Monday, October 21, 2019

Symphony Review: An enlightening journey into darkness with Karen Gomyo and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

This weekend (October 18-20) Stéphane Denève returned to conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) in an early 20th century program that moved from light to darkness (or at least twilight) with a lyrical pause in between.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

Stéphane Denève
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
The concert, which I saw on Friday the 18th, opened with the bright and witty suite from Francis Poulenc's 1923 ballet "Les Biches." The title has multiple meanings in France, but Friday night it mostly translated as "vastly entertaining" as Mr. Denève conducted the orchestra in a performance that was as effervescent and intoxicating as the Champagne they're serving at the bar. It was crisp, detailed, and filled with the little nuances that Mr. Denève infallibly finds in even the lightest material. The orchestral playing was consistently excellent, including some fine solos by Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks, Associate Principal Trumpet Tom Drake, and Tzuying Huang on bass clarinet.

Up next was Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 19, composed in 1917 but, because of the Russian revolution, not actually performed until 1923. It wasn't particularly well received, partly because its overall lyricism seemed tame compared to the kind of sarcastic and savage music for which the composer was known at the time.

Still, as I have noted in the past, "lyrical" is hardly a synonym for "easy." The concerto is filled with challenges both emotional and technical, including a finale that has the soloist playing a chain of trills that moves higher and higher to the very top of the instrument's range, where playing in tune becomes increasingly more difficult.

In an intermission interview Saturday night on the St. Louis Public Radio broadcast of the concert, soloist Karen Gomyo noted that the concerto is not one she has played often, but you would hardly have known that from the fierce emotional commitment and polished technique she displayed on Friday. The last time I saw Ms. Gomyo here was just this past April, when I praised her Tchaikovsky concerto as "technically pristine and warmly expressive." I frankly can't think of a better or more accurate way to describe her way with the Prokofiev.

Karen Gomyo
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
The inevitable and richly deserved standing ovation she received was followed by an encore that proved to be an ideal emotional match for the finale of the Prokofiev concerto: Astor Piazzolla's "Tango Etude No. 4." There was a time not so very long ago when the music of the Argentinian composer and bandoneon virtuoso was unlikely to show up on a concert stage, much less as an encore work. It's good to hear more of his work, especially when played with the sensitivity Ms. Gomyo brought to it.

Night descended in dramatic and powerful fashion after intermission with Rachmaninoff's 1941 "Symphonic Dances." It was the composer's last completed work (he died two years after its premiere), and there's a sense throughout of a life approaching its conclusion. Rachmaninoff had, in fact, originally titled the three sections "Noon," "Twilight," and "Midnight," but he later dropped the titles, preferring to let the music speak for itself. Which it does eloquently.

Maestro Denève brought a wider variety of expression to the work than I have sometimes heard in the past. The central section of the first movement (marked non allegro), for example, was slower and more intense than I have sometimes heard in other performances. Mr. Denève also does not shrink from using the composer's pauses to make silence a key component of the music. It can be a risky choice in an episodic piece like this one, but I thought it had tremendous emotional impact, especially in the dark and dramatic final movement.

The "Symphonic Dances" can be a real showpiece for a top-flight orchestra, and it was certainly all of that Friday night. Everyone was playing at a high level of skill and emotional commitment. The key solo moments (and there are a lot of them) were spot on. That includes (but is certainly not limited to) the contributions of Concertmaster David Halen, Cally Banham on English horn, Nathan Nabb on alto sax, Principal Harp Allegra Lilly, and Nina Ferrigno on piano. Every section of the orchestra was essentially at perfect form. Nice job, ladies and gentlemen.

It was, in short, another fine evening at the symphony, and a very appropriate one for the lengthening shadows of autumn. That said, the size of the crowd Friday night was disappointing. I understand that the early concerts in the season are usually not the most well attended, but even so the fine work being done at Powell Hall deserves a bigger turnout.

Next at Powell Hall: Expect much larger crowds this coming weekend when Norman Huynh conducts the SLSO for a showing of the film "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," with the score performed live. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, October 25-27.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of October 21, 2019

This week brings us some new musicals, including the highly anticipated Dear Even Hansen.

Alton Little Theater presents the Agatha Christie thriller And Then There Were None Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, October 25 - November 3. Performances take place at 2450 North Henry in Alton, IL. For more information, call 618.462.6562 or visit altonlittletheater.org.

Brighton Beach Memoirs
Photo: Greg Lazerwtz
New Jewish Theater presents Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm through October 27. "Brighton Beach, September 1937. Eugene Jerome is dreaming of baseball and girls. Over the course of a few short days amid family harmony and disharmony, young Eugene will come to understand life a little deeper. This award-winning play is a bittersweet memoir that captures the life of a struggling Jewish household where, as his father states 'if you didn't have a problem, you wouldn't be living here.'" Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents Closer by Patrick Marber opening on Wednesday, October 23, at 7:30 pm and running through Sunday, October 207. "Dan rescues Alice. Anna photographs Dan. Larry meets Anna online. Alice rescues Larry. This is London at the end of the twentieth century where lives collide and fates change in an instant. Strangers become lovers and lovers become strangers. On its premiere in 1997, Closer won Olivier, Evening Standard and New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards. Since then, the play has been produced in more than 200 cities across the world." Performances take place in the Metcalf Theater on the campus in Edwardsvile, IL. For more information, call 618-650-2774 or visit www.siue.edu.

CSZ St. Louis presents The ComedySportz Show on Saturday nights at 7:30 pm. The show is "action-packed, interactive and hilarious comedy played as a sport. Two teams battle it out for points and your laughs! You choose the winners the teams provide the funny!" Performances take place on the second floor of the Sugar Cubed, 917 S Main St. in St Charles, Mo. For more information: www.cszstlouis.com.

Dear Evan Hansen
The Fabulous Fox Theatre presents the musical Dear Evan Hansen opening on Tuesday, October 22, at 7:30 pm and running through November 3. "A letter that was never meant to be seen, a lie that was never meant to be told, a life he never dreamed he could have. Evan Hansen is about to get the one thing he's always wanted: a chance to finally fit in. Dear Evan Hansen is the deeply personal and profoundly contemporary musical about life and the way we live it." The Fabulous Fox Theatre in on N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

Solid Lines Productions presents a staged reading of the play Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them on Sunday, October 27, at 2 pm. "Three kids - Kenny, his sister Edith, and their friend Benji - are all but abandoned on a farm in remotest Middle America. With little adult supervision, they feed and care for each other, making up the rules as they go. But when Kenny's and Benji's relationship becomes more than friendship, and Edith shoots something she really shouldn't shoot, the formerly indifferent outside world comes barging in whether they want it to or not. Admission is free! The play will be followed by a talk-back with the actors. Doors open at 1:30pm, curtain is at 2pm." The reading takes place at Sophie's Artist Lounge in the .ZACK Performing Arts Center, 3224 Locust. For more information: solidlinesproductions.com.

COCA and The Black Rep present Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963 Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 5 and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm through October 27. Note that the Sunday, October 20, performance is sold out at this time. " Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia D. Morris Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins. This production imagines these four young girls before the terrible event on September 15, 1963- the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Through story and song, the play shines a light on their dreams, their times with family and friends, and the trials and tribulations they faced as children living in a divided and segregationist city. A full chorus sets the tone with spirituals and anthems of the Civil Rights Movement such as "Amazing Grace," "Oh, Freedom," and "Woke Up This Morning." Performances take place at the Staenberg Performance Lab at COCA in University City. For more information: cocastl.org.

Encore Theatre Group presents The Haunted Pool - A New Musical Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3 pm through November 3. "Umi, a spirited young woman preparing to become Queen of Mephaire. All her life Umi has lived under one strict command from her father Rejas, the King: DO NOT GO to the HAUNTED POOL! Umi wants to obey her fathers wish but given her rebellious nature, her curiosity gets the best of her and she defies the King. What is it that she finds at The Haunted Pool? Secrets, the truth, or will she come face to face with the dreaded figure who resides there? Don't be trapped by fear! Join Umi on her adventure! This production, full of surprise and wonder, is one that you DON'T WANT TO MISS! Performances take place at the Thomas Dunn Learning Center, 3113 Gasconade Street. For more information: www.eventbrite.com.

The Performing Arts Department at Washington University presents the musical Legally Blonde Fridays through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, October 25 - November 3. " Elle Woods has it all. She is the president of her sorority, a Hawaiian Tropic Girl, Miss June in the campus calendar, and, above all, a natural blonde. She dates the cutest fraternity boy on campus and wants nothing more than to be Mrs. Warner Huntington III. There is just one problem; Elle is too blonde. After Warner breaks up with Elle and goes off to Harvard Law School, Elle follows him, determined to win him back. The ensuing journey takes her far from the life she has known and brings her to the realization that there is a lot more to her than meets the eye." The performances take place in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre on the Washington University campus. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.artsci.wustl.edu.

The Lifespan of a Fact
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents The Lifespan of a Fact running through November 10. "Celebrated author John D'Agata has just written a sublime and shattering magazine essay. But is the story true? When the world's most neurotically precise fact checker starts dissecting the author's work, it begins to split at the seams. As the final deadline looms, hard facts square off against emotional truths in a funny and searing high-stakes showdown." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org.

The St. Louis Writers' Group presents the final round of its Playwright Slam on Monday, October 21, at 6:30 pm. "The scripts have been chosen. This time we will have ten minutes from each one and the judges will award the points and may the best playwright win." The event takes place upstairs at Big Daddy's, 1000 Sidney in Soulard. For more information: www.stlwritersgroup.com

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Sherlock Holmes in "The Case Without a Clue" running through October 27 The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

Fontbonne University Theatre presents The Spitfire Grill running through October 27. Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, www.fontbonne.edu

The St. Louis Storytelling Festival presents Story Lounge: Hauntings on Thursday, October 24, at 7 pm. "The St. Louis Storytelling Festival's "Story Lounge: Hauntings", features chilling, spine-tingling narrative performances based on literary works. Held at the Kranzberg Arts Center Studio in the heart of the Grand Center Arts District, prepare to revel in the fiendish delights of the season. And remember, "the most frightening monsters are the ones that exist in our minds". The event takes place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: www.metrotix.com

Kevn Corpuz as Tommy
Stray Dog Theatre presents the rock musical The Who's Tommy through October 26. "Back by popular demand! Based on the iconic 1969 rock concept album, The Who's TOMMY is an exhilarating tale of hope, healing, and the human spirit. The story of the pinball-playing, deaf, dumb, and blind boy who triumphs over his adversities has inspired and amazed audiences for 50 years." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Zombie Love (No Biting) running through November 2. "Calling all Zombies! Tired of being judged for munching on the occasional brain? So you're not really "alive" anymore but you can still enjoy socializing with the living and enjoying a hilarious show together! Well, we've got the perfect show for you! Drama! Comedy! Looove! ...And, of course, Zombies! Don your best Living Dead Costume and choose to be a Zombie, or not (its up to you), but we do promise lots of fun for both the living and the undead! hey, Hey, HEY! No Biting!" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of October 21, 2019

This week, the Bach Society does Mozart, Second Presbyterian Church presents an organ recital, and it's Harry Potter time at the SLSO.

The Bach Society
The Bach Society of St. Louis presents a performance of Mozart's Requiem on Sunday, October 27, at 3 pm. "An iconic masterpiece, Mozart's Requiem in D minor, K 626 embraces and inspires. This revered work is paired with Bach's festive setting of the Magnificat in D Major. Guest soloists soprano Emily Birsan, mezzo-soprano Alice Anne Light, tenor Gene Stenger, and bass David Rugger join the Bach Society Chorus and Orchestra." The concert takes place at First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, 100 E. Adams in Kirkwood. For more information: www.bachsociety.org.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Norman Huynh, presents a showing of the film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, with the score performed live, on Friday and Saturday at 7 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, October 25-27. "See what happens when Harry discovers a mysterious potions book in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince™ in Concert! Projected onto a giant screen and accompanied by the SLSO, you can join in on Harry's adventures like never before. Nicholas Hooper's wonderful score and J.K. Rowling's classic tale combine to deliver all the adventure, humor and suspense you remember in an experience you'll never forget." The performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Second Presbyterian Church presents an organ recital by Michael Unger on Sunday, October 27, at 4 pm. "Dr. Unger is the Assistant Professor of Organ and Harpsichord at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. The church is at 4501 Westminster Place in the Central West End. For more information: secondchurch.net.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Chuck's Choices or the weekend of October 17, 2019

The weekend starts a day early with rock opera, cabaret, and a Neil Simon Classic.

New This Week:

Brighton Beach Memoirs
Photo: Greg Lazerwtz
New Jewish Theater presents Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm through October 27. "Brighton Beach, September 1937. Eugene Jerome is dreaming of baseball and girls. Over the course of a few short days amid family harmony and disharmony, young Eugene will come to understand life a little deeper. This award-winning play is a bittersweet memoir that captures the life of a struggling Jewish household where, as his father states 'if you didn't have a problem, you wouldn't be living here.'" Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283.

My take: Well, who does't like Neil Simon? And unlike some of this more facile scripts this is one with non-comic undertones, so the characters have a bit more depth. "This story, in other hands, could have been a serious drama," writes Ann Lemmons Pollack. "But not with Simon, and we can all relax and have a good time...the large household of the extended Jerome family gives us lots of story and plenty of laughs in its current production at the New Jewish Theatre." At Ladue News, Mark Bretz calls this "a finely crafted and touching interpretation". Sounds like a cozy choice for a chilly fall night.


Rachel Bay Jones
Jazz St. Louis and The Cabaret Project present Rachel Bay Jones in Something Beautiful on Wednesday and Thursday, October 16 and 17, at 7:30 p.m. "In her new solo show, Rachel Bay Jones, 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Featured Actress in the Broadway smash hit musical Dear Evan Hansen, explores the music and stories that have shaped her life and career. Sharing adventures that have taken her from multiple Broadway successes to motherhood, Jones' intimate yet soaring voice creates an incredibly compelling evening featuring music from Richard Rodgers, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joni Mitchell and more. A great singer, storyteller and actress, Rachel was recently featured opposite Julia Roberts in the film Ben is Back and will be seen opposite John Leguizamo in the upcoming film Critical Thinking. Rachel shares the Grammy Award with her Dear Evan Hansen co-stars for the shows Original Cast Recording." Performances take place at the Ferring Jazz Bistro on Washington just east of the Fox in Grand Center. For more information: www.thecabaretproject.org.

My take: I saw Ms. Jones's show last night and was deeply impressed by combination of her somewhat impish and elfin stage personality and the wide expressive range and tonal variety of her voice. Her interaction with her long-time music driector Randy Redd is a pleasure to watch, especially since Mr. Redd has a fine voice and stage presence of his own. Her set list leans heavily towards ballads and contemporary Broadway, which is either a positive or a negative depending on your taste, but last night's audience loved her to pieces in any case. And the Jazz Bistro these days is a very pleasant room with a top notch sound system and kitchen.

Kevn Corpuz as Tommy
Stray Dog Theatre presents the rock musical The Who's Tommy through October 26. "Back by popular demand! Based on the iconic 1969 rock concept album, The Who's TOMMY is an exhilarating tale of hope, healing, and the human spirit. The story of the pinball-playing, deaf, dumb, and blind boy who triumphs over his adversities has inspired and amazed audiences for 50 years." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

My take: It has been almost exactly eight years (October 2011) since Stray Dog first tackled the stage version of The Who's "rock opera" (which is really more of a concept album, but why quibble?). They did an awfully fine job last time. To judge by the reviews, they're doing it justice once again. At Ladue News, Mark Bretz calls Stray Dog's new version "one of the most stunning productions in its history...This rendition is fresh, imaginative and fully captures the infectious energy of Pete Townshend’s rock music classic".

Held Over:

Cry-Baby
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre presents the musical Cry-Baby Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm through October 19. "It's 1954. Everyone likes Ike, nobody likes communism, and Wade 'Cry-Baby' Walker is the coolest boy in Baltimore. He's a bad boy with a good cause -- truth, justice, and the pursuit of rock and roll." Performances take place at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, three blocks east of Grand, in Grand Center. For more information, visit newlinetheatre.com or call 314-534-1111.

My take: Critical opinion seems to be pretty much unanimously positive on this one. Judy Newmark calls it "keen-witted...a youthful cast that sparkles with energy as they sing and dance their way through one hilarious song after another." At Ladue News, Mark Bretz says it's a "bright, energized rock musical, which dabbles creatively in several genres, including rockabilly, barbershop quartets and old-fashioned rock ‘n' roll." And over at KDHX, Tina Farmer writes that Cry-Baby "bristles with energy and hormonal frenzy that's played for laughs, but delivers plenty of commentary on everything from classism to our definition of beauty." I could go on, but you get the idea. New Line originally did this show back in 2012. Mark Bretz points out that this revival, by New Line's artistic director Scott Miller "was approved by the show's creators with a reduced cast and fresh orchestrations by original orchestrator Chris Jahnke." Sounds like a bit of a coup for New LIne.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Symphony Preview: Twilight time

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

This weekend (October 18-20) Stéphane Denève returns to conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) in an early 20th century program that moves from light to darkness (or at least twilight) with a lyrical pause in between.

The light comes first, in the form of a suite from Francis Poulenc's 1923 ballet "Les Biches." Written for the Ballets Russe and choreographed by the Polish dancer Bronislava Nijinska, it's an immediately appealing piece. Its fusion of classical and then-contemporary pop influences can easily be enjoyed without much concern about its original minimalist scenario or cultural references.

Francis Poulenc in 1922
Photo by Joseph Rosmand
That said, all that stuff makes pretty intriguing reading. This week's program notes by Tim Munro provide an excellent summary of the action accompanying each of the six selections of the suite, while the Wikipedia article on the ballet goes into considerable depth about the origins of the music and the contents of the full-length score. That full score consists of nine numbers, including three for mixed chorus with what, according to the University of Ottawa's Christopher Moore, the composer called "beautiful but slightly obscene texts (from the 18th century)".

And if that's not enough, conductor/scholar Leon Botstein has a fascinating article on the ballet's connections to the Surrealist movement in a program note for his 1992 performance of the suite with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Even the title requires some footnotes. According to Poulenc's biographer Carl Schmidt (in "Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc") the composer acknowledged that biche, with its multiple possible meanings, is not really translatable into any other language. Wordreference, for example, will tell you it means "doe" ("a deer, a female deer...") as well as "darling" or "honey." Wikipedia adds that "it was also used as a slang term for a coquettish woman." Moore, in an article for the "Musical Quarterly," takes it a step farther, noting that "the word biches is itself pregnant with double entendre, referring most obviously to does, but also, in the underworld of Parisian slang, to a woman (or ironically, a man) of deviant sexual proclivities."

That synchs up with Mr. Munro's suggestion that the subtext of "Les Biches" includes veiled references the composer's sexual identity. "As a gay man in post-World War I France," he writes, "he masked the truth of his sexuality. A work like 'Les biches' allowed him to hint at topics and relationships otherwise taboo in polite society: the game of sexual courtship, gender fluidity, same-sex partnerships."

If that looks like a lot of heavy baggage for around 20 minutes of consistently beguiling music (or if your eyes just started to glaze over a couple paragraphs ago), here's a far more pithy summary by Maestro Denève from this week's program notes:
"Les biches" has something to do with Mozart. There is a saying: "Humor is the politeness of despair." In Mozart, you have music in a major key, which appears very light, but there is such sadness and melancholy behind it. Poulenc has this elegance--he was a dandy who would never complain--but you get hints of an internal despair. I programmed it to show that depth and lightness can go together.
Prokofiev in New York, 1918
Photo by Bain News Service
Up next is Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 19, composed in 1917 but, because of the Russian revolution, not actually performed until 1923 when Serge Koussevitzky conducted the premiere in Paris. It wasn't particularly well received, partly because it's overall lyricism seemed tame compared to the kind of sarcastic and savage music for which the composer was known at the time.

I have quite a bit more to say about the Prokofiev concerto, but since I already said it in a preview article back in 2016, there's no need to plagiarize myself here. I merely note that its lyrical qualities don't make it any easier to play, so our soloist this weekend, Karen Gomyo, has her work cut out for her.

Fortunately, Ms. Gomyo is no stranger to Powell Hall, and has impressed the hell out of me every time I have seen her here. This past April, for example, I called her Tchaikovsky violin concerto "technically pristine and warmly expressive." I look forward to seeing what she does with this very different music.

This weekend's concerts conclude with Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances," a work I have found oddly compelling since I first heard it on a 1961 LP recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, who conducted the work's first performance in 1941. I was immediately struck by the "late night" feel of the piece--and not just because of the chimes in the last movement. It was only later that I learned that Rachmaninoff had, in fact, originally titled the three sections "Noon," "Twilight," and "Midnight." The composer dropped the titles, preferring the let the music speak for itself, and it does so eloquently.

Rachmaninoff in 1921
Public Domain, Wikimeida Commons
The work is filled with evidence of Rachmaninoff's genius as an orchestrator, with elaborate and complex string writing, inventive use of brasses and winds (including a short but poignant solo for alto sax), and an effective but never overwhelming use of the large percussion battery. This is dramatic music that is nevertheless steeped in autumnal melancholy--very appropriate now that fall seems to have finally arrived here.

The "Symphonic Dances" is the composer's last completed work (he died two years after its premiere), and there's a sense throughout of a life approaching its conclusion. "'Symphonic Dances'" writes Maestro Denève in this week's program notes, "is redeeming--it's a piece of hope. The ending is an Alleluia, a triumph over death. It was his last work, and maybe, because he composed this piece, he felt he could die."

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra along with violin soloist Karen Gomyo in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, a suite fro Poulenc's ballet "Les Biches," and Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances." Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm October 18-20. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Symphony Review: Leonard Slatkin returns with an entertaining evening of music old and new

The evening air was crisp and so was the playing of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO last night (Saturday, October 12) as Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin led the band in an entertaining and expertly played program of music that spanned nearly 250 years.

Leonard Slatkin
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
The concert opened with a new version of a piece that Mr. Slatkin originally commissioned in 1996, his final year with the orchestra. As a kind of farewell present, he asked four composers who had been in residence at the SLSO during his tenure--Joseph Schwantner, Joan Tower, Donald Erb, and Claude Baker--to each create a different variation of the "Caprice No. 24" by Niccolò Paganini. Slatkin wrote one of his own as well and titled the result "Yet Another Set of Variations (on a Theme of Paganini)."

As Mr. Slatkin approached his 75th birthday he thought a revision might be in order. The new version has the same title as the original but it now has thirteen short movements by a dozen composers (including Mr. Slatkin) that's just under 20 tremendously entertaining minutes in length. The wide emotional range of the suite runs from the solemnity of Truman Harris's "Sarabande" (featuring the bassoon, Mr. Harris's instrument) and the drama of John Corigliano's "Apotheosis (:90)" (referring to the fact that each variation was supposed to run between 60 and 90 seconds) to the Spike Jones-ish comedy of Mr. Slatkin's "Introduction, Theme, and Variant (with apologies to S.R.)."

The latter makes fun of the most famous set of Paganini variations--the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" by Sergei Rachmaninoff (i.e. "S.R") as does Mr. Slatkin's "Quodlibet and Finale," which references all the other composers involved and includes Kelly Karamanov playing the Rachmaninoff's famous 18th variation offstage from what sounded like on old upright piano.

Mostly, the work was about colorful orchestration, musical in-jokes, and a general sense of fun. Donald Erb's "Ave Atque Vale L.S." sounds like an intoxicated after-party. Film and television composer Daniel Slatkin (son of Leonard) covered an impressive number of musical movie memes in his "Paganini Goes to the Movies." And William Bolcom's "Presto scherzando" sounds like a soundtrack for Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

"Yet Another Set of Variations (on a Theme of Paganini)" also sounds like a wild ride for the musicians, who are inundated with what were clearly virtuoso passages. Needless to say, the members of the SLSO pulled it off with their customary assurance.

Jelena Dirks
Photo courtesy of SLSO
Speaking of assurance, SLSO Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks displayed plenty of that in a graceful rendition of Mozart's one and only Oboe Concerto that honored what program annotator David Garrett accurately calls the "galant manner" of the piece. And she did it with sparkling precision and a good sense of what Donald Francis Tovey (as cited by Mr. Garrett) saw as the operatic underpinnings of the concerto. The "Adagio non troppo" second movement, for example, could easily be a little love song from one of Mozart's comic operas, and the "Rondo: Allegretto" finale actually quotes a tune from "The Abduction from the Seraglio." Ms. Dirks's oboe sweetly sang the former and skipped cheerfully through the latter.

As a bonus (and something of a reference to the work that opened the concert), Ms. Dirks finished each movement with a cadenza written by a different composer. So we had John de Lancie (long-time Principal Oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra) for the first movement, English oboist Melinda Maxwell for the second, and John Mack (also a former Principal Oboe with the Philadelphians) for the third.

The concert concluded with a glorious, wide-screen, hi-def performance of Richard Strauss's colorful and rousing tribute to himself, "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life"). Maestro Slatkin gave it a sweepingly romantic interpretation that did not neglect the fine details of Strauss's inventive use of the orchestra. Richard Freed once observed that "Ein Heldenleben" "represented in its time a new level in the exploitation of the resources of the modern orchestra, and it remains an outstanding landmark in that respect," and you could certainly hear all of that in this utterly compelling performance.

Richard Strauss in 1898
By Fritz Erler (died 1940)
Private collection, Public Domain
commons.wikimedia.org
And the SLSO musicians played flawlessly. Big laurel wreathes are especially due to the horns and the massive brass section as a whole, which sounded great, even in the softest passages. It helped that Mr. Slatkin had the brass section spread out across the entire width of the stage, just in front of the percussion, which made it easier to hear the individual sections, even during the rock concert--level din of the "Hero's Battlefield" section.

Concertmaster David Halen had what is essentially the star turn in "The Hero's Companion" section. It's a loving tribute to Strauss's wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna, in which the violin plays the role of Ms. de Ahna, and an emotionally varied one it surely is. In a letter to Romain Rolland (cited by Mr. Freed), the composer described her musical character as "very complex, a trifle perverse, a trifle coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute." Mr. Halen neatly captured the character's many moods.

Principal English Horn Cally Banham also had a lovely moment in the transition to the final section, "The Hero's Retreat from the World and Fulfillment," but ultimately the entire orchestra performed heroically under Mr. Slatkin's skilled direction. I'm a sucker for Strauss, granted, but this was nevertheless a well-balanced and unfailingly arresting performance.

Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève returns to lead the orchestra and violin soloist Karen Gomyo in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1. The program also includes a suite from Poulenc's ballet "Les Biches," and Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances." Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm October 18-20 at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of October 14, 2019

This week: chamber music, the return of Denève, and a classical cabaret.

The Chamber Music Society of St. Louis
at the Sheldon
The Chamber Music Society of St. Louis presents No Place Like Home on Monday and Tuesday, October 14 and 15, at 7:30 pm. "Exploring music by American composers which includes works by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, William Bolcom plus the "American" string quartet by Antonin Dvorák. Performances take place at the Sheldon, 3648 Washington in Grand Center. For more information: chambermusicstl.org.

Karen Gomyo
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
Stéphane Denève conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra along with violin soloist Karen Gomyo in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, a suite from Poulenc's ballet Les Biches, and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm October 18-20. "Stéphane Denève leads a concert of "desert island" music. Rachmaninoff's final orchestral work celebrates a life well-lived with joyful dances, heartbreaking melodies and orchestral brilliance. Poulenc's ballet fizzes like popped champagne, while Karen Gomyo, an 'artist of rare command, brilliance and intensity,' (Chicago Tribune) breathes pure musical sunlight into Prokofiev's concerto." Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Women's HOPE Chorale of St. Louis (WHCSTL) presents A Classical Cabaret on Saturday, October 19 at 7:30 pm. Professional singers from the Chorale will perform a variety of selections from opera arias to Broadway show tunes. The performance takes place at the Kranzberg Arts Center Studio, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. Tickets to the event, which is a fundraiser for the organization, are available online at Metrotix in advance as well as at the box office beginning at 6:30 pm the night of the event. For more information: www.womenshopechoralestl.org.