Saturday, May 23, 2020

Who's zoomin' who?: "MUTE: A Play for Zoom" is an innovative mix creepiness and comedy

Nearly every aspect of the economy has taken a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. And while some sectors are listening to politicians rather than medical professionals and preparing to resume business as (almost) usual, performing arts organizations are obliged to take a more cautious approach. Theatres, concert halls, music clubs, and other indoor environments where large groups of people gather are high-risk areas for airborne virus transmission, leaving local theatre companies in suspended animation until this fall at the earliest.

MUTE: A Play for Zoom
As a way of staying in touch with their audiences, a number of local companies have turned to the Internet. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis made a video of its local premiere of the topical comedy "Cake," which was forced to close after only a few performances, available to ticket holders. ERA Theatre is presenting a video version of its 2015 St. Lou Fringe hit "Moscow!" as a free ticketed event through May 30. And on April 5th, local playwright Nancy Bell and director Lucy Cashion (the creator of "Moscow!") presented the world premiere of "MUTE: A Play for Zoom" as part of a Facebook live "watch party."

I missed that premiere, but happily a video of "MUTE" is available both on Facebook and at Vimeo. I watched it last night and while this half-hour one-act is not without its issues, it makes ingenious use of the popular videoconferencing platform. Watching it on my laptop with headphones, I was quickly drawn in to the darkly comic world of the play.

A smart mix of hilarity and horror, "MUTE" manages to be both comic and creepy simultaneously. "In a world much like ours," says playwright Bell, "there exists a video conference call. And in this call, there are academics, confusion, fire, and...one hamster." One rather remarkable hamster, I might add.

The play's setting is a Zoom teleconference in which a group of academics are waiting for The Dean ot join them from the Frankfurt campus so they can begin the official agenda. They're hampered by the fact that most of them have been unable to download the agenda and by the fact that The Dean appears to be related to Beckett's Godot. The academics in question are a motley crew. Marie (Michelle Hand) is desperate to get out of her house and back to her office on the locked-down campus because "the event" has infected her son (Liv Hand) in ways that are, to say the least, disturbing. Her older colleague Trent (Michael James Reed) views "the event" through a radical leftist lens while sucking on an obviously unlit cigarette. Heather (Delaney Piggins) urgently needs to see her grandmother and Fiona (Keating MX) finds her attention divided between the conference call and her unseen husband, whose dementia seems to be turning violent.

Staffer Justin (Jakob Hulten), the only one not clearly on the edge of mental or physical collapse, is bemused and then unnerved by the increasingly sinister tone of the meeting--a tone made even more so by the barely-seen presence of Lila and her hamster Man Ray (Sophia Brown).

In her description of the play, Bell cheerfully acknowledges her debt to Ionesco, Beckett, and Chekhov. And I did, in fact, see references to "Rhinocerous," "Waiting for Godot," and "The Three Sisters," respectively. But I also found its mix of the delirious and disturbing reminiscent of some of the Firesign Theater's more dystopian audio plays, especially "In the Next World, You're On Your Own" from 1975. And the way it relies on what is hinted at rather than what is shown for a sense of horror harkens back to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. But the final product is uniquely hers.

Everything tends to fall apart a bit at the end, at least for me. But even so "MUTE" is a compelling and original theatre piece that gets great performances from the entire cast. Michelle Hand's hilariously unglued and clueless Marie (effectively the leading role) is yet another bright feather in her theatrical cap, but the fact is that everyone involved does fine work.

It's hard to know what shape the local theatre scene will take over the next year or so, but "MUTE: A Play for Zoom" certainly suggests some interesting possibilities.

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

St. Louis theatre calendar a/o May 19, 2020

Now including on-line events along with live events (if any) during the pandemic. To get your event listed here, send an email to calendar [at] stageleft.org.

MUTE: A Play for Zoom
St. Louis playwright Nancy Bell's MUTE: A Play for Zoom, which was performed live via Facebook on April 5, 2020, is available as a live stream at https://vimeo.com/405178212. "In a world much like ours, there exists a video conference call. And in this call, there are academics, confusion, fire and...one hamster. An experimental theatre piece that steals rabidly from Ionesco, Beckett, real life and Chekhov. The play was for performance on Zoom by Nancy Bell and directed by Lucy Cashion."

Moscow! at the 2015 STL Fringe
ERA Theatre presents an online live video stream version of Moscow!, it's drinking game version of Chekov's The Three Sisters, Thursdays and Fridays from 8-9 pm and Saturdays from 1-2 pm, May 21-30. "Olga, Irina, and Masha are sisters living in an insignificant town in Russia. They spend a lot of time talking about how all they really want to do is go back to Moscow, where everything is better. The town's people come and go through the sisters' house, which they own with their brother, Andrey. Everyone is so emotionally erratic - is it because they're Russian? Perhaps it's because they're drunk. Three Sisters examines the frivolity of privileged life; Moscow! intensifies it with live music, dancing, and vodka. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ERA will live-stream its performances of Moscow! and all artists will perform from the safety of their respective isolated locations." Admission is free but you must sign up in advance. For more information: www.eratheatre.org.

On Sunday, May 31, at 7 pm Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL), in collaboration with 14 other arts organizations and the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), presents Arts United STL, a free virtual benefit in support of RAC's Artist Relief Fund, which provides critical aid to St. Louis working artists whose livelihoods have been critically interrupted by the pandemic. The even includes performances from local arts organizations, including The Big Muddy Dance Company, The Black Rep, Circus Flora, COCA, Jazz St. Louis, The Muny, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, St. Louis Ballet, St. Louis Children's Choirs, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, The Sheldon, STAGES St. Louis, the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, and more. For more information: www.opera-stl.org/explore-and-learn/for-everyone/arts-united-stl

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, in collaboration with Baltimore Center Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, The Public Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, present Play at Home, a series of micro-commissioned short plays from some of the American theatre's most exciting and prominent playwrights. These new plays – which all run 10 minutes or less – are available for the public to download, read and perform at home for free at playathome.org.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis invites budding young writers throughout the nation to develop and submit plays to for inclusion in its all-new WiseWrite Digital Play Festival. Open to all students grades 4 through 12, this online celebration of storytelling will culminate in June when professional actors perform selected student submissions over Zoom. To help students develop the skills to write their first plays, The Rep will release a six-part online learning curriculum - one part each week through the end of May. For more information: repstl.org/wisewrite.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents plays, readings, and other features as part of its #SHAKESPEARETV lineup through June 21st. Current offerings include their made-for-video production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline and readings of selections from Camu's The Plague. For more information: https://stlshakes.org.

St. Louis Actors' Studio offers short films written and (mostly) directed by Neil LaBute from Contemptible Entertainment through their Twitter account through June 15. The lineup changes every Monday morning. For the current list, visit twitter.com/@stlas1.


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.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

St. Louis theatre calendar a/o May 13, 2020

Now including on-line events along with live events (if any) during the pandemic. To get your event listed here, send an email to calendar [at] stageleft.org.

Moscow! at the 2015 STL Fringe
ERA Theatre presents an online live video stream version of Moscow!, it's drinking game version of Chekov's The Three Sisters, Thursdays and Fridays from 8-9 pm and Saturdays from 1-2 pm, May 21-30. "Olga, Irina, and Masha are sisters living in an insignificant town in Russia. They spend a lot of time talking about how all they really want to do is go back to Moscow, where everything is better. The town's people come and go through the sisters' house, which they own with their brother, Andrey. Everyone is so emotionally erratic - is it because they're Russian? Perhaps it's because they're drunk. Three Sisters examines the frivolity of privileged life; Moscow! intensifies it with live music, dancing, and vodka. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ERA will live-stream its performances of Moscow! and all artists will perform from the safety of their respective isolated locations." Admission is free but you must sign up in advance. For more information: www.eratheatre.org.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis invites budding young writers throughout the nation to develop and submit plays to for inclusion in its all-new WiseWrite Digital Play Festival. Open to all students grades 4 through 12, this online celebration of storytelling will culminate in June when professional actors perform selected student submissions over Zoom. To help students develop the skills to write their first plays, The Rep will release a six-part online learning curriculum - one part each week through the end of May. For more information: repstl.org/wisewrite.

The St. Louis Writers Group streams live readings of four short plays on Monday, May 18th, at 7 pm. The plays are 822.33 by Dennis Fisher, Prepared by David Hawley, Sons of the Fathers by Rita Winters, and Pandemic Trilogy by Peg Flach, and will be available for viewing off line shortly afterwards. The event takes place via live Facebook streaming at www.facebook.com/groups/500365827076176/

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents plays, readings, and other features as part of its #SHAKESPEARETV lineup through June 21st at their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pg/shakesfestSTL/videos Current offerings include their made-for-video production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline and readings of selections from Camu's The Plague. For more information: https://stlshakes.org.

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.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Symphony Notes: Rites of spring

In the early days of this Symphony Notes series, I had the somewhat ambitious goal of providing program notes for virtual recreations of planned (but cancelled) St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) performances. The idea was to give you links to performances of the scheduled works using Spotify playlists provided by the SLSO and/or YouTube links uncovered by Detective Google.

This week, I have discovered the limitations of that approach.

Pierre Jalbert
The program originally scheduled for this weekend (May 8 and 9) would have consisted of the SLSO premieres of Pierre Jalbert's brief tone poem "Music of Air and Fire" and Guillaume Connesson's Cello Concerto, followed by a complete performance of Stravinsky's savage ballet "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"). Finding links for the Stravinsky is easy enough; the SLSO's Spotify playlist has a performance by Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic described by The Gramophone as " fierce, taut reading" with "a thumping good bass drum." What proved to be less easy was coming up with recordings of the other two pieces.

The Jalbert piece, which dates from 2007, runs around six minutes, so the four-minute excerpt from a 2016 performance by the Vermont Youth Orchestra under Jeff Domoto is as close to complete as you can get.

On his web site, Jalbert describes the work as consisting of two "contrasting ideas: one of quiet lyricism (air), and one of faster, more aggressive music (fire).":
The "air" music comes first and features the percussionists bowing their instruments in order to create a wafting, ethereal sound. This gradually turns into the "fire" music and features the percussionists playing various sets of drums in a more pulse-oriented, rhythmic manner.
The VYO recording consists of only the "fire" section, and there's no doubt that it fully delivers the driving, powerful rhythms Jalbert describes. As the curtain raiser for an evening that was to conclude with "Sacre," it feels completely appropriate.

Guillaume Connesson
Photo by Fanny Houillon
Connesson's Cello Concerto is an even bigger challenge. I couldn't find a complete recording at Amazon ("not even for ready money," to quote Lane in "The Importance of Being Earnest") or Spotify. YouTube yields only a performance of the fifth (final) movement (marked "Orgiaque," or "Orgiastic") by soloist Jérôme Pernoo (to whom the work is dedicated) and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse conducted by Tugan Sokhiev. It's from a broadcast of the 2016 Victoires de la Musique Classique awards, an annual French equivalent of the Classical BRIT Awards. It would be like a Grammy Award program devoted only to the classics, if we had one.

In his description of the work on his publisher's web site, Connesson describes this movement as "une danse finale, joyeuse et violemment rythmique" ("a final dance, joyous and violently rhythmic"), and you can certainly hear that in Pernoo's highly charged and stunningly virtuosic performance. If this doesn't make you want to move, then, to quote the title of a 1947 Louis Jordan single, "Jack, You're Dead." It's a pity we won't get to see noted French cellist Gautier Capuçon play the complete work with the SLSO and Maestro Denève, but this at least gives you a taste of it.

Stravinsky in 1903
By Unknown Photograf -
archives de FinitoR
Public Domain, Link
As for "Le Sacre du Printemps," there's not much I can add to the volumes that have already been written about this revolutionary and compelling work. The third in a series of series of successful collaborations between Stravinsky and impresario Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (the previous two being "The Firebird" from 1910 and "Petruska" from 1911), "Sacre" was, like its predecessors, inspired by Russian folk elements.

Unlike them, its first performance--at the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on May 29, 1913, with Pierre Monteux conducting--became a notorious succès de scandale. "It is arguably," writes Paul-John Ramos at classic.net, "the most famous debacle in western artistic history":
Audience members found the quiet, yet active, introduction ridiculous. When the curtain rose and [choreographer Vaslav] Nijinsky's dances began, the auditorium went into a rage, their sophistication insulted. Ravel and Debussy were both present and captivated by the music, but it was soon drowned out in the fracas. Debris was thrown, as well as punches. The work was performed in full, but only with the help of Nijinsky calling steps from atop an offstage chair.
Standing next to him was the composer, who had abandoned his seat in the theatre in disgust at the uproar. "Naturally, the poor dancers could hear nothing," he recalled later, "by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes--he was furious and ready to dash on the stage at any moment and create a scandal."

Later performances were less riotous. In fact, when Monteux conducted a concert performance in the Casino de Paris the following year, Stravinsky was carried from the hall in triumph on the shoulders of audience members. Today the music sounds less radical but still packs a tremendous dramatic punch, as was the case when David Robertson opened the 2011-2012 SLSO season with it.

There are so many great performances of "Sacre" (both with and without dancers) for free on line that you could grow old and die listening to and/or watching every one. The Petrenko/Liverpool performance the SLSO has selected is a winner, but listening to it with the Spotify app, with its mandatory "shuffle" playback mode (happily absent on the desktop version), can be a trial.

Other options for the concert version include Jaap van Zweden conducting a wonderfully precise performance of the composer's 1947 revision at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and a high-intensity reading by the Radio France Philharmonic under Mikko Franck. Both boast great sound and videography that gives you close-up views of soloists impossible to achieve in real life. For a deeper dive into the music, there's a version of Leonard Bernstein's 1958 New York Philharmonic recording synchronized with pages from the score.

Supports and membes of the Ballets Russes
By General Nicolas Besobrasov (died 1912)
printed in book, 'Nijinsky' by Richard Buckle,1971,
Weidenfeld and Nickolson, London.,
Public Domain, Link
As for videos of the ballet itself, you can see not one but two recreations of Nijinsky's original choreography performed by the Orchestra and dancers of the Ballet Mariinski Theater under Valery Gergiev at the Mariinski Theater in 2008 and at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 2013. The sound and videography are great in both cases. It's as close as you'll ever get to seeing what so excited and outraged audiences over a century ago.

For a radically different take on the ballet, check out Pina Bausch's typically idiosyncratic choreography by the Wuppertaler Tanztheater from 1978. The quality of the recorded sound is mediocre and Bausch's approach will come across as either revelatory or ridiculous depending on your taste, but its originality is remarkable in any case. You can also view versions by noted French choreographer Maurice Béjart and a massive 250-dancer production employing multiple companies with choreography by Royston Maldoom accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle.

OK, so I had more to say about "Le Sacre du Printemps" than I thought. In any case, you have a plethora of resources here for your homebrew re-creation of this weekend's original concert. Listen, watch, and enjoy. It would have been the SLSO's regular season finale, but the orchestra is scheduled to resume their regular concert season in September. Season tickets are on sale now.

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

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Symphony Notes, Part 2: Taking flight

In my previous edition of "Symphony Notes," I talked about the music that was to have been part of Didi Balle's "Maurice Ravel: A Musical Journey", originally slotted for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) program on Friday, May 1. This time around, I'm going to look at what was originally planned for the concerts on Saturday and Sunday, May 2 and 3.

Lera Auerbach
wisemusicclassical.com
Conducted by Music Director Stéphane Denève, the program would have consisted of "Icarus" by Lera Auerbach, a contemporary (b. 1973) Russian-born composer who now lives in the USA, followed by Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (discussed briefly in my last post), and Shostakovich's overwhelming Symphony No. 10. You can hear the last two pieces on the SLSO's Spotify playlist.

At first hearing, all three works seem very dissimilar. But are they, really?

"The desire to go beyond the boundaries into the ecstatic visionary realm of soaring flight is essentially human," writes Ms. Auerbach in program notes for the Boston Symphony. "In some ways this desire to transcend the everyday-ness is what it means to be human." It's not much of a stretch to see that as the common thread that brings together these three very different works.

"The title Icarus was given to this work after it was written," Auerbach continues. "All my music is abstract, but by giving evocative titles I invite the listener to feel free to imagine, to access his own memories, associations. Icarus is what came to my mind, listening to this work at that time." It came to mind, as well, as I watched the Mark Wigglesworth and National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain perform it on YouTube in a recording made during the Young Euro Festival last year. A tragic figure from Greek mythology whose desire to fly took him just a little too close to the sun, Icarus is not hard to discern in this vividly dramatic piece, which rises to great dramatic heights, only to finally succumb and fall to earth in a great crash of percussion. The quietly elegiac section that concludes the work ends with the soft, eerie sound of a percussionist rubbing her moistened finger along the rim of a partially filled wine glass--a primitive version of Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica.

The recording by John Fiore and the Düsseldorf Symphony (also on YouTube) is more polished and includes the optional theremin for that extra touch of otherworldliness, but there's an urgency to that live performance that makes it hard to beat.

In lieu of a more detailed description of the piece, you can read Alex Burns's thorough analysis on his Classicalexburns blog or just give it a listen for yourself. One thing you'll likely note is "Icarus" sounds like two pieces--one around three minutes long and one around nine--that have been stitched together. That's because it is, as Mr. Burns points out, the final two movements of Auerbach's 2007 Symphony No. 1 ("Chimera") played back to back. In that respect, Ms. Auerbach is only one of many noted composers (including Bach and Rossini) who have repurposed their own work over the centuries. Think of it as aural recycling.

Maurice Ravel birthday party, New York City, March 8, 1928
L-R: Oscar Fried, conductor; Eva Gauthier, singer;
Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco, composer-conductor;
and composer George Gershwin
Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand is also about transcendence--not for the composer but for the pianist for whom it was written in 1929-1930. That pianist was Paul Wittgenstein (the older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), who was just at the beginning of what looked like a successful career when World War I broke out. Called up for military service, Wittgenstein was shot in the right elbow during the Battle of Galicia, a major confrontation between Austria-Hungary and Russia. He was captured by the Russians and sent to a POW camp in Siberia where the injury to his arm proved to be so severe that amputation was necessary.

For the vast majority of pianists, that would be a career-ending event, but Wittgenstein was determined to not only resume a normal life but to continue his career as a pianist. The camp had no piano, so, as Dakota White relates at the World War I Centennial web site, Wittgenstein drew the outline of a keyboard on a wooden crate and used it to practice during his confinement. After the war, he was able to use his family's wealth and social connections to commission works for the left hand from leading composers of the day, including Richard Strauss, Erich Korngold, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten--and Maurice Ravel.

Wittgenstein gave the work its premiere on January 5th, 1932, with Robert Heger conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and recorded it in 1937 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bruno Walter. You can hear that performance on YouTube as well as on Amazon Prime. The recording on the SLSO play list has Krystian Zimmerman as the soloist with Pierre Boulez conducting the London Symphony, but the Wittgenstein performance is still worth hearing, despite the dated mono sound.

There's a nocturnal feel to the concerto. It's a remarkable piece, with a dark bitonal introduction featuring the contrabassoon (how often does that get a solo?), flashy cadenzas for the soloist, and a central march/scherzo with strong jazz and American pop music echoes. It's as though the composer is inviting us to a dance in the graveyard--a celebration of renewed life in the shadow of the massive death of the "war to end all wars." Ravel served as an ambulance driver in the cataclysm, and I think the horrors he saw influenced many of his post-war works, including this one.

Shostakovich in 1945
A different set of horrors serves as the background for the Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 by Shostakovich. It was first performed by the Leningrad Symphony under Yevgeny Mravinsky in December, 1953, but its genesis began years earlier under the tyrannical reign of Stalin and his cultural spokesman Andrei Zhdanov. In 1948, Shostakovich was denounced for the sin of "formalism"--an amorphous charge that apparently translated as "Stalin didn't understand it"--and so forced to keep his most intimate musical thoughts to himself. Instead he produced film scores and safely banal works like the oratorio "Song of the Forests". It wasn't until after Stalin's death in March 1953 that Shostakovich felt it safe to commit pen to paper.

Reflecting as it does the grim reality of life under Stalin, the Symphony No. 10 isn't easy to love. An often somber and deeply felt reflection on the grim oppression of those years, the 10th is, even by Shostakovich standards, a work of extremes. Moments of crystalline delicacy alternate with vast outpourings of orchestral sound. Deceptively simple-sounding melodic material is spun out in increasingly complex ways throughout the work--a technique known as "metamorphosis" or "thematic transformation," defined by Grove Music Online as "the process of modifying a theme so that in a new context it is different but yet manifestly made of the same elements."

You can hear that most prominently in the long Moderato first movement in which the seminal theme is played softly in the low strings. Over the ensuing 25 minutes or so it rises to a series of progressively more intense climaxes "succeeding one another," as Richard Freed writes in his notes for the SLSO's 1987 recording, "with a Sophoclean sense of inevitability." At times the volume level achieve rock concert intensity--something to bear in mind if you live in an apartment or listen with headphone.

The short Allegro second movement, with its relentless manic energy, was described by the composer as "a musical portrait of Stalin," according to Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov's 1979 "Testimony" (the book's credibility has been questioned, but that quote sounds plausible). The Allegretto third movement is a dance of death, ending with a plaintive statement of the main theme on solo violin.

The Andante; Allegro final movement begins softly, much as the first movement did, but about a third of the way through the mood changes abruptly with a perky theme in the woodwinds. The clouds begin to lift, the sun slowly appears, and the work ends in a glow of hopeful triumph.

The symphony is, in short, a portrait of life in the dark shadow of a frenzied autocrat, ending with a hope for better times after the shadow has passed.

It's a shame we won't get to hear Maestro Denève's take on this piece. The last time the SLSO played it, under David Robertson, the results were stunning. Still, the SLSO has picked a fine performance by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for you on Spotify, and there's a YouTube video with a synchronized display of the score performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under Kirill Kondrashin if you want to dig deeper into the music. You can't go wrong either way.

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

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Symphony Notes, Part 1: The play's the thing

I'm writing this week's edition of "Symphony Notes" in two parts because, first of all, there were two different St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) programs originally scheduled for May 1-3, and second, because the first of the two planned concerts was unusual, if not unique.

Maurice Ravel in 1925
That first concert, originally scheduled for Friday May 1st only, was "Maurice Ravel: A Musical Journey". The SLSO described it as "a symphonic play, in collaboration with playwright Didi Balle. The program traces the life of the French composer and pianist through his music, performed by the SLSO and featuring the Jean-Paul and Isabelle Montupet Artist-in-Residence Jean-Yves Thibaudet."

In a 2019 interview with me, SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève described the piece as "informative" with "a great sense of drama":
So it's really a very good balance. And I'm really very proud of this project because it's a multimedia project with projections, actors, and soloists. So you have a journey into themes connected with Ravel's music and it's very unique as an art form. It's not a concert and it's not a play, it's something in-between. I think it will be fun to bring that here.

The audience will hear a lot of Ravel's music. There will be an actor on stage [Scott Lowell] who actually looks quite a lot like Ravel. They can expect to learn a lot about the context and really enjoy it because it's full of emotion. It's all about the great mystery of the relationship between the work of a man and the man himself. It's always interesting to see the reality of the human being behind so many masterworks. Sometimes, since we play so many pieces from the past, we forget this link, which I think is fascinating.
Scott Lowell
Photo: Joanna DeGeneres
"Maurice Ravel: A Musical Journey" is so new that there are, as far as I can tell, no audio or video recordings of it available. What we do have is a Spotify playlist created by the SLSO that at least gives you an idea of which Ravel works would have been on the program. For the most part, it reads like a "Ravel's greatest hits" list, albeit without "Bolero."

Which some of you will possibly see as a big plus.

But seriously, folks: the list includes the second of the two suites from Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloé" ballet, a suite from his 1911 ballet "Ma mère l'Oye" ("Mother Goose"), the Piano Concerto for Left Hand (written in 1929-1930 for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right hand in the war), and the 1910 orchestral version of his 1899 solo piano piece "Pavane pour une infante défunte."

You'll often see that last one translated as "Pavane for a Dead Princess," implying something funereal, but Ravel actually described it as "an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court." Just an evocation of the past, not a dirge.

It is, in any case, a wonderful collection of stuff and worth a listen even without the play. There is also, oddly, a somewhat different playlist for this same play posted to YouTube in 2019. I'm assuming the SLSO's is a more accurate reflection of what we would have heard on the 4th.

Playwright Balle, I should note, has written several other works of what she calls "classical music theatre," including "The Spirits of St. Louis." Her web site describes this as "A Symphonic Horror for Halloween" and says it was commissioned and performed by the SLSO under Marin Alsop, although some time with Professor Google failed to turn up any mention of an actual performance.

Pour a glass or two of a French wine (from the Basque region if you can, since that's where Ravel was born) and enjoy the music. One can rarely go wrong with Ravel.

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Symphony Notes: As Cole Porter wrote, 'why don't we try staying home?'

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's (SLSO) season may have been cut short by the COVID-19 crisis, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy some of the music scheduled for the next several weeks at home.

The concerts originally scheduled for this weekend (April 24-26) would have featured works that were inspired by folk and popular music from their respective composers' home countries. The program would have consisted of the "Romanian Rhapsody No. 2 by George Enescu, the Violin Concerto in D by contemporary American composer William Bolcom, and Dvořák's popular Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 94, subtitled "From the New World." That gives us music from Romania, The USA, and the USA as experienced by one of the Czech Republic's most famous composers.

George Enescu in 1930
By E. Joaillier, Paris (photographer)
Bibliothèque nationale de France,
Public Domain, Link
If you don't have recordings of all of those pieces readily at hand, fear not; the SLSO has put together a free Spotify playlist of the complete concert that will enable you to recreate the experience right at home, albeit with different performers. It's the ideal listening companion to this article.

Your home concert opens with the "Romanian Rhapsody No. 2." Composed in 1901 and first performed as a set in 1903, Enescu's two Romanian Rhapsodies are probably his best-known works outside of his native land. He was a prolific composer, though, who produced five symphonies, a number of orchestral works, one opera, and a large volume of chamber music. In Romania, in fact, he's so highly regarded that the airport of the city of Bacău was recently renamed the George Enescu International Airport. In Bucharest, there's an Enescu Museum in the Cantacuzino Palace and an annual George Enescu Music Festival presented by the Symphony Orchestra of Bucharest.

The first and second rhapsodies both draw heavily on Romanian folk tunes despite their sharply contrasting moods. The First Rhapsody is the more popular of the two with its faster tempo and lively dances and slam-bang finish. The Second Rhapsody is lyrical, emphasizing song rather than dance.

Based largely on the 19th-century ballad "Pe o stîncă neagră, într-un vechi castel" ("On a dark rock, in an old castle"), the work begins with a soft, warm declaration of the tune in the strings that gradually builds to a full-throated declaration by the orchestra. A minor-key solo on the English horn leads to a more reflective moment or two before building to another grand orchestral declaration. The dance tune, "Sîrba lui Pompieru" ("Sîrba of the Fireman") makes a brief appearance, but it's played by only a handful of strings, as though the party were taking place in another room, or just in one's memory. A brief recollection of the big dance theme from the first rhapsody follows before everything fades out with a last little flute solo marked "très long, extrêment lent" ("very long, extremely slow").

Why are the dynamic marking in French? Probably because both the First and Second Rhapsodies, drenched though they are in Romanian song and dance, were actually composed in Paris, where Enescu would eventually move after World War II and the Soviet occupation of Romania. The first performance of both works, though, took place in Bucharest with the composer at the podium.

William Bolcom
Photo: Katryn Conlin
Up next on your playlist is the Bolcom Violin Concerto. It counts, I suppose, as "new music," although considering that it was written back in 1983,"new" is only relative. It is, in any case, great fun--a thoroughly enjoyable tribute to American popular music in the first few decades of the 20th century.

The concerto was written expressly for noted virtuoso Sergiu Luca, (born in Bucharest, which gives us a tenuous link back to Enescu) who was at the time "reveling in his newly-acquired jazz technique," according to Derek Bremel the Music Director of the American Composers Orchestra:
Inspired by the playing of the great jazz violinist Joe Venuti (a contemporary of Gershwin with whom Bolcom once jammed), the work is a true hybrid, combining bluesy lyricism with pulsating rhythms and more than a hint of crunchy chromaticism and polytonal clusters. Bolcom is a master orchestrator; just listen to the way he contrasts the colors of winds and strings in the gorgeously lush and moody second movement.
William Bolcom, for those of you who unfamiliar with the name, is an impressively eclectic composer and performer whose work often bridges (and even completely obliterates) the line between "popular" and "classical" music. His operas and concert works have been performed all over the world, but he has also written cabaret songs and piano rags. With his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, he has recorded many wonderful discs of American popular songs, ranging from Vaudeville-era tunes to the songs of rock and roll pioneers Leiber and Stoller.

It's no surprise, then, that Bolcom's violin concerto is strongly colored by the sounds of ragtime and the kind of "hot jazz" that was pioneered by Venuti, whose career flourished in the 1920s and '30. You can hear that almost immediately in the syncopated, ragtime-style melody on the solo violin that opens the first movement. That shortly gives way to a shorter and more agitated theme that eventually explodes into an angry orchestral outburst. A short virtuoso cadenza for the soloist leads to a kind of drunken waltz melody that returns us, in the final measures, to that original ragtime dance.

The second movement has its anguished moments as well, beginning with a dissonant lament in the winds, but for the most part it's dominated by a tender theme that feels like it wants to turn into a romantic 1940s ballad but never quite makes the transition. Another brief cadenza leads without pause to the lively finale where, as Mr. Bremel notes, the solo line "includes many of Venuti's signature inflections--including sliding sixths and alternating left- and right-hand pizzicato (string plucking)." There are definitely toe-tapping moments here and times when you'll be tempted to hum along with the soloist--which is not something I often find myself saying about newer music.

David Halen would have been the soloist this weekend and it's a pity we won't get to hear him play the piece, but you can at least take solace in the fact that the soloist in the SLSO's Spotify playlist is none other that Sergiu Luca himself, backed up by Mr. Bremel's American Composers Orchestra under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies. And if you don't do Spotify, you can watch a video of a performance by Benjamin Schmid with the Spanish Radio and Television Orchestra, conducted by Carlos Kalmar, courtesy of classical radio station WQXR.

William Bolcom has local connection, by the way. His "Session I" and Symphony No. 4 were recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the SLSO back in 1988. The symphony was commissioned by Slatkin and the SLSO, whose performance of it on March 13th, 1987, was the world premiere.

Dvořák with his friends and family in New York
By Photographer's original name unknown -
www.musicwithease.com,
Public Domain, Link
The Dvořák Ninth closes our virtual visit to Powell Hall. The Czech master wrote it during a visit to America in the early 1890s, and while he never explicitly quotes any American folk material, there's still something about this music that strongly suggests America. From the flute theme in the first movement that seems to echo "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," to the second movement Largo that has (at least for me) always evoked the majestic solitude of the plains (Dvořák said he wrote it after reading Longfellow's "Hiawatha"), to the "bluesy" flatted seventh chords of the finale, Dvořák's "New World" symphony just shouts "USA"--even if it does so with a strong Czech accent.

Some critics have complained of the symphony's structural weaknesses and its episodic nature, but even they have had to confess that it's never anything less than tremendously appealing. It's one of the first "classical" works I ever encountered (in a memorable recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic), and I've never lost my affection for it.

The SLSO last performed it in 2014 in what I called a "world class" interpretation by David Robertson. The performance the SLSO has curated for you on Spotify--by the Berlin Philharmonic under Rafael Kubelik--is also a fine piece of work. Those of you with Amazon Prime can hear it for free there as well as part of a complete set of Dvořák symphonies.

The regular SLSO season is scheduled to resume in September. Until then, you can still stay in touch with them at the SLSO Stories web site where, among other things, you can see and hear SLSO musicians performing for you from their homes.

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