Photo: Josep Molina, markusstenz.com
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Markus Stenz
What: Music of Wagner and Beethoven
When: October 9-11, 2015
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
It's no doubt true, as René Spencer Saller observes in her program notes, that Richard Wagner was Beethoven's biggest fanboy, with an adoration of the latter's “Symphony No. 9” in D minor, Op. 125 (“Choral”) that bordered on obsession. I'm less convinced of her statement that Wagner's last opera, "Parsifal," has "a lot in common" with Beethoven's last symphony, though.
Performing excerpts from "Parsifal" on the same program as the Ninth, as the SLSO is doing this weekend, tends to highlight their differences more than their similarities, at least to my ears. There's a psychological journey in both works, but musically "Parsifal" sounds more like a foundation for Bruckner than an extension of Beethoven. Your mileage may vary.
Photo: Dario Acostsa, imgartists.com
Bass-baritone Eric Owens, who was such an impressive Porgy in Lyric Opera of Chicago's "Porgy and Bess" last year, turned in another stunning committed performance as Amfortas. His weariness and agony felt so real that I was, for a moment, fooled into suspecting that Owens himself might be in some discomfort. But no: it was just fiercely committed acting wedded to a powerful, beautifully modulated voice. Tenor Thomas Cooley was an equally fine Parsifal in the final scene, simply radiating unaffected compassion and singing with great clarity from the very back of the stage.
The Beethoven Ninth that followed was equally fine. When David Robertson conducted the SLSO's last Ninth back in 2013, I noted that he had plugged the music into a high-voltage socket, and produced a performance that crackled with electricity. I came away feeling much the same way about Mr. Stenz's interpretation, and I wasn't alone; both the first and second movements provoked spontaneous applause Friday night, and the third might have done so as well had not Mr. Stenz opted to go straight to the titanic final movement attacca (i.e. with no real pause)—thereby increasing the dramatic effect of those opening chords.
|Angela Meade with the Baltimore Symphony|
Photo © Howard Korn, facebook.com
The orchestra played well, as they nearly always do, with some especially fine work in the second movement by Andrew Cuneo's bassoon section, the other woodwinds, and timpanist Shannon Wood. The lower strings (cellos and basses) were split in half stage right and left, but still played with impressive unanimity throughout.
As was the case back in 2013, the vocal soloists for the Beethoven all had solid opera credentials; pure recitalists seem rather rare these days. As a result, their performances were acted as well as sung, with compelling results. Eric Owens and Thomas Cooley were joined here by mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe and soprano Angela Meade—a last-minute substitution for an ailing Heidi Melton. The quartet's final bit of polyphony in the poco adagio section just before the orchestral coda was truly a thing of beauty.
Photo: Chris Carroll, barrettartists.com
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus repeat their exhilarating combination of Beethoven and Wagner Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., October 10 and 11, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday night concert will also be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio; visit their web site for details.
Next at Powell Hall, Steven Jarvi conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist Inon Barnatan on Friday at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., October 16-18. The concert features Copland's "Piano Concerto," Gershwin's "An American in Paris," and works by Bernstein. For more information: stlsymphony.org.