Thursday, November 26, 2015

Symphony Preview: The St. Louis Symphony cries "wolf" twice the weekend of November 27, 2015

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David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony have a heavily lupine program for you this weekend, with Prokofiev's musical fairy tale "Peter and the Wolf" (in a collaboration with Webster University) as well as Tan Dun's new contrabass concerto, subtitled "The Wolf." There's also music from "The Snow Maiden," a fairy tale opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, along with one of Prokofiev's most popular pieces, "Symphony No. 1," Op. 25 ("Classical").

Prokofiev in New York, 1918
The "Classical" symphony, which opens the program, came about in part as a reaction by the composer to his growing reputation as an aggressive modernist—said reputation springing from his spiky "Piano Concerto No. 2" and his electrifying "Scythian Suite". He also felt that he was becoming too dependent on the piano as a compositional medium. So in 1917, with the socialist revolution exploding around him, he retreated, sans piano, to a village outside of St. Petersburg and completed the symphony he had begun the previous year.

"I had been playing with the idea of writing a whole symphony without the piano," wrote Prokofiev in his autobiography, "thinking that such a piece would have more natural and transparent colours. So that is how the project for a symphony in the style of Haydn came about. I had come to understand a great deal about Haydn's technique from Tcherepnin [his teacher at the St Petersburg Conservatory] and thought it would be less scary to embark on this piano-less journey if I were on familiar stylistic ground."

The result is a work that takes classical style and gives it a distinctly 20th-century sound. It will also give our orchestra's string section something of a workout as it demands a lot from them, with rapid passages in the first movement and a high soft entry in the second, and generally requires players that can handle the lightness and transparency of the orchestration.

The Tan Dun concerto is next. A joint commission among the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Taiwan Philharmonic (NSO), the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and our own SLSO, the concerto, according to the composer's web site, "richly gives voice to both the velvety expressive sound and also the virtuosic propulsive percussive abilities of the contrabass."

"At the time when Tan Dun began conceptualizing this concerto," the site continues, "he had recently finished reading the Chinese novel "Wolf Totem" by Jiang Rong...The symbol of the Mongolian wolf and its life in the grasslands for Tan Dun is a mirror of the human spirit and our relationship to the natural world."

For a more detailed description of the music along with some interesting background video, check out Tan Dun's site. His description of the unorthodox fingering techniques required for the music—based on the styles of ancient Mongolian Horse Fiddle playing—suggest that this piece will be a real challenge for the soloist, SLSO Principal Bass Erik Harris.

Rimsky-Korsakov in 1892
Painting by Ilya Repin
The second half of the concert kicks off with a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's 1882 opera "The Snow Maiden". Based on Alexander Ostrovsky's 1873 play of the same name, the opera's basic plot is a familiar one about a supernatural creature—the Snow Maiden of the title—who falls in love with a mortal. If you know your Hans Christian Andersen, you know that can't end well—and it doesn't. The story is told with a sophisticated score that includes the Wagnerian technique of assigning different melodies (leitmotifs) to individual characters as part of the dramatic structure. You'll hear a number of them in the colorful suite's four movements.

The concerts conclude with Prokofiev's 1936 children's story for narrator and orchestra, "Peter and the Wolf," about a brave lad who outsmarts a wolf. This is a piece I first encountered as a child, in the 1946 animated version by Walt Disney with the gravel-voiced Sterling Holloway as the narrator. It changes the story a bit but generally sticks fairly close to the composer's original scenario.

"Peter and the Wolf" has been popular with the symphony lately. The most recent performance, for example, was this past February with Resident Conductor Steven Jarvi. In 2009 the SLSO performed a semi-staged production with former Resident Conductor Ward Stare at the podium and several local actors (including yours truly) playing the narrator, Peter, the wolf, and Peter's animal friends. This time around the orchestra is using a creative team from Webster University that includes acting student Annie Barbour and Webster faculty member (and well-known local singer/actor) Lara Teeter as the narrators. There will also be video projections, so expect a multi-media experience.

The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with double bassist Erik Harris, on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., 27-29. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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