Tuesday, March 31, 2020

"For me, it starts with a vision": Part 4 of a conversation with Stéphane Denève

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) may have suspended its current season because of the COVID-19 threat, but the 2020/2021 season is scheduled to go forward as usual. In February, I sat down with SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève to talk about the new season. Here's the fourth and last installment of that four-part conversation, with minor edits for clarity.

CL (Chuck Lavazzi): What other things in the upcoming season are you really excited about and that we haven't touched on yet?

Hilary Hahn
SD (Stéphane Denève): I have never spent so much time with any other orchestra putting together a season as I have here. With most other orchestras you're just responsible for your own concerts and don't do the rest. But here there's a feeling that you need to address every community. So I'm excited by every program. Because you have to combine so many different ideas and put it all together in a way that makes sense. So I just love every program.

Of course, the two-week "His Story. Her Story. Our Future." concert pair in November is very meaningful. I hope there will be a lot of interaction with the audience on that.

[Note: Per the SLSO press release, "History. Her Story. Our Future." explores influential historical female figures through works including John Adams's "Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance" from Golden Girls of the West, Berlioz's The Death of Cleopatra, Saint-Saëns' Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah, selections from Bizet's opera Carmen, "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Strauss's opera Salome, Schmitt's The Tragedy of Salome Suite, and the SLSO's first performances of Arthur Honegger's monumental oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake. The festival also will include talks, special events, and additional concerts: SLSO Crafted, Live at the Pulitzer, the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra--all designed to encourage a dialogue with audiences to help understand the past and shape the future."]

One thing we didn't speak about is the number of great soloists next season. We start the season with [violinist] Hilary Hahn and we have big names like [pianist] Leif Ove Andsnes. And we have current friends of the orchestra like [pianists] Emanuel Ax, Kirill Gerstein, and Hélène Grimaud. Also five musicians from our orchestra will be featured.

Beatrice Rana
CL: One name I was especially happy to see on the roster was Beatrice Rana. I saw her at the Cliburn Competition and I thought she should have taken first place, personally.

SD: Well, competitions are always unfair one way or another. But, yeah, she's great. I'm happy she is making her debut here. She is also making a European debut in Brussels. So I will collaborate with her a lot next season. I hope this will be the start of a relationship with the orchestra.

CL: And she's doing the Prokofiev Third Concerto, which is just a beast of a piece to play.

SD: Yes, it's impossible, but she can do it. I recently listened to her recording of the Prokofiev Second Concerto and it's really good. She can really play.

Another thing I'm proud about as well with the next season is that in spite of being so focused on the narrative and the theme there's still something for everyone. There are great symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven's Second and Fifth symphonies, and the Mahler Third. You have the big pieces that everybody loves like Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and Stravinsky's "Firebird." But they're always paired with some new music.

[Note: the program includes 19 new pieces, 18 of which will be local premieres.]

And James Macmillan, who is a friend of mine, is coming here to conduct a program of his own music. So all the big pieces are there but when we do "Scheherazade," for example, we will pair it with a new piece by Tan Dun ["Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women"]. It's a very special multi-media piece. It will include Chinese women singing on-screen and interacting with the orchestra and with harp soloist Allegra Lilly. It's a beautiful piece.

CL: That sounds very challenging to produce.

SD: Yeah, it is, but Tan Dun is very smart. He knows how to put things together and he's very good with technology.

Composer Tan Dun
CL: You were talking earlier about assembling the season. What is that process like? How do you do that? Do you get a lot of input from other people?

SD: It's complicated because every season is a different process. For me it starts with a vision of a general theme. And that theme was very clear for me, as I said before, because it comes from the DNA of the orchestra.

When I got hired, I tried to learn about the orchestra. I read about Vladimir Golschmann [SLSO Music Director from 1931 to 1958, the symphony's longest-serving MD] and the different Music Directors over the years. I read and analyzed every program for the last 30 years just to understand the history. I learned many things and one of them was what happened with equality in this orchestra and how it was definitely a leader in that area. So that's what inspired me for the season.

Then it becomes a complicated process. Some you think of [snaps fingers] like that. And some are maybe great but the soloist you want is not free and without that soloist you don't want to do that piece. Or the chorus can do this piece but not that week and so on.

CL: So, a lot of moving parts that all have to be put together.

SD: It's a jigsaw puzzle for sure. And sometimes it's very frustrating because you dream something and then just one details doesn't allow you to do it, so you have to be creative. So this problem often forces you to think "out of the box," but it's great when everything comes together.

I work a lot with [SLSO Vice President-Artistic and Operations] Erik Finley, my "partner in crime," and also with [SLSO President and CEO] Marie-Hélène Bernard who knows a lot about music and is very opinionated, so we discuss a lot about music discuss all of that together. She lets us be very free but she also has a big point of view so we collaborate.

And then suddenly when a program comes together, it's like "yes!" It's very exciting. You feel like you stage a story and then suddenly, boom, it happens.

I really hope the audience will enjoy each concert and that they will be curious to see the resonance among all the different programs. For me curiosity is key, to have people curious for more.

CL: So, engaging them and getting them to think, "well, I liked this, so I wonder what I'll think of that."

SD: Exactly, yes.

As this is being written, the SLSO season is on hiatus because of a COVID-19 lockdown. For current information, visit the SLSO web site.

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

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Charisma and the chorus: Part 3 of a conversation with Stéphane Denève

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) may have suspended its current season because of the COVID-19 threat, but the 2020/2021 season is scheduled to go forward as usual. In February, I sat down with SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève to talk about the new season. Here's part 3 of that four-part conversation, with minor edits for clarity.

Nicola Benedetti
CL (Chuck Lavazzi): I wanted to talk a bit about the Artist-in-Residence next season, Nicola Benedetti. Why did you choose her and what do you think she'll bring to the season?

SD (Stéphane Denève): For many reasons, actually. I would say the first one is because she is a great violinist and I have known her for many years.

We met around 17 years ago. She was very young, around 16 or 17 when we first met, and I have seen her grow into her career and become an international artist. She's very famous now.

And she is a very special personality. She's very warm, to start with, and she has a special charisma. She's very well spoken and engaging. I used to live in Scotland and she's from there; she's half Scottish and half Italian. And she has the best of both worlds, I would say. She has this kind of romantic Italian blood and she also has this very friendly, well-educated Scottish style.

She does a lot for education. She has the Benedetti Foundation, for example. She's not as famous as Jean-Yves Thibaudet [the current Artist-in-Residence], so I think it's an opportunity for people to get to know her here.

CL: So she's a great artist and also is doing outreach.

SD: Yes, and that's important in the position of Artist-in-Residence, where you do more than just coming for the concert, where you really interact with the orchestra and also with other activities, like education and playing chamber music.

CL: Let's talk about the chorus for a bit. You have some really interesting things planned for them next season.

SD: Yes, they really know I love voices. You know, I used to be more of an opera conductor at the start of my career, and now it's the opposite, I do almost all symphonic conducting, because I have a daughter now and I don't want to be too far from her while she's growing up.

Amy Kaiser
Photo: Gerry Love
I love the chorus here. They're very good, a very high level chorus, both the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and the IN UNISON chorus. It's a very big luxury to have two of them. That will let us do some very special pieces that have never been performed here before. The really big thing is [Honegger's] "Joan of Arc at the Stake"--"Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher"--because that's a real event. It's a huge oratorio for actors, singers, adult chorus, children's chorus. It's a huge piece and it's epic. And the subject is very special. I recorded this piece, actually, with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. At the end, if you don't cry, I'll pay you back!

CL: And it's going to involve some staging?

SD: Yes, with James Robinson. So that's a big event for me. And then there is the big piece at the end of the season, [Puccini's] "Turandot." I'm very excited that we will have Christine Goerke, who is an old friend of mine.

CL: Yes, I saw her last summer at the Tanglewood Festival in "Die Walküre," and she was very impressive.

SD: So "Turandot" will end the season with a blast because it's a very cool opera.

And speaking of the chorus, I'm also excited to be doing the last scene from Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carmélites" ("Dialogues of the Carmelites") and the "Stabat Mater," which has never been sung here. Which is weird because it's really a masterwork. I have also recorded that.

CL: Yes, Poulenc is another composer we really don't hear from as often as we should. You mentioned the IN UNISON chorus, and they're going to be part of the regular season for the first time in ten years.

Kevin McBeth
SD: Yes, I am very pleased to present a new piece that was composed for them. The composer isn't listed in the season brochure because they were still working on the contracts when it was printed, but her name is Nathalie Joachim. I worked with her in Philadelphia and she's very creative. I glad she is going to come here and really tailor the piece to the chorus. It will be at the end of the season on the same program with the Dvorak [Symphony No. 9] and the Florence Price [Symphony No. 3]. She writes a lot for voices because she's a singer herself, and she may even sing as well here.

I'm glad to be working with the IN UNISON chorus because I conducted them at the beginning of the season in Forest Park and it was great, very beautiful. I also love Kevin McBeth [the director of the IN UNISON chorus]. He has been here for ten years and [St. Louis Symphony Chorus Director] Amy Kaiser for 26.

CL: Another thing I wanted to bring up was the New Year's Eve concert. You conducted last year's concert, which my wife and I enjoyed immensely. But the 2020 concert will be conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

SD: Yes, that's for family reasons. I need to spend the holiday with my in-laws. So I won't be conducting it every year. But 2019 was my first one and I really enjoyed it a lot. The mood was very special. It was a very gala feeling and everybody was so well dressed. It was a full house, good energy, great fun. I hope you liked the concert.

CL: I did. I really liked the "New Year's Eve around the world" concept, but it was also very Viennese, with the "Radetzky March" and "Blue Danube" at the end.


Next: What's new and notable in the coming season and how assembling a symphony season is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with moving parts.

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

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Good music and good wine: Part 2 of a conversation with Stéphane Denève

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) may have suspended its current season because of the COVID-19 threat, but the 2020/2021 season is scheduled to go forward as usual. In February, I sat down with SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève to talk about the new season. Here's part 2 of that conversation, with minor edits for clarity.

CL (Chuck Lavazzi): I was looking at some of the outreach initiatives for next season, like "Stéphane's Seats," which offers a block of free seats for community partners at each of the concerts you lead.

Powell Symphony Hall
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
SD (Stéphane Denève): Yes, I'm very happy that I can invite some people at every concert. Usually I meet those people before the concert, actually, including young musicians and music educators. It's a great thing for me to know for whom I'm making music.

That's one of the reasons I speak to the audience before the concert. It's to have this feeling of who is in the room and to say, "Hey, I'm here to celebrate the music and share it with you." This is a great thing, because they are not far from me and there's a feeling of proximity and of being in a friendly circle somehow. So this is very touching for me and I treasure the "Stéphane's Seats" program.

CL: There's a similar sort of intimate connection in the "Crafted" series, the casual happy-hour concerts that connect listeners more closely to the stories behind music.

SD: Yes, we will expand that. And once again, it's about being festive and being easy. You know I have a lot of dinners with different people, donors and so on, and I always ask, "How do you choose concerts" and "why do you come?" And I'm surprised, even today, at how many people seem to be a little bit nervous about the ceremonial aspect of our concerts.

Of course, we have this grand hall, and that's great. It's fantastic that we have this kind of beautiful cathedral. But on top of that there is a feeling that there are codes of conduct that people may not know and not understand. And my message is always to come as you are. If you have time to read our program notes and other information on line, but if you can't nobody will make you feel bad. Certainly not me.

A lot of people, to feel at ease, they really want to know that there's at least one piece on the program that they really feel comfortable with, and they choose concerts based on that. And I would like, little by little, to get people used to the idea that there will always be something that they will enjoy, even if they don't know the program or the soloist or the conductor. I want our programming to be strong enough so that people feel that a night at the symphony is a successful night, an enriching night, a transforming night. That it's not just about seeing a familiar piece like the Beethoven Fifth Symphony.

So it's about being accessible, inclusive, and just putting people at ease. And I really hope we can achieve that. "Crafted" is exactly about that.

CL: Because there's music, food, and drink.

SD: Yes, so there is fun. And people can also have an extended explanation of the piece, so they can prepare their ears to hear it, so they can enjoy it more.

It's very simple. If we have dinner together and I open a really nice bottle of wine, I will want you to have at least as much pleasure as I have from this bottle, if not more. So before I even poured, I'd say, "this wine comes from there, and it has this kind of taste, and I discovered it this way." So you would have a narrative about it, and the way you tasted the wine would be different, because you would take more time, you would smell it longer, you would enjoy it more.

CL: Because you know more going in to the experience.

Stéphane Denève
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
SD: Yes, and I think it's the same with music. I mean, if you drink the wine without knowing anything and you are a sensitive person you would enjoy it. But I'm absolutely sure that knowing more would enable you to enjoy it more and even change the way you enjoy it.

It's the same recipe with this "Crafted" series. It helps people to enjoy the music more and puts them in a more festive mood. The first one we did was a total success. There was lots of good energy. I spoke for about 15 minutes about the Brahms Fourth Symphony and showed some excerpts. It was fun and a good "happy hour" feeling.

[Note: the next "Crafted" event is May 8th featuring Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." As this is being written the event is still on the schedule. A complete list of cancelled or postponed events is available at the SLSO web site.]

CL: That reminds me of your presence on the podium. You always come in and talk to the audience first. It's like saying, "Welcome to Powell Hall, welcome to my home." It makes people feel welcome and included and there's less of a formal or stuffy atmosphere just because of that.

SD: I love it. For me it's a "win-win" as they say because it helps me feel the energy in the hall and just be in tune and in synch. And for me it's just very normal.

I think I didn't do it only once and that was for Mahler Two [Mahler's Symphony No. 2, known as the "Resurrection" symphony]. And that's because the start of Mahler Two is so dramatic and I didn't want to disturb this for people who know it. And somehow in Mahler Two you feel you're exploring a new world and I'm exploring it with you. So I really cannot speak about it before.

So there will be some occasions when I will not speak, but usually I so love it.


Next: Artist in Residence Nicola Benedetti and big plans for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus.

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

Thursday, March 19, 2020

"Genius has no gender": Part 1 of a conversation with Stéphane Denève.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) may have suspended its current season because of the COVID-19 threat, but the 2020/2021 season is scheduled to go forward as usual. In February, I sat down with SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève to talk about the new season. Here's part 1 of that conversation, with minor edits for clarity.


Stéphane Denève
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
CL (Chuck Lavazzi): I was looking through the season press release and the first word that came to my mind was "innovation." The SLSO has certainly been doing innovative and different programming over the years, and like every orchestra, has been doing community outreach and looking to attract a younger audience and an audience that doesn't often come to the concerts. It seems to me that the 20/21 season really hits those targets.

SD (Stéphane Denève): Yes, it's fascinating to make a season in America. It's my second season as music director, and it's such a jigsaw puzzle. There are so many things you have to think about. For me the most important thing is to respect a variety of styles. It's like a bouquet with many types of flowers.
I feel as an artist that I'm not just a museum curator--just respecting the pieces from the past. We are doing live performance art, so I want to give the audience a fresh take. I love communication and I want this season to amplify the communication between the audience and myself. I feel kind of at home now here, so this is something that is the start of a dialog.

CL: I know one of the things a lot of people have been talking about is the prominence in the new season of women composers and music about women. What prompted you to do that?

Gemma New
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
SD: Well, I noticed that the world of the classical symphony orchestra is changing and I more than welcome it, because more equality was long overdue. And I look at the DNA of this orchestra and notice that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is one of the first major orchestras to be composed of more women than men. Also our resident conductor is a woman [Gemma New], our CEO is a woman [Marie-Helene Bernard], our Chorus Master is a woman [Amy Kaiser], and some of our Principal players have been women. So I saw it as a way of celebrating this.

This season is a way of saying that the world is changing, we are making it better, and let's try to elevate voices that need to be elevated while maintaining the highest standards. Thirty years ago when I was first starting out as a professional musician it would have been impossible to program a season like this with so many female composers and conductors, but now it's the new normality. Nobody thinks about how many musicians in the orchestra are female.

CL: It's taken for granted.

SD: Yes, it's taken for granted. And now the next thing is to take for granted equality with composers of today. We won't change the past but we can change the future and shape it, and it's happening.

CL: Speaking of composers of today, I know the last time we talked you described the kind of contemporary music you wanted to present, and the kind of newer works you have been presenting have been very appealing, at least from my point of view. They've had real emotional content.

SD: Thank you. I have to say the feedback so far has been extremely encouraging. Many of the new pieces I have brought this season have had a very warm welcome. People are saying the music is very melodic, very emotional, very involving at first hearing. And that is without compromising at all because it's all music that I'm very passionate about and that I love to conduct.

I hope all the audience is reconnecting to the idea that it's good to discover something new. It may move you to tears like the good old Tchaikovsky 6th. It's a simple idea, but it's just a matter of selecting music that I hope will be shared by many people.

Composer Florent Schmitt
By Eugène Pirou (1841 - 1909)
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Public Domain, Link
CL: I was also noticing that there are some works in the new season that are not brand new but that aren't often heard. I was happy to see "La tragédie de Salomé" by Florent Schmitt, for example, because you so rarely see any of his work.

SD: It's funny, actually, what makes some composers disappear and reappear. For some composers it's really unfair, and he is one of those--like Zemlinski and Roussel. Honegger is another of those who was very famous before the Second World War and then became less played--I don't know why.

But with the Florent Schmitt, I'm very pleased because not only is it a great, exciting symphonic poem but on top of that it's very important. Because without it, there would be no "Rite of Spring." "La tragédie de Salomé" was dedicated to Stravinsky and was really an inspiration for him. I wouldn't say he copied it, because it was just in the air and Stravinsky loved that piece.

We will also play "La peri" by Dukas--the full ballet, not just the fanfare.

CL: Yes, it's a lovely piece and I'm really looking forward to hearing it and other things in the late 19th/early 20th century French repertoire. I was listening to Chausson's B-flat major symphony on the way over here and thinking it would fun to hear that live.

SD: Yes, Chausson was a great French symphonist, also Albéric Magnard, Guy Ropartz, and D'Indy.

CL: Yes, the "Symphony on a French Mountain Air!"

SD: Yes, Jean-Yves Thibaudet said he wanted to play that with me someday.

CL: Something for the future then, I guess. I was also glad to see one of my favorite Dvorak symphonies on the schedule, the Eighth.

Florence Price
Photo: florenceprice.org
SD: Yes, coupled with the Symphony No. 3 by Florence Price. When he visited the USA, Dvorak said the music of America should be based on the Negro spirituals and therefore jazz, which you hear in her symphony. She has really a special voice of her own, and I wanted to couple it with Dvorak. We couldn't do the Ninth because we just did it recently.

CL: I was kind of disappointed that there was no Clara Wieck on the program.

SD: Yes, but we have Fanny Mendelssohn and there are so many others. Who knows what Alma Mahler might have written if her husband hadn't forbidden her to compose? We do have the proof now that it was because the music world was so dominated by men that didn't allow women to express themselves. Now you see female composers on an equal footing with men. And I think it's a very good thing that we see that genius has no gender.


Next: "Stéphane's Seats," the "Crafted Series," and other ways to be festive.

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

Sunday, March 15, 2020

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of March 16, 2020


Note that this list of events is current as of Sunday, March 15th. I recommend checking the web site of any event before attending in case of a cancellation. Or, better yet, call them, because I'm not sure how diligent all these groups are about updating their web sites.

First Run Theatre presents the 2020 Play Reading Festival Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, March 21 and 22. Performances take place at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive in Clayton. For more information, call (314) 352-5114 or visit www.firstruntheatre.com.

Laka
The Blue Strawberry presents Laka in The Blue in Me on Thursday, March 19, at 8 pm. "Take a journey through decades of chart topping music as Laka shares a wide variety of her musical influences. Songs will range from "nice and easy", inspired by artists such as Billie Holiday to "nice and rough", like the powerhouse that is Tina Turner. Experience the glamour of Old Hollywood intertwined with the soul the 60's birthed! This will be a show to remember!" The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

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.

The Blue Strawberry presents Elsie Parker and the Poor People of Paris in Falling in Love Again on Sunday, March 22, at 7 pm. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

Flanagan's Wake
Photo by John Flack
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presents the interactive comedy Flanagan's Wake running through March 21. "The hit show from Chicago, Flanagan's Wake, is the hilarious interactive show that brings Flanagan's Irish family to St. Louis where they will memorialize his passing. Audiences participate in this comedic memorial with plenty o' pints, crazy sing-a-longs, telling of witty tales and mourn the passing of one of their own: Flanagan. Audiences will pay their respects to glowering Mother Flanagan and to poor grieving fiancée, Fiona Finn. Listen to a eulogy written by County Sligo's best-known writer, Mickey Finn, and tip a pint with Brian Ballybunion, himself a weaver of tales. You can cross yourself with the blessings from St. Gregory's parish priest, Father Damon Fitzgerald, or cross your fingers that local pagan Kathleen Mooney doesn't cast a spell on you. Mayor Martin O'Doul will preside over the proceedings with an iron hand (and a parched throat)." The Playhouse at Westport Plaza is at 635 West Port Plaza. For more information: playhouseatwestport.com.

Head Over Heels
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre presents the musical Head Over Heels Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM through March 28. "HEAD OVER HEELS is the bold, sexy new musical comedy from the visionaries that rocked Broadway with American Idiot, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Avenue Q and Spring Awakening. Conceived by Jeff Whitty, with an original book by Whitty, adapted by James Magruder, originally directed by Michael Mayer, based on a novel from 1580 (not kidding!) and set to the music of the iconic 1980s all-girl rock band The Go-Go's, this subversive, high-octane, laugh-out-loud love story includes hit songs like, "We Got the Beat," "Our Lips Are Sealed," "Vacation," "Heaven is a Place on Earth" and "Mad About You." The wild story follows the escapades of a royal family who set out on a journey to save their beloved kingdom from extinction -- only to discover the key to their realm's survival lies within each of their own hearts. . . though not always in the way they expect. . . and in their willingness to let go of rigid tradition and change with the times." 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.

Alton Little Theater presents the comedy Holy Laughter Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, March 20-29. "HOLY LAUGHTER (Comedy) by Catherine Trieschmann/ Directed by Gail Drillinger - All Communities have their eccentricities, but none more hilarious than St. Michael's Episcopal Church. A young female priest and her congregation manage to find joy amidst the strife of daily life and the struggling congregation finds new comic heights when they embrace the changing waves of faith." Performances take place at 2450 North Henry in Alton, IL. For more information, call 618-462-6562 or visit altonlittletheater.org.

The Looking Glass Playhouse presents the comedy It's Only a Play Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through March 22. " It's opening night of Peter Austin's new play as he anxiously awaits to see if his show is a hit. With his career on the line, he shares his big First Night with his "best" friend, a television star, his novice producer, his doped-up diva, his genius director, a lethal drama critic, and a fresh-off-the-bus coat check attendant on his first night in Manhattan. It's alternately raucous, ridiculous and tender-and proves that sometimes the biggest laughs happen offstage." Performances take place at 301 West St. Louis Street in Lebanon, Ill. For more information, visit www.lookingglassplayhouse.com.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry through April 26. "Millions of people flock to the Grand Ole Opry House to see Tammy Whino's one woman show, "Stand By Your Man." Here, amid the fried chicken, line dancing and dinner theatre, Tammy is the Queen of the Grand Ole Opry. Or is she? When she is found murdered, many suspect the Phantom because everyone knows the house is haunted. Or could the murderer be Billy Ray Serious, Naomi Dudd, and we can't forget about Nelson Willy?" For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com.

Clayton Community Theatre presents the comedy The Philadelphia Story Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through March 22. "The 1940 film stared Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart based on the Broadway play of the same name by Philip Barry. The story is about Philadelphia socialite, Tracy Lord, whose wedding plans are complicated by the arrival of both her ex-husband and a magazine journalist. The socialite character of the play was inspired by Helen Hope Montgomery Scott (1904-1995), a Philadelphia socialite known for her hijinks, who married a friend of the playwright Barry." a popular genre in the 1930's-1940's. Performances take place at the Washington University South Campus Theatre. For more information, call 314-721-9228 or visit placeseveryone.org.

Lion's Paw Theatre Company presents Plays on the Menu, a lunchtime play reading series, on Tuesday and Wednesday, March 17 and 18, at noon at The Hearth Room at The Hawken House, 1155 South Rock Hill Road. The readings include lunch. For more information: lionspawtheatre.org.

KTK Productions presents the rock musical Return to the Forbidden Planet Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through March 22. "Fasten your seatbelts, return your tray tables to the upright position and prepare to blast off! In this Olivier-award-winning musical, the many works of Shakespeare are aligned with a fabulous rock 'n' roll score to create a fun-filled, jiving-in-the-aisles musical. Loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempestand the 1956 sci-fi classic film Forbidden Planet, Return to the Forbidden Planet finds a spaceship, helmed by Captain Tempest, making an emergency landing on the uncharted planet D'Illyria. The only residents there are the mad scientist Doctor Prospero, his daughter Miranda, and their robot Ariel. They were banished into hyperspace when Miranda was just a baby, and she has known no other world than this. Featuring rock 'n'roll hits of the 50s and 60s ("Great Balls of Fire", "The Monster Mash", "Good Vibrations", and others), a B-movie atmosphere, and dialogue in iambic pentameter, Return to the Forbidden Planet is Shakespeare's unwritten rock 'n' roll masterpiece. Throw in a roller-skating robot, unrequited love, and a scary space monster, and you've got one groovy show." Performances take place at St. John the Baptist Church, 4200 Delor. For more information: kurtainkall.org or call 314-351-8984.

The St. Louis Writers' Group presents a reading of Screens by David Hawley Monday, March 16, at 6:30 pm. "Nadine and Ben have planned a nice dinner at their apartment, for a few friends. The trouble is, everyone is looking at screens, so Nadine suggests a game: anyone can use their phone, but the calls texts, emails and pictures have to be shared with the whole group. After all, they have been close friends for years. Maybe some embarrassing stuff will come out, but that's the fun part. Nobody has any real secrets...? Note that this play explores some adult themes with occasional strong language." The event takes place upstairs at Big Daddy's, 1000 Sidney in Soulard. For more information: www.stlwritersgroup.com.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents the musical The Trail to Oregon! Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, March 18-22. "Set in the 1840s, The Trail To Oregon! follows the All-American, dysfunctional family as they set off from Independence, Missouri to head out west in search of a new life in the greatest place on earth… Oregon! What the clueless pioneers don't count on is that they'll have to face every obstacle imaginable along the way, from snake-bites, to bandits, to dysentery! It's the original cross-country road trip... from hell! Loosely inspired by the popular, retro computer game, 'The Oregon Trail,' this raucous, raunchy, musical spoof features 6 performers, 13 songs, multiple possible endings, and a heaping helping of audience participation that ensures no two performances of will ever be the same! " Performances take place in the Dunham Hall Theatre on the campus in Edwardsvile, IL. For more information, call 618-650-2774 or visit www.siue.edu.

We Are the Levinsons
Photo by Greg Lazerwitz
New Jewish Theater presents We Are the Levinsons Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, March 19 - April 5. "We are the Levinsons is a genuinely funny play that, without question, tugs at our heart. It centers on Rosie, a divorced fiftyish TV writer with an insufferable 21 year-old daughter, who suddenly finds herself responsible for her father's care. This thoughtful and earnest play delves into some difficult but universal passages of life. We all must give up the insolence of youth and take on the mantle of adulthood. Along the way are opportunities to love and to pursue our dreams. We are the Levinsons teaches us how we should cherish these moments with tenderness and with laughter." 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.

Ignite Theatre Company presents the musical The Wizard of Oz: Young People's Version Thursday and Friday at 7 pm Saturday at noon and 7 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, March 19-22. " A one-hour adaptation of the RSC version of Baum's classic tale, specially designed for young performers." Performances take place at The Grandel Theatre in Grand Center. For more information: ignitewithus.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.
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.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of Friday 13, 2020

This list has not been vetted for cancellations, but since both of these shows take place in small spaces that aren't included in the current ban on events of 1,000 people or more, they are likely a safe bet.

New This Week:

Head Over Heels
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre presents the musical Head Over Heels Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM through March 28. "HEAD OVER HEELS is the bold, sexy new musical comedy from the visionaries that rocked Broadway with American Idiot, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Avenue Q and Spring Awakening. Conceived by Jeff Whitty, with an original book by Whitty, adapted by James Magruder, originally directed by Michael Mayer, based on a novel from 1580 (not kidding!) and set to the music of the iconic 1980s all-girl rock band The Go-Go's, this subversive, high-octane, laugh-out-loud love story includes hit songs like, "We Got the Beat," "Our Lips Are Sealed," "Vacation," "Heaven is a Place on Earth" and "Mad About You." The wild story follows the escapades of a royal family who set out on a journey to save their beloved kingdom from extinction -- only to discover the key to their realm's survival lies within each of their own hearts. . . though not always in the way they expect. . . and in their willingness to let go of rigid tradition and change with the times." 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: Not all "jukebox musicals" are created equal. Some are essentially musical revues with no plot to speak of. Others are book musicals that use the songs to tell an actual story. Mamma Mia! is a good example of the latter—as, apparently, is Head Over Heels. On her blog, Michelle Kenyon calls this "a fun, colorful, energetic and thoroughly winning production that marks another success for New Line Theatre." "It’s hard to imagine a more joyful swirl of activity than theatergoers are treated to inHead Over Heels, writes Calvin Wilson at the Post-Dispatch. "It’s a party you won’t want to leave."


Ken Haller
The Blue Strawberry presents Ken Haller in The Medicine Show on Saturday, March 14, at 8 pm. "Ken Haller's The Medicine Show peddles miracle cures compounded by Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Stephen Sondheim and other noted practitioners of the healing arts. In song and story, Ken shows us how becoming a doctor is just the first step in becoming a healer." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

My take: The Medicine Show is just what the doctor ordered in these times of universal medical brouhaha. And Ken Haller is a doctor, so he should know. Check out my review of the premiere performance of the show at Cabaret Scenes to learn more.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Symphony Preview: Berlioz goes to Hell

UPDATE A/O March 12th: The SLSO has cancelled this concert in response to a directive from the City of St. Louis to prohibit all gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

The one and only work on the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) program this weekend (March 13th and 14th) was described by Maestro Stéphane Denève in an interview last year as "almost psychedelic. It's extremely evocative and it's so powerful and it's very difficult." That remarkable work is the unusual (if not unique) 1846 opera/oratorio hybrid "The Damnation of Faust," by Hector Berlioz.

Berlioz in 1832
Painting by Émile Signol
If you're the sort of person who reads these previews and attends the symphony on even an occasional basis, you probably don't need me to tell you who Faust was. The legend of the elderly scholar who sells his soul to Mephistopheles in return for youth, vitality, and greater knowledge goes back at least as far as the late 16th century. It might have even been inspired by a real early 16th century alchemist named Johann Georg Faust. I say "might" because at this chronological distance, legend and history start to merge, like far-away objects on the highway.

What intrigued Berlioz, in any case, was neither history nor legend but rather Book One of Goethe's 1808 two-part "Faust: A Tragedy" in an 1827 French translation by Gerard de Nerval. In his "Memoirs," Berlioz wrote that "this marvellous book fascinated me from the first. I could not put it down. I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theatre, in the street."

Not while actually crossing the street, one hopes.

As described in Tim Munro's notes for this week's concerts, Berlioz spent years on what would eventually become the gripping mashup of symphony, oratorio, and opera that you'll hear this weekend. It calls for a huge orchestra--around 100 players will be on the Powell Hall stage--and makes sometimes extreme demands on the musicians. Add in the adult chorus, the children's chorus, and the soloists, and you have forces that are massive even by Berlioz standards.

Berlioz called it a "légende dramatique," and while it has occasionally been staged, it's mostly heard in a concert setting, as it will be this weekend.

Ultimately, "The Damnation of Faust" is a masterful piece of musical storytelling that requires little introduction. That said, if you want to familiarize yourself with the work in advance, there are plenty of resources on line. Mr. Munro's notes have a detailed summary of the story and there's a complete live, semi-staged performance on YouTube conducted by Jonas Kaufmann with José van Dam as Faust. If you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, you can listen to all of Sir Georg Solti's recording with the Chicago Symphony for free. Thanks to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, there's even a downloadable version of the original French text with a line-by-line English translation.

You won't need that at Powell Hall this weekend, of course, because the translation will be projected on a screen above the stage.

The SLSO Chorus
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
Mr. Denève has assembled an all-star cast for this performance. The role of Faust will be sung by American-born tenor Michael Spyres, who has just recorded the role with the Strasbourg Philharmonic under John Nelson. Marguerite, the object of his lust, will be mezzo Isabel Leonard, who sang Ravel's "Shéhérazade" with the New York Philharmonic last week. She has performed at the Metropolitan Opera and also on "Sesame Street" (although not at the same time).

Bass John Relya will be the cynically sinister Méphistophélès. A veteran of the opera stage and recital hall, the list of conductors he has worked with reads like a current "who's who" of international luminaries. The head shot on his web page even looks a bit wicked.

Completing the cast is baritone Anthony Clark Evans in the cameo role Brander, a student who sings a somewhat crass song in Scene 6 about a rat whose high life in the kitchen comes to an abrupt end:

Certain rat, dans une cuisine
Etabli, comme un vrai frater,
S'y traitait si bien que sa mine
Eût fait envie au gros Luther.
Mais un beau jour le pauvre diable,
Empoisonné sauta dehors
Aussi triste, aussi misérable
Que s'il eût eu l'amour au corps.
Which roughly translates as:
A rat once in a kitchen
Set itself up like a real monk,
And did itself so well that the sight of it
Would have moved the fat Luther to envy.
But one fine day the poor devil,
Ate poison, and leaped out
Just as wretched and frantic
As if it had been [in] heat.
This motivates Méphistophélès to reply with one of the more famous numbers from "Damnation," " Une puce gentille" ("A charming flea"), about a flea who rises above his station with rather more success than the poor rat.

But I digress.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Children's Choirs, and vocal soloists on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, March 13 and 14 in "The Damnation of Faust." It should run around two hours and fifteen minutes, plus intermission. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

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