Sunday, October 11, 2015

Music Review: Transcendent Wagner and electrifying Beethoven with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Markus Stenz
Photo: Josep Molina,
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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.

Eric Owens
Photo: Dario Acostsa,
In any case, the "Parsifal" excerpts chosen for the program neatly illustrate the psychological journey of the protagonist, Amfortas, struggling to fulfill his responsibility as the guardian of the Holy Grail despite the perpetually bleeding wound he suffered when the evil magician Klingsor attacked him with the Holy Spear originally used against Christ.  Beginning with the Act I Prelude and Amfortas' agonized first act monolog "Nein! Laßt ihn unenthüllt!" (in which he begs for death to release him from his agonizing duties), we move through the remarkable Act I "transformation music" to the final pages of Act III, in which the Holy Fool Parsifal heals Amfortas and takes over his duties as guardian.

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.

Thomas Cooley
Conductor Markus Stenz's interpretation was distinguished by passionate intensity and a fine ear for musical detail.  The transcendence in the final pages was palpable. This was also an impressively theatrical reading, with the Symphony Chorus singing from the dress circle, offstage brass, and electronically amplified chimes for the "transformation scene." 

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,
This was a Ninth that combined the bracing precision of Roger Norrington's 1987 London Classical Players recording with the profound emotional intensity of one of my favorite recorded Ninths— Wilhelm Furtwängler's legendary 1951 Bayreuth Festival live version, with its express train coda and extreme demands on the chorus.  Indeed, if Mr. Stenz had held out the chorus's "vor Gott" in the final movement much longer, some of his singers might have turned blue.  But Amy Kaiser's chorus was more than up to the challenge, turning in yet another splendid performance.

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.

Theodora Hanslowe
Photo: Chris Carroll,
Throughout the evening Mr. Stenz, who conducted without a baton, displayed the kind of highly theatrical podium style that I often associate with the late Leopold Stokowski.  His hands expressively sculpted phrases in the air and he threw his entire body into the molto vivace second movement, reminding us that it is, ultimately, a dance.  After the intense final chords of the first movement, he shook his shoulders, like a boxer who has just been through a demanding first round.  It's no wonder some conductors live to such a ripe old age; they get aerobic workouts on a regular basis.

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:

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