Thursday, April 30, 2015

Symphony Preview: The (mostly) French connection with the St. Louis Symphony, May 1-3, 2015

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To close out the current season, the St. Louis Symphony has put together three blockbuster concerts of music sure to appeal to just about anyone who loves the classics. It starts this weekend as David Robertson conducts works by Bizet, Debussy, Vaughan Williams, and Ravel.

Georges Bizet in 1875
Opening the concerts will be eleven orchestral selections culled from the two suites Ernest Guiraud put together in the 1880s from his friend Georges Bizet's massively popular 1875 opera "Carmen." Poor Bizet died before he could hear them, alas—he passed at the age of 36 from a heart attack a few months after the opera opened to tepid reviews and public apathy. So he went to his grave not knowing that he had composed what would become one of the most popular operas ever written. Operabase statistics for the 2013/2014 season, in fact, show it as number 2 worldwide, surpassed only by Verdi's "La Traviata."

For this weekend's concerts, Mr. Robertson has taken the two suites, reshuffled them, and dropped the "Marche des Contrebandiers" ("March of the Smugglers") from Bizet's Act III. The new re-arranged suite looks like this:
  1. Les Toréadors: "Procession of the Toreadors" from Act IV.
  2. Prélude: Includes the "Fate" motif first heard from the brasses at the beginning of Act I.
  3. Habañera: Carmen's famous Act I aria, "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" ("Love is a rebellious bird").
  4. Seguedille: The Seguidilla from Act I, "Près des remparts de Séville" ("Near the ramparts of Seville"), in which Carmen invites the hapless Don Jose to run away with her to Lilas Pastia's Inn (a decision he will come to regret).
  5. Les Dragons d’Alcala: the entr'acte between Bizet's Acts I and II, covering the scene change from the Act I cigarette factory to Pastia's Inn.
  6. La Garde montante: Back to Act I, as Don Jose marches in with the soldiers, who are greeted and the imitated by a crowd of street urchins singing "Avec la garde montante, nous arrivons, nous voilà! / Sonne trompette éclatante!" ("With the mounting guard, we arrive; here we are! / Sound, dazzling trumpet!").
  7. Aragonaise: The entr'acte between Bizet's Acts III and IV, giving the stage hands time to change the scene from the smuggler's mountain hideout to the bullring.
  8. Nocturne: Back to Act III as Don Jose's loyal but naïve girlfriend Micaéla arrives at the smuggler's camp in a futile attempt to get him to return to the army. "Je dis, que rien ne m'épouvante," she sings ("I say, that nothing terrifies me"); "je dis, hélas, que je réponds de moi, / j'ai beau faire la vaillante / mais j'ai beau faire la vaillante / au fond du coeur, je meurs d'effroi!" (I say, alas, that I take care of myself, / But try as I might to be the brave "girl, / At the bottom of my heart, I'm dying of fright!")
  9. Intermezzo: The entr'acte between Acts II and III, for the scene change from Pastia's Inn to the smuggler's camp.
  10. Chanson du Toréador: The famous "Toréador song" from Act IV. 'Nuff said!
  11. Danse bohème: From the top of Act II, as Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès dance for some army officers in Pastia's Inn; a certified rouser and an ideal Big Finish.

Debussy in 1908
Music from another famous Frenchman is next: Debussy's "Danses sacrée et profane" ("Sacred and Profane Dances") for harp and strings. The famed French instrument makers Pleyel and Wolff commissioned the piece in 1904 as part of a marketing effort for their latest invention, the chromatic harp. Unlike the conventional pedal harp, which was then (and still is) the concert standard, the chromatic harp had two sets of strings, one tuned to C major and the other tuned to F-sharp/G-flat pentatonic. Unlike a conventional harp, this allowed the player to produce all twelve of the notes in a chromatic scale.

The instrument was not a success. As Daniel Durchholz writes in his program notes, the instrument "turned out to be too cumbersome in a variety of ways. It was hard to tune and keep in tune, difficult to play, and simply not as resonant as a standard harp. Without much fanfare, it was quickly abandoned." Fortunately, the music was easily adapted to the conventional pedal harp and has proved enduringly popular.

Which makes it a bit surprising that the SLSO has only performed it twice—on October 10th and 21s, 1981, with Frances Tietov at the harp and Leonard Slatkin on the podium for both performances. That interpretation was, happily, preserved on by Telarc on a CD that also contains "La Mer" and "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune." It's still in print and definitely worth having. This time around the solo role goes to SLSO Principal Harp Allegra Lilly, whose work has graced the Powell Hall stage since 2013.

FYI, the word "profane," in this context, means "secular" or "sensual," to indicate that the second of the two dances is less serious than the first.

Michael Sanders
After intermission, an instrument that rarely gets the solo spot will be front and center: the tuba. Specifically, it will be an F tuba (as opposed to the bigger and deeper B-flat tuba more commonly heard in orchestras) played by SLSO Principal Tuba Michael Sanders. He'll be playing the "Tuba Concerto in F minor" that Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote in 1954 with (and for) London Symphony Orchestra Principal Tuba Philip Catelinet. Catelinet premiered the concerto at the LSO Golden Jubilee Concert in June of 1954, and while it has never been wildly popular—the only previous SLSO performance was in September of 1987—that's probably more a reflection of the dearth of great tuba players than any knock on the music itself. It's consistently ingratiating and playful with a strong English folk flavor. And it will be nice to see Mr. Sanders in front of the orchestra for a change.

The concerts close with one of the most popular orchestral works ever written and certainly the best-known thing Maurice Ravel ever wrote: "Bolero." Composed originally on commission for the dancer Ida Rubinstein, "Bolero" was first performed by her at the Paris Opéra on 22 November 1928, with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and designs by Alexandre Benois.

Not mentioned for two whole paragraphs
"Inside a tavern in Spain," runs the scenario printed in that first program, "people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated." In program notes for the New York Philharmonic, the late New York Times music critic Louis Biancolli goes into greater detail. "The men gathered in the public room of the inn eye the dancer fixedly. As her movements grow more animated, their excitement mounts. They beat out an obbligato with their hands and pound their heels. At the peak of the crescendo, where the key abruptly shifts from C major to E major, the sharpening tension snaps. Knives are drawn and there is a wild tavern brawl."

Sounds like a hell of a party. There will be no weapons at Powell Hall this weekend, fortunately, so you will be able to enjoy Ravel's Greatest Hit in safety.

And you will notice I got through two entire paragraphs on "Bolero" without once mentioning Bo Derek.

The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with harpist Allegra Lilly and tuba player Michael Sanders on Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., May1-3. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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