyond. Each composition is beautiful and unique in its own way, yet each depicts a different time, viewpoint and way of life.

Conductor Wendy Lea continues her fine work as Music Director of the Metropolitan Orchestra. Over time, listeners have come to see the various sections of the orchestra develop a refined sheen under her guidance and that of Conductor Laureate Allen Carl Larson. The woodwind section stood out in particular with its crystal clear intonation and bright flowing tone. The brass and percussion sections of the orchestra play with a youthful exuberance that occasionally overpowers the other sections, but yet in so doing enriches the excitement and stimulation of the live performance. As the largest section, and the very essence of what defines an orchestra, the strings face a special challenge. Although there were a few intonation problems at the beginning of the program, the MOSL strings have likewise shown an increasing confidence and unity in their performance. Without doubt, audiences will continue to support and clamor for this fine ensemble.

 

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