When I reviewed the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's world premiere of Steven Mackey's Stumble to Grace a few years ago, I was struck by the music's whimsy and humorous sensibility as well as by its flashy orchestral writing. All of those qualities were present once again last Sunday (October 22, 2017) at Powell Hall, as the SLSO opened their concert with Mackey's 2015 Mnemosyne's Pool.

Laid out in five movements and running around forty minutes, Mnemosyne's Pool is scored for a massive orchestra (nearly 100 musicians), including a percussion battery that includes everything from a triangle to a brake drum. The wildly inventive variety of sounds that Mackey produces with those forces provides much of the work's charm.

The title refers to the Greek goddess who presided over the pool of memory in Hades, and in his notes at the Boosey and Hawkes website, Mr. Mackey says that the work centers on "the role of memory in musical creation and reception." An abrupt change in the melodic line "asks the listener to remember an earlier point in the line instead of continue inexorably forward." 

To me, the many shifts of mood and orchestral color in Mnemosyne's Pool did, in fact, evoke memories, but they were memories of other composers. The first section, for example, unfolded as a kind of passacaglia that reminded me of Bach. Later a bassoon figure brought Bartok to mind while other passages strongly suggested the work of Leonard Bernstein. There were no explicit quotes or even paraphrases (Mr. Mackey is too original for that), but the overall effect was a kind of kaleidoscopic total recall of a century or so of sound, all filtered through Mr. Mackey's unique sensibility.

In his spoken introduction, maestro David Robertson noted that Mnemosyne's Pool was a work that he had come to love, and his enthusiasm showed in everything he and the SLSO musicians did. The work is, as a Musical America critic noted, a kind of "concerto for orchestra" that bristles with remarkable solo passages for nearly every instrument, and the members of the band all had chances to strut their stuff. Will James and his percussion section, in particular, covered themselves with glory.

After intermission, the orchestra turned to more familiar territory, beginning with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet.

First performed in 1870 and then revised in 1877 and 1880, Romeo and Juliet manages the neat trick of compressing the essential emotional themes of Shakespeare's five-act tragedy into around 20 minutes of music. Mr. Robertson's interpretation was appropriately theatrical, featuring strong dramatic contrasts, beginning with a hushed opening chorale and delicate string pizzicati that made the transition to the first statement of the battle music all the more potent. The famous "love theme" had a lush, swooning feel, enhanced by especially fine playing from Associate Principal Horn Thomas Jöstlein and the rest of the horn section.

The concert concluded with one of the great showpieces of the twentieth century, Rachmaninoff's brilliant Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini from 1934. The Russian expatriate was one of the previous century's great pianists, and the Rhapsody served him well as he toured Europe and America, including an appearance with the SLSO in December of 1934. The piece is a sort of mini-concerto, consisting of 24 variations on (appropriately) the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin -- a tune that has proved irresistible for composers from Liszt to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

At the keyboard was Orli Shaham, who first met Mr. Robertson when two were appearing together at Powell Hall in 1999. They were married in 2003, the same year Mr. Robertson became the SLSO Music Director, but have rarely appeared together with the orchestra. With Mr. Robertson's tenure coming to an end this season, this past weekend's appearance could be the last one they ever do together with the SLSO, which lent a kind of poignancy to the event.

The performance itself displayed the mix of nuance and technical skill that I have come to expect from Ms. Shaham. You could hear the former in the subtle gradations of tone that mirrored changes in the mood of the music, accompanied by changes in facial expression and body language that indicated a deep involvement with the score. 

As for Ms. Shaham's virtuosity, it was apparent in every precisely rendered note of this challenging work. This was particularly noticeable in her seemingly effortless way with the fiercely difficult final variation, which even the composer was said to have found a bit daunting. 

The applause Sunday was prolonged enough to move Ms. Shaman to play an encore for us: Bach's Prelude in E minor, BWV 855a, in the B minor transcription by the Russian pianist Alexander Siloti. The luminous mix of Baroque and late Romantic elements was an ideal way to end the concert.

Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in music by Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, and Beethoven Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., October 27-29. Soprano Christine Brewer will perform Berg's Seven Early Songs and SLSO Principal Horn Roger Kaza will play Strauss's Horn Concerto No. 2. The concerts will conclude with Beethoven's popular Symphony No. 5. The performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

 

Despite the fact that he lived only to the age of 35, achieved only moderate respect in his lifetime, and apparently never won any competitions as either a performer or composer (even though he attempted to do so), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart today -- more than 225 years after his death -- holds a grip on music lovers that would have astonished his contemporaries. With that in mind, the St. Louis Symphony inaugurated its current season with two weekends of all-Mozart programs. Music Director David Robertson, in his concluding season with the orchestra, was joined by legendary pianist Emanuel Ax for six concerto performances, plus symphonies and overtures.  

Even though many of his melodies revolve around broken chords and scale passages, a certain melodic and harmonic inventiveness can be found in Mozart's scores. Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, is the near-perfect structural elegance of his works, which has surely contributed to his stature as the defining composer of the Classical period. Music critic James Wierzbicki years ago even noted that Mozart often followed the same mathematical ratios for each movement within several of his string quartets and other works.  

Success in performing Mozart requires an orchestral ensemble and soloists that are up to the task of executing structural perfection flawlessly and giving voice to every musical thought. Fortunately, neither was lacking in such an accomplished orchestra and esteemed soloist.  Emanuel Ax's fortitude as a performer shone remarkably even after playing not one but two concertos on each program. After all six performances, he scarcely seemed tired.

Six programs devoted to the works of a single composer can be taxing to musicians and listeners already familiar with the major works of the composer, and it is always risky to force a single composer on listeners to the point of oversell -- which was perhaps the case with John Adams last season, both in St. Louis and elsewhere -- but today orchestras must be sensitive to market forces. Although these were not sellouts, nevertheless attendance was more than decent. One of David Robertson's legacies to the SLSO is the fact that he will leave the orchestra in better financial shape than when he first arrived.

The program on September 30 and October 1 consisted of the Overture to Don Giovanni, K. 527; the Piano Concertos No. 16 in D Major, K. 451, and No. 17 in G Major, K. 453; and the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550.  By the standards necessarily applied to Mozart due to his short life span, all these can be considered "mature" works, i.e., written in his late twenties and early thirties. The Concerto in G Major is a surprisingly Romantic work, perhaps a forerunner of the changes that were to unfold in music in the years following the French Revolution.  

Emanuel Ax performed with the finesse and fitting elegance that we have come to expect from him. His beautiful singing tone on the piano was enhanced by bass lines that supported but never overwhelmed the right hand. Balance with the orchestra was excellent for the most part, although here and there the orchestra overpowered just a bit. As always, Robertson led with a smooth control well-suited for Mozart.

Although it is a matter of personal opinion, I would rather have heard a more varied program on opening night of Robertson's last year at the helm, but other listeners may have felt that traditional repertoire such as Mozart makes the perfect season opener. In any case, the remainder of the season will offer ample opportunity to showcase the talents of Robertson and the entire orchestra. For Mozart lovers, and for those who appreciate the tremendous skill required for his works, these programs were a milestone.

 

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 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.

 

 

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.

 

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