As the St. Louis Symphony concerts this past weekend demonstrated, the familiar can still feel fresh and new, especially in the hands of inventive and skilled performers like conductor Jun Märkl and pianist Jeremy Denk.

The concerts of October 28 and 29 opened with a work which, while probably familiar to many classical music lovers, was nevertheless new to the Powell Hall stage: Liszt's symphonic poem Prometheus. Originally written as the overture for Johann Gottfried Herder's play Prometheus Unbound in 1850 and then reworked five years later as a concise orchestral essay, the piece was inspired by the Greek myth of the god who gave humanity the secret of fire and was horribly punished for it.

For Liszt, it was a story of suffering and glorious redemption -- a theme that runs thorough many of Liszt's baker's dozen of symphonic poems (most famously in Les Preludes from 1854). In Prometheus the struggle plays out in an elaborate fugue, culminating in a short but triumphant coda. It's all a bit episodic, but Mr. Märkl gave it a sense of discipline that was very persuasive. The orchestra responded beautifully. The brass section sounded especially polished when we attended on Saturday night.

Next up was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, the tenth of a set of twelve remarkable concerti the composer premiered in Vienna between 1784 and 1786. It's a work filled with many surprising touches, including a first movement cadenza that anticipates the harmonic developments of the Romantic era and an elegiac adagio second movement that hints at tragic depths without actually plumbing them.

In a 2013 interview for San Francisco Classical Voice, soloist Jeremy Denk observed that "a very important part of playing a Mozart concerto is the wonder of each moment." His impressively nuanced and sensitive performance certainly made the most of the work's many innovative moments while never losing sight of the concerto's structure overall. And like last week's soloist, Orli Shaham, Mr. Denk was always fully engaged with both the both the music and with Mr. Märkl's equally thoughtful interpretation.

His encore, the andante second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16, showed that same intense concentration. It's not a technically challenging piece -- Mozart himself described the sonata as being "for beginners" -- but Mr. Denk found real depth in it nevertheless.

The concert concluded with Arnold Schoenberg's remarkable 1937 orchestration of Brahms's 1961 Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor. Dark, dramatic and arresting in its original form, this music becomes in Schoenberg's radical re-imagining a stunning symphonic essay that sounds both old and new simultaneously.

Schoenberg uses a large orchestra with instruments that Brahms would never have employed, such as the bass clarinet and a sizeable percussion battery including a xylophone, resulting in a somewhat schizophrenic feel at times. The string quartet peeks out of this great mass of sound occasionally -- mostly notably in the final movement subtitled "Rondo alla zingarese" or "Gypsy Rondo," which also included a nice solo by concertmaster David Halen -- but for the most part this is music of Wagnerian intensity. Conducting without a score, Mr. Märkl brought out all of this work's wild variety, including the drama of the first movement, the agitation of the second, and the good-humored excess of the finale.

In an interview in the program book, SLSO bassist Sarah Hogan Kaiser says that Mr. Märkl is a favorite conductor with the musicians because "he has a way of expressing his love of music through his conducting in a very sincere and humble way. Everything he does makes the music better, it's not about anything except the music." I certainly heard that dedication to score Saturday night and the symphony musicians responded with virtuoso performances all the way around.

Next at Powell Hall: Han-Na Chang conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Jan Mráček in Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., November 4 and 5.

 

The St. Louis Symphony gave us an appropriately autumnal concert this weekend, October 21 - 23, 2016, featuring Rachmaninoff's nocturnal Symphonic Dances in a finely nuanced interpretation by guest conductor Christian Măcelaru and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with Orli Shaham is that delivered both power and poetry at the keyboard.

Friday night's concert opened with a spectacular performance of Sergey Lyapunov's HD Technicolor orchestration of Balakirev's 1869 Islamey: An Oriental Fantasy. Originally written for solo piano and regarded as one of the most technically difficult works for that instrument, Islamey is essentially a series of restatements of two tunes: a dance the composer heard while traveling in the Caucasian mountains and a lyrical Armenian folk song.

In the piano original, the musical interest is largely generated by the increasingly elaborate ornamentation of these melodies and the sheer thrill of watching a pianist navigate Balakirev's musical thicket--something the composer himself couldn't do, despite being a formidable pianist. In the orchestration, it comes from hearing the melodies tossed among the instruments in a kind of musical tennis match. That requires an exacting attention to detail from both the conductor and the musicians.

We definitely got that Friday night, with virtuoso playing all the way around. Mr. Măcelaru took the lively outer sections of the piece at an almost alarmingly brisk tempo, which contrasted nicely with the intense romanticism of the middle. He found poetic nuances in this showpiece that made it more than just flashy.

The Beethoven Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 that followed also had its share of poetry. This was especially true in the unusual second movement in which dramatic pronouncements by the orchestra are met with more subdued and expressive material by the soloist. Ms. Shaham's playing was intensely poignant here, which made the quick transition to the jolly, Haydnesque Rondo finale that much more effective.

Decked out in an elegant and shimmering blue gown Ms. Shaham cut a very striking figure at the keyboard. As usual, she was strongly focused on the music, completely "in the moment" as we say in the theatre biz. This was true even when she wasn't playing but just listening to the orchestra or watching Mr. Măcelaru. Reacting to your performing partners is as important in music as it is in theatre, and Ms. Shaham excels at this.

Her keyboard technique was impeccable as it always has been in my experience, as was her sensitivity to the changing moods of the most remarkable of all the Beethoven concerti. She brought out all the lyricism in the score and added some of her own. It was a masterful performance that received a standing ovation. She followed it up with an encore by the composer whose music would take up the last half of the program, Serge Rachmaninoff: a pristine reading of his haunting Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 21 No. 12.

"Haunting" is also a word that describes much of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. Written in 1940 and first performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941, this would prove to be the last completed orchestral work by the composer, and there's a sense throughout the piece of a life approaching its conclusion.

I have always been struck by the "late night" feel of this music--and not just because of the chimes in the last movement. Indeed, Rachmaninoff originally titled the three sections "Noon," "Twilight," and "Midnight." The composer later dropped the titles, but they still effectively describe the emotional progression of this music from light to a darkness which is not entirely dispelled by the vigorous final pages of the last dance.

The Symphonic Dances is filled with evidence of Rachmaninoff's genius as an orchestrator. The elaborate and complex string writing, inventive use of brasses and winds, and an effective but never overwhelming use of the large percussion battery all demand a great deal from the musicians, and the members of the SLSO definitely rose to the challenge.

To pick just a few examples: the long pastoral interlude for woodwinds in the first dance, with its poignant alto sax solo by Nathan Nabb, was especially effective. The brass section had real bite in the second movement's spectral waltz. And Roger Kaza's horns were impeccable throughout. There was fine work as well from harpist Allegra Lilly and from all the members of the percussion section.

On the podium, Mr. Măcelaru demonstrated that same combination of drama, subtlety, and control that made his debut with orchestra back in 2014 so impressive. He got a lot of sound out of the band, but it was never overwhelming or distorted, just beautifully balanced.

Next at Powell Hall: Jun Märkl conducts the orchestra with piano soloist Jeremy Denk in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, Liszt's symphonic poem Prometheus, and an orchestral transcription of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor. Performances are Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., October 28 and 29 at Powell Hall in Grand Center.


 

Bel canto opera stands or falls on the strength of the singing, and by that standard Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Donizetti's 1835 tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor stands very tall indeed. From the starring roles down to the chorus, this is a cast that can handle the most demanding material with ease.  

And a good thing, too, because the score is one of Donizetti's richest and most dramatic. From the teeth-rattling choruses that conclude the second act, to the often imitated and even more often parodied aria "Il dolce suono" (a.k.a. "the mad scene"), to the legendary sextet -- a piece so famous that even the Three Stooges and the Warner Brothers cartoon crew knew they could make fun of it without losing the audience -- Lucia provides a treasure trove of great music. The Lyric cast does it full justice with a great performance.

Soprano Albina Shagimuratova is a radiant Lucia, handling Donizetti's most demanding passages with ease. Her mad scene was a thing of vocal beauty, wonderfully controlled and yet thoroughly expressive. Matching her in power and dramatic conviction is tenor Piotr Beczała as Lucia's tragic lover Edgardo, as effective in his tender love duets with Ms. Shagimuratova as he is in the violent Act III tower scene (which is, by the way, as good an example of testosterone poisoning as you'll find anywhere in operatic literature).  

His opponent in that tower scene is Lucia's scheming brother Enrico, sung with menacing force by baritone Quinn Kelsey. I don't think director Graham Vick's decision to make him a shambling drunk adds anything useful but it doesn't really detract either, so overall I can't complain.  

Somewhat less credible is Mr. Vick's decision to make the small role of Arturo -- whom Lucia is forced to marry with tragic results -- into a kind of foppish scarecrow with his arms permanently outstretched as though posing for a painting. It turns his sword fight with Edgardo into inappropriate low comedy. Tenor Jonathan Johnson looks and sounds great in the part, though, which helps.

Bass Adrian Sâmpetrean puts a sympathetic stamp on the role of the chaplain Raimondo. The character is the moral center of the opera and needs to be credible, especially in "Ah, cedi, cedi!" the Act II aria in which he persuades Lucia to agree to the arranged marriage with Arturo. Mr. Sâmpetrean fully delivers the goods.

Tenor Matthew DiBattista, who has done such great work here at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, once again rises to the occasion as the scheming Normanno, whose forged letter from Edgardo helps persuade Lucia to accept the marriage contract with Arturo. Mezzo Linsday Metzger has less vocal power than her fellow cast members but is otherwise a very appealing Alisa, Lucia's confidante.

In his director's note in the program book, Mr. Vick says that he sees Lucia as "a late-classical work." It's an interesting point, but given that the Romantic movement in music was well underway in 1835, I'm not sure I buy it. In any case, his implementation of that view appears to involve fairly static staging and a monochromatic set by designer Paul Brown that consists largely of multiple levels of gray flats that are used to represent all the indoor scenes, from the Great Hall at Lammermoor Castle to the tower of Edgardo's Ravenswood.  

Behind them is a "blasted heath" that Macbeth would have recognized, complete with a eerily crooked tree and an unnaturally large, featureless, and sometimes distractingly mobile moon. Mr. Vick seems fond of that heath, placing much of the opera's action there, even in scenes that are explicitly indoors, like the Act II wedding contract and Lucia's "mad scene." It's especially odd in the latter, since Lucia is supposed to be hallucinating the heath, not wandering about on it.

Mr. Brown's costumes, though, are right on the money. I thought decking the entire Bucklaw clan in blinding white and gold was a nice touch, contrasting strongly with the earth tones of the Lammermoors and Edgardo.

At the podium is Enrique Mazzola, an Italian conductor who, to quote his program bio, is "greatly admired internationally in bel canto." If his work here is any indication, that admiration is richly deserved, as he leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra in an assured and well-paced reading of Donizetti's score.  

Donizetti assigns an important narrative role to the choir, so Chorus Master Michael Black also deserves praise for the powerful and articulate sound of his singers.

The important point is that if bel canto is your thing, you can't go wrong with a production like this one in which all the musical elements are so strong. And despite my misgivings about some of Mr. Vick's decisions, there's no denying that this Lucia packs a real wallop overall. Performances of Lucia di Lammermoor continue through November 6 at at Lyric Opera's home in the magnificent Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop.

 

Although Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B Minor, dating from 1895, stands as one of the Romantic warhorses, it defies narrow definition into time, place or style. It is a work that bespeaks the natural world, with reverberant bird calls, forest whispers and tranquil reveries; yet the work also portrays the solo instrument as a dramatic and inspiring heroic figure poised on the stage of one's own imagination. Last weekend, two outstanding musicians, cellist Alban Gerhardt and conductor Hannu Lintu, joined forces with the St. Louis Symphony in one of the finest performances of this masterpiece in recent memory.  

It is always remarkable when a guest conductor is able to bring out the very best from an orchestra he only occasionally works with, but Lintu played the SLSO as one magnificent instrument. Rarely has a conductor seemed so much at ease with such a large ensemble. His careful attentiveness to the soloist enabled Gerhardt to perform with an impassioned pathos at times, an almost playful sense here and there, both tinged with a certain rubato that allowed the concerto to seemingly break free of the constraints of rhythm and meter.

For his part, Alban Gerhardt is a consummate musician who plays without ego or excessive flash, allowing the music to sing through his hands. He elicits a resonant and refined tone from his Matteo Gofriller cello constructed in 1710 but at the same time imparts a baritone richness that somehow seems almost bigger than the instrument. His octave passages were impeccable, as was his eloquent phrasing of Dvorak's outpouring of melody. Notably, he was able to always project above the orchestra just the right amount to be heard without eclipsing the warmth of their accompaniment.

Following the intermission, Lintu turned to a vastly different work, the  score to Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, about a marionette clown, magically brought to life along with a marionette ballerina and Moor. Petrushka, the clown, falls in love with the ballerina, but his love is ill-fated as she finds herself drawn to the more dashing Moor. Stravinsky's style is brash and poundingly rhythmic; still, both his music and the Dvorak concerto bear a certain similarity in that they are both works of the heart. Both embody an emotional earnestness that makes each of these works tug at the listener. Dvorak captures the majesty of nature, whereas Stravinsky captures the fervency of human feeling.  

It is always difficult to single out individual musicians within the SLSO, since all are performers of the highest rank. However, it is necessary to highlight the lyrical and technical expressiveness of principal flutist Mark Sparks in both the Dvorak and Stravinsky works. Additionally, pianist Peter Henderson also demonstrated rhythmic and technical mastery in the solo passages in Petrushka.

The program opened with Chain 3 by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. The piece derives its name from the fact that it is third in a series of pieces based on overlapping "chains" of musical thoughts. Unlike the Dvorak and Stravinsky works, Lutosławski's music is driven more by intellect than the heart. Although the various links of the chain he constructs are varied in terms of timbre, dynamics and rhythm, they share in common the atonality (avoidance of keys or tonal centers) that characterized much of the music of the late 20th century.

 

 

It's always good to see a well-sung and expertly played production of Wagner's Ring cycle and the Lyric Opera of Chicago's mounting of Das Rheingold, which opens a four-season run through the entire thing, is certainly that. In addition, the libretto's focus on the cost of abusing power and personal trust feels very relevant in our current political environment.

A high-powered cast is led by bass-baritone Eric Owens, whose solid and voice and dramatic conviction give real gravitas to the role of Wotan, who wakes from his dream of power to learn that the giants Fasolt and Fafner have finished the construction of Valhalla. Bass-baritone Samuel Youn is also compelling as the dwarf Alberich. He's a complex character -- an unscrupulous bully but also wronged by the gods and less deluded than they about the cost of the Ring’s power -- and Mr. Youn gives him real nuance.

Tenor Štefan Margita is a wonderfully wily Loge, making the most of the character's dry, self-aware humor. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner gives impressive voice to Fricka's misgivings over her husband's infidelity and dubious bargains. And tenor Rodell Rosel makes a strong impression as the querulous dwarf Mime.

Soprano Laura Wilde as Freia, tenor Jesse Donner as Froh, and baritone Zachary Nelson as Donner round out the cast of gods very effectively. Soprano Diana Newman, mezzo Annie Rosen, and mezzo Lindsay Ammann perfectly captured the allure and cruelty of the Rheinmaidens. And mezzo Okka von der Damerau was appropriately ominous as Erda.

That said, I wish director David Pountney and his design team had taken the whole project a bit more seriously. They have elected to make all the mechanics visible, bunraku style, so that (for example) the Rheinmaidens in the first scene float around on massive metal platforms manipulated by visible stagehands.

It works well there and in the Nibelheim sequence, which looks fittingly hellish; less so for the giants Fasolt and Fafner, who are nothing but huge platforms with plastic heads and inflatable arms that flop around absurdly. Fafner's murder of Fasolt ought to be chilling, as it's the first evidence of the ring's curse. Here, as the stagehands toss around inflated arms and boots, it just looks goofy. So does having Wotan tear Alberich's arm off to get the ring. Giving the audience a cheap laugh at that point makes no dramatic sense.

Other moments of imposed comedy feel equally out of place. But the concluding entry of the gods into Valhalla retains all of its musical and visual power, with the orchestra's brass ringing out as the gods literally ascend towards their gleaming (if skeletal) home. I'm willing to forgive a lot for that. Besides, the orchestra under the sure hand of Sir Andrew Davis does very well by Wagner's score throughout the evening, and that's a huge plus.

In an interview at the Lyric Opera web site, Mr. Pountney says that his staging of the Ring operas will be “united by a single theatrical device. We keep trying to go back to an empty stage to show, in the end, that this is all just a stage, just a theater. However splendid the effects are, when we roll them up and whisk them away, we go back to an empty stage." I'm not convinced that kind of Brechtian distancing serves Wagner all that well. We'll see how it works for Die Walküre next year.

Performances continue through October 22 at Lyric Opera's home in the magnificent Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop. Information on Das Rheingold and the rest of the current season is available at their web site.

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