Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dim and dimmer: "Tannhäuser" at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Act II of Tannhäuser
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
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Who: Lyric Opera of Chicago
What: Wagner's Tannhäuser
When: February 9-March 6, 2015
Where: Civic Opera House, Chicago

I have a dream. I dream that some day I'll be able to walk into an opera house and not be faced with a production in which the stage director has imposed some sort of high concept on the piece that is either irrelevant to or openly contradictory to the intentions of the composer and librettist. Alas, as the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" demonstrates, that's still a dream.

For those of you not familiar with it, "Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest at Wartburg Castle" (to quote the full title), first performed in 1845 and revised in 1861 and 1875, concerns the titular medieval knight/minstrel who, after months of libidinous frolicking with Venus in her subterranean grotto, becomes spiritually weary and returns to Wartburg castle, where he had won both the singing contests and the heart of Elisabeth, niece of Hermann, the Landgraf of Thuringia and lord of the castle. In the heat of a singing competition in which the goal is to compose the best song on the true nature of love, he reveals where he has been for the last several months. His only hope of salvation, he learns, is a pilgrimage to Rome and a pardon from the Pope.

The Venusberg ballet
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
All does not go as planned, and while Tannhäuser finally achieves his salvation, it comes at the cost of both his own life and Elisabeth's.

Wagner, who wrote his own libretto, based on a variety of sources, set the action in a semi-mythical version of the 14th century, in which the prosaic reality of Wartburg could co-exist with the fantastic world of Classical legend. Stage director Tim Albery, in his Lyric debut, has elected to jettison all that and instead move the action to what appears to be a contemporary guerrilla camp in Afghanistan. The Wartburg grand hall in the second act becomes, in the hands of set designer Michael Levine, a ruined theatre complete with a collapsed proscenium and the third act—originally set in the Wartburg valley in autumn—appears to be taking place on top of the flattened ruins of the hall under a blanket of snow.

Venus' domain is represented by a gilt false proscenium arch with scarlet drapes that flown in from above. She and her attendants are decked out in slinky black gowns. The residents of Wartburg, by contrast, are in drab earth tones and look like refugees. And everyone is so dimly lit that facial expressions were often difficult to discern, even from our excellent seats on the orchestra floor.

John Relyea and Amber Wagner
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
None of this serves the material very well. The lack of visual interest and the often static staging—there's a great deal of planting of feet and singing downstage—destroys any dramatic momentum. And turning Wartburg into a contemporary armed camp with shabby fighters toting automatic weapons only serves to underline how much (to quote my wife) their moral rigidity resembles that of the Taliban.

Perhaps that was Mr. Albery's point but if so, it was an unnecessarily heavy-handed way to make it. And it's certainly contrary to Wagner's intent.

The one exception to all this is the opening Venusberg orgy sequence. Jasmin Vardimon's energetic, erotically charged choreography perfectly matches Wagner's increasingly frenzied music and is an ideal introduction to mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster's impressively seductive Venus.

The theme of the conflict between sacred and profane love was one to which Wagner, who was certainly guilty of his share of the latter, would return to often in his operas, along with the notion of redemption through love. Not surprisingly, given Wagner's psychology and the time in which he lived, that redemption usually involved selfless sacrifice on the part of the female lead.

In "Tannhäuser" that thankless task falls to Elisabeth. The role isn't especially large but it's dramatically crucial. Happily, Lyric has mezzo Amber Wagner in the role. Her big, luscious voice is an attention grabber and makes all of her scenes compelling. In her program bio, she is quoted as describing Elisabeth's music as "achingly simple, yet substantial and full of its own longing." You can hear all that and more in her performance.

Gerald Finley
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Bass-baritone Gerald Finley shines as well as Wolfram, Tannhäuser's friend who carries a torch for Elisabeth. His "O du, mein Abendstern" ("O evening star," often performed as a standalone piece) was a high point of the final act. John Relyea, who was such an imposing presence as Henry VIII in Lyric's "Anna Bolena" this season, radiates gravitas once again as Hermann. And soprano Angela Mannino has a nice cameo as the voice of the Shepherd, whose simple song is the first thing Tannhäuser hears on his return from Venusberg in the first act.

I haven't said anything about the South African tenor and Lyric veteran Johan Botha, this production's Tannhäuser, for the simple reason that I didn't see him perform. The night we attended, the role was sung by Richard Decker, an American tenor brought in as a last-minute substitute while Mr. Botha recovers from what the program describes as "a severe throat infection." Mr. Decker, at least when we saw him, seemed not entirely comfortable in the role and had noticeably less vocal power than his co-stars. This was especially apparent in his second act duet with Ms. Wagner.

As this is being written, Lyric's "Tannhäuser" has only two more performances (March 2 and 6), so I don't know whether Mr. Botha will be returning to the role or not.

Act III of Tannhäuser
Photo: Robert Kusel
If I have major misgivings about this production's dramatic direction, I have none whatsoever about its musical direction. Under the capable baton of Lyric's music director and principal conductor Sir Andrew Davis, Wagner's mammoth score got a well thought out and polished reading, with good tempo choices and excellent vocal/instrumental balance. Working with a substitute lead must have been a challenge, but everyone clearly rose to the occasion. The Act II "entry of the guests" (often heard in a stand-alone concert piece), with its offstage brass and full chorus, was a joy to hear.

The Lyric Opera season at the Civic Opera House continues with its production of "Tosca" and Mieczyslaw Weinberg's "The Passenger" in March. It wraps up with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" in April and May, followed by a special recital with pianist Lang Lang on May 9th. For more information: lyricopera.org.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of February 27, 2015

As always, the choices are purely my personal opinion. Take with a grain (or a shaker) of salt.

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New This Week:

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
"Stamping Ground"
Dance St. Louis presents the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m., February 27 and 28. "Considered one of the most cutting-edge, pioneering ballet companies in the country, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has been dubbed "the classically trained company of the future." Composed of 11 young, talented top-flight dancers, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is known as a gifted, sophisticated, versatile and technique-conscious company that pushes the boundaries by performing a diverse and engaging repertoire and by commissioning new works from some of the world's foremost established and emerging choreographers." Performances take place at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. For more information: dancestlouis.org.

My take: Dance St. Louis has an impressive track record when it comes to attracting high-end companies to the Touhill. The Aspen Santa Fe troupe comes to town with plenty of rave reviews. Last October, the Pittsburgh Tribune called their show "intellectually stimulating, distinctively stylized and brilliantly performed" while the Cleveland Plain Dealer praised the company's "deft and inspired dancing." "It’s a company to savor," wrote the Boston Globe's Janine Parker of their appearance at the Jacob's Pillow festival lat August, "and I want to savor these dances, too."

Blues for Mr. Charlie
Photo: Whitney Curtis
The Performing Arts Department at Washington University presents Blues for Mr. Charlie, directed by Ron Himes, through March 1. "In this searing drama by James Baldwin, sex and racism explode in a small Southern town when a bigoted store owner kills a young black man and dumps his body on the side of the road. " The performances take place in the Edison Theater in the Mallinckrodt Student Center on the Washington University campus. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.artsci.wustl.edu.

My take: Baldwin's surreal and Brechtian drama was written in 1964 but, as recent events have proved all too clearly, the ways in which black men are demonized as an excuse for racially motivated violence have not changed nearly enough to make this play a historical curiosity. Running nearly four hours and filled with polemics, this is not an easy play to watch, but it the issues it raises remain vital. "Not a perfect play but a powerful one," writes Bob Wilcox at KDHX, “Blues for Mr. Charlie is an important American drama." The production is directed by Black Rep artistic director Ron Himes.

Mariposa Artists presents In Concert: Classic Rock Reimagined and Unpluged on Saturday, February 28, at 8 p.m. "Featuring eleven very talented singers from the midwest and across the country, "IN CONCERT St. Louis" is a hot fusion of classic rock tunes and cabaret that brings past to present on the St. Louis stage for one night only." The show is features 11 local singers and directed by Lina Koutrakos with Rick Jensen on piano. The performance takes place at the Kranzberg Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: inconcertstl.brownpapertickets.com

My take: Lina Koutrakos is a cabaret star whose roots like in rock and blues and Rick Jensen is powerfully talented pianist and songwriter. I'm very familiar with ten of the eleven singers from my work on local cabaret stages and I'll guarantee that they're solid performers. Many of them have already developed their own shows and all have participated in showcases and in the Cabaret Project's open mic nights at the Tavern of Fine Arts. You can't go wrong here.

Or
Photo: Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble presents Or by Liz Duffy Adams Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., through February 27. "Or, takes place (mostly) during one night in the life of Aphra Behn: poet, spy, and soon to be first professional female playwright. Aphra is desperate to get out of the spy trade. She has a shot at a production at one of only two London companies, if she can only finish her play by morning despite interruptions from sudden new love, actress Nell Gwynne, complicated royal love, King Charles II, and very dodgy ex-love, double-agent William Scot-who may be in on a plot to murder the king in the morning. Can Aphra save Charles' life, win William a pardon, resist Nell's charms, and launch her career, all in one night? " Performances take place at The Chapel Venue, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

My take: How can you resist a plot summary like that one? Stage Door St. Louis' Steve Allen calls it "a charming romp." "With an inventive style you might call Restoration Steampunk," says Judy Newmark at stltoday.com, "the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble has a lot of fun with its smart, sexy production of “Or,” a quasi-historical comedy by Liz Duffy Adams." The show has gotten some knocks for being an extended one-act, but it still sounds like fun to me.

Held Over:

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Edward Albee's dark comedy Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through March 1 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. "George, a professor at a small college, and his wife, Martha, have just returned home, drunk from a Saturday night party. Martha announces, amidst general profanity, that she has invited a young couple-an opportunistic new professor at the college and his shatteringly naïve new bride-to stop by for a nightcap. When they arrive the charade begins. The drinks flow and suddenly inhibitions melt. It becomes clear that Martha is determined to seduce the young professor, and George couldn't care less. But underneath the edgy banter, which is crossfired between both couples, lurks an undercurrent of tragedy and despair. George and Martha's inhuman bitterness toward one another is provoked by the enormous personal sadness that they have pledged to keep to themselves: a secret that has seemingly been the foundation for their relationship. In the end, the mystery in which the distressed George and Martha have taken refuge is exposed, once and for all revealing the degrading mess they have made of their lives." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

My take: This is a script that surely needs little introduction from me. Albee's play has become a modern classic and a corrosive commentary on the dark side of American life. "Over the course of a long, alcohol-fueled night, the script expertly cuts, saws and chews its way through secrets, insecurities, accusations and infidelities until, worn out by the explosive force of its final battle, the show finds a comfortable, if not necessarily stable, resting place," writes Tina Farmer at KDHX. "Director John Contini clearly understands the nuances and shades in the script and leads the actors at a relentless pace. The dialogue is sharply crafted and expertly delivered by the cast – the tension never ceases and the stakes are never high enough until they come crashing down."

Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Terrence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy through March 8. "When young Ronnie Winslow is expelled from military school for stealing a five-shilling postal order, his father wages an exhaustive fight to clear his son's name. What begins as a private matter quickly becomes a larger question of the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Though the legal battle jeopardizes his health and the reputation of the entire family, Arthur Winslow is determined that right will prevail, no matter what the sacrifice." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org.

My take: Terrence Rattigan's work seems to have fallen into obscurity in the decades since his death in 1977. Which is a pity, as his better-known plays are very well-constructed pieces, filled with subtle touches and well-rounded characters. Appearing in Separate Tables several years ago at Act Inc reminded me of what great dialog and situations he wrote. We saw the show last weekend and I must say that director Steve Woolf and his forces are doing this play up proud. "A splendid cast and keenly sharpened direction," writes Chris Gibson at broadwayworld.com, "combine to provide a very compelling piece of theatre." "The show is thoughtfully directed by Steven Woolf," says Tina Farmer at KDHX, "and features fully engaged, well-developed performances by a strong ensemble."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Symphony Preview: A visit to Russia House with Graf, Hadelich, and the SLSO February 27-March 1, 2015

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If you missed last week's big double dip of Russian romanticism or if (to quote a famous Big Band-era lyric) you just "can't get enough of that wonderful stuff," the St. Louis Symphony has another helping helping of it for you this weekend as Hans Graf leads the orchestra and violinist Augustin Hadelich in a program of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Lyadov.

"Lyadov?" I hear you cry, "who the heck is that?"

Anatoyl Lyadov
en.wikipedia.org
A reasonable question. "Anatoly Lyadov," writes Daniel Durchholz in his SLSO program notes, "is considerably less well-known than Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky or Igor Stravinsky, and to some degree that may be his own fault. Though a composer of considerable skill and a professor (albeit an eccentric and pedantic one) at the St. Petersburg Conservatory whose students included Sergey Prokofiev and Nikolay Myaskovsky, Lyadov produced no works of sustantial [sic] length and grandeur, as had a number of his contemporaries."

Lyadov's laziness (and resulting unreliability) essentially conspired with his self-criticism to prevent him from producing a large body of work, although he did write a number of piano miniatures (his 1893 "Musical Snuffbox" still shows up as an encore piece on a regular basis). Even so, he became associated with (if not an actual member of) the "Mighty Handful" (a.k.a. the "Russian Five") of composers who were so important in the formation of the Russian nationalist school. The actual five were Mily Balakirev (composer of the fiendishly difficult "Islamey" for piano), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin.

Appropriately for a Russian nationalist, Lyadov is represented this weekend by three orchestral miniatures based on Russian folklore: "Baba-Yaga" (Op. 56), "The Enchanted Lake" (Op. 62), and "Kikimora" (Op. 63). They're short (4-7 minutes each), colorful, and great fun. Which makes them a great way to open the concert (and provide multiple opportunities for latecomers to be seated).

Up next is Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto in D Major." Although wildly popular these days, the concerto was originally dismissed as "unplayable" by St. Petersburg Conservatory violin professor Leopold Auer (to whom it was originally dedicated and who was supposed to play it at its premiere). Tchaikovsky's colleague Adolf Brodsky would replace Auer as both the first performer and the dedicatee.

Eduard Hanslick in 1865
en.wikipedia.org
Worse yet, it was roundly condemned by critics at its 1881 Vienna premiere. Eduard Hanslick, the notoriously conservative critic who Wagner had mercilessly parodied a decade earlier in "Die Meistersinger," was especially scornful. After admitting that the work was "musical and is not without genius," he went on to unload a tub of bile that would not be out of place on AM talk radio. It's worth quoting at length, if only to illustrate just how clueless critics can sometimes be (the translation comes from Minneapolis Symphony program notes by Donald Ferguson).

"[S]oon savagery gains the upper hand," he ranted, "and lords it to the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue. I do not know whether it is possible for anyone to conquer these hair-raising difficulties, but I do know that Mr. Brodsky martyrized his hearers as well as himself. The Adagio with its tender national melody, almost conciliates, almost wins us; but it breaks off abruptly to make way for a finale that puts us in the midst of a Russian kermess [a German country festival]. We see wild and vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell bad brandy. Friedrich Vischer once asserted in reference to a lascivious painting, that there are pictures that 'stink in the eye.' Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto brings us for the first time to the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks in the ear."

But aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Today it can be hard to understand what Hanslick was gassing on about. Apparently written as a kind of therapy after Tchaikovsky's disastrous attempt at marriage failed and he was plunged into the despair heard so tellingly in his "Symphony No. 4," the concerto is an unfailingly sunny piece that never fails to please. Yes, it's technically demanding, but generations of violinists have mastered it and made it a central part of the repertoire.

Costume sketch for The Firebird by Leon Bakst
en.wikipedia.org
The concerts will conclude with a suite that Stravinsky put together in 1945 from the music for his 1910 ballet "The Firebird". The first in what turned out to be a series of successful collaborations between the composer and impresario Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, "Firebird" contains hints of the upheaval Stravinsky would generate with "Rite of Spring" and "Les Noces" but also pays homage to the work of Rimski-Korsakov, especially the Orientalism of (say) "Le Coq d’Or".

Interestingly, Stravinsky owed the opportunity to write "Firebird" to the laziness of—yes—Anatoly Lyadov. Diaghilev originally commissioned Lyadov to write the score but (according to Verna Arvey in "Choreographic Music") when, after months of waiting, Diaghilev went to see Lyadov to view his progress, the composer said, "it won't be long now. It's well on its way. I have just bought the ruled paper."

Soon Lyadov was out and Stravinsky was in. The premiere of "Firebird" put Stravinsky on the map, musically speaking, and it remains one of his most popular works. Stravinsky prepared three concert suites from the ballet: one in 1910, a second in 1919, and the third in 1945. In both the second and third suites the composer reduced the size of the orchestration. The last and leanest suite is the one you'll hear this weekend.

Both the conductor and violin soloist this week have appeared with the SLSO in the past. On the podium will be Hans Graf, former conductor of the Houston Symphony and an artist-in-residence at the Shepherd School of Music at my alma mater, Rice University. At his last SLSO appearance, Graf gave us masterful readings of Rachmaninoff's first and second piano concertos along with a wonderfully transparent interpretation of Shostakovich's dark and acerbic "Symphony No. 1." That bodes well for this weekend.

The young Dutch violinist Augustin Hadelich, last heard here two years ago in a performance of Paganini's "Violin Concerto No. 1" that combined virtuoso flash with real emotional sensitivity. He'll certainly need both of those skill sets for the Tchaikovsky.

The essentials: Hans Graf conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Augustin Hadelich on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., February 27-March 1. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of February 23, 2015

[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 web site.

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Dance St. Louis presents the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m., February 27 and 28. " Considered one of the most cutting-edge, pioneering ballet companies in the country, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has been dubbed "the classically trained company of the future." Composed of 11 young, talented top-flight dancers, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is known as a gifted, sophisticated, versatile and technique-conscious company that pushes the boundaries by performing a diverse and engaging repertoire and by commissioning new works from some of the world's foremost established and emerging choreographers." Performances take place at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. For more information: dancestlouis.org.

Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts presents Charles Mee's Big Love Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, through March 1. "A runaway bride, one of 50 sisters escaping marriage contracts, takes refuge in a sumptuous Italian villa. Undoing her wedding dress, discarding everything underneath, she is a woman released, jumping into a bathtub, to be cleansed, unchained at last. [...] The woman named Lydia and her 49 sisters have sailed away from Greece. No sooner has the boat docked than a helicopter lands, bearing the jilted grooms, all brothers. Wearing military fatigues, as if armed for the marriage wars, they have come to claim their rightful possessions." Performances take place in the Emerson Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. Fore more information, events.webster.edu or call 314-968-7128.

Blues for Mr. Charlie
Photo: Whitney Curtis
The Performing Arts Department at Washington University presents Blues for Mr. Charlie, directed by Ron Himes, through March 1. "In this searing drama by James Baldwin, sex and racism explode in a small Southern town when a bigoted store owner kills a young black man and dumps his body on the side of the road. " The performances take place in the Edison Theater in the Mallinckrodt Student Center on the Washington University campus. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.artsci.wustl.edu.

Act Two Theatre presents Kander and Ebb's Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville February 27 - March 8. "In roaring twenties Chicago, chorine Roxie Hart murders a faithless lover and convinces her hapless husband Amos to take the rap...until he finds out he's been duped and turns on Roxie. Convicted and sent to death row, Roxie and another “Merry Murderess” Velma Kelly, vie for the spotlight and the headlines, ultimately joining forces in search of the “American Dream”: fame, fortune and acquittal. This sharp edged satire features a dazzling score that sparked immortal staging by Bob Fosse." Performances take place in the St. Peters Cultural Arts Centre at 1 St Peters Centre Blvd, St. Peters, MO 63376. For more information: act2theater.com.

Mariposa Artists presents In Concert: Classic Rock Reimagined and Unpluged on Saturday, February 28, at 8 p.m. The show is features 11 local singers and directed by Lina Koutrakos with Rick Jensen on piano. The performance takes place at the Kranzberg Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: inconcertstl.brownpapertickets.com

Strut and Fret Stage presents Kilroy Was Here, a world première play written and directed by Jim Sala, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., through Februay 28. "It's 1943 and war rages abroad. At a boarding house in a provincial Illinois town, a precocious young boy entertains an eclectic bevy of roomers with his improvised radio station, his repertoire of celebrity impersonations, and his laudable dream of fomenting world peace. As the boy transforms into a man and the lofty idealism of his youth calcifies into strident dogmatism, he finds himself yearning for the relative simplicity of his childhood; for a halcyon age that was paradoxically both tranquil and acutely tumultuous." Performances take place at Yemanja Brasil Restaurante, 2900 Missouri Avenue in Benton Park. For more information: 314.361.1885, 314.276.7321, or email jommyslaw at gmail.com.

The Fox Theatre presents the musical Million Dollar Quartet Friday through Sunday, February 27 - March 1. “Million Dollar Quartet is the Tony® Award winning Broadway musical, inspired by the electrifying true story of the famed recording session that brought together rock 'n' roll icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins for the first and only time.” The Fox Theatre is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Murder in Mayberry. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Lindenwood University presents the musucal A New Brain Friday through Sunday, February 27 - March 1. " By the Tony-award winning authors of Falsettos, here is an energetic, sardonic, often comical musical about a composer during a medical emergency. Gordon collapses into his lunch and awakes in the hospital surrounded by his maritime-enthusiast lover, his mother, a co-worker, the doctor, and the nurses. Reluctantly, he had been composing a song for a children's television show that features a frog - Mr. Bungee - and the spectre of this large green character, and the unfinished work haunts him throughout his medical ordeal. This is the music and story of a man reflecting on his life, relationships, and work when confronted with the fact that this could be the end. Did he let life pass him by, or is there still time to live it?" Performances take place at the J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts on the Lindenwood campus in St. Charles, MO. For more information, call 636-949-4433 or visit lindenwood.edu/center.

Or
Photo: Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble presents Or by Liz Duffy Adams Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., through February 27. "Or, takes place (mostly) during one night in the life of Aphra Behn: poet, spy, and soon to be first professional female playwright. Aphra is desperate to get out of the spy trade. She has a shot at a production at one of only two London companies, if she can only finish her play by morning despite interruptions from sudden new love, actress Nell Gwynne, complicated royal love, King Charles II, and very dodgy ex-love, double-agent William Scot-who may be in on a plot to murder the king in the morning. Can Aphra save Charles' life, win William a pardon, resist Nell's charms, and launch her career, all in one night? " Performances take place at The Chapel Venue, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Ole Opery through April 26. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

St. Louis University Theatre presents Niel Simon's comedy Rumors through March 1. "The Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. Guests arrive to find their unconscious host bleeding and his wife missing. Hoping to avoid a scandal, his lawyer concocts a story to hide what is assumed to be the truth. But as the rest of the guests arrive, the story grows awry with everyone complicit in a hilarious cover-up that no one even really understands. Neil Simon at his farcical best!" Performances take place in Xavier Hall, 3373 West Pine Mall. For more information, call (314) 977-2998 or visit www.slu.edu/theatre.

The Florissant Fine Arts Council presents the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, based on the MGM movie, on Sunday, March 1, at 2 PM at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre at Parker Road at Waterford Drive in Florissant, MO. "Set in Oregon in 1850, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers tells the story of Millie, a young bride living in the 1850?s Oregon wilderness. Her plan to civilize and marry off her six rowdy brothers-in-law to ensure the success of her own marriage backfires when the brothers, in their enthusiasm, kidnap six women from a neighboring town to be their brides. Bursting with the rambunctious energy of the original film, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is all boisterous fun and romance that harkens back to the glory days of the movie musical." For more information: florissantfinearts.com/wp1/

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks through March 1. The performances take place in the Metcalf Theatre on the campus in Edwardsville, IL. For more information, www.siue.edu/artsandsciences/theater/ or call 618-650-2774.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Edward Albee's dark comedy Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through March 1 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. "George, a professor at a small college, and his wife, Martha, have just returned home, drunk from a Saturday night party. Martha announces, amidst general profanity, that she has invited a young couple-an opportunistic new professor at the college and his shatteringly naïve new bride-to stop by for a nightcap. When they arrive the charade begins. The drinks flow and suddenly inhibitions melt. It becomes clear that Martha is determined to seduce the young professor, and George couldn't care less. But underneath the edgy banter, which is crossfired between both couples, lurks an undercurrent of tragedy and despair. George and Martha's inhuman bitterness toward one another is provoked by the enormous personal sadness that they have pledged to keep to themselves: a secret that has seemingly been the foundation for their relationship. In the end, the mystery in which the distressed George and Martha have taken refuge is exposed, once and for all revealing the degrading mess they have made of their lives." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

The Winslow Boy
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Terrence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy through March 8. "When young Ronnie Winslow is expelled from military school for stealing a five-shilling postal order, his father wages an exhaustive fight to clear his son's name. What begins as a private matter quickly becomes a larger question of the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Though the legal battle jeopardizes his health and the reputation of the entire family, Arthur Winslow is determined that right will prevail, no matter what the sacrifice." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

St. Louis Community College at Forest Park presents Wrapped in Rainbows February 26 - March 1. Performances take place in the Bastian Theatre on the campus at 5600 Oakland. For more information, www.stlcc.edu/FP/ or call 314-644-9100.

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.

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of February 23, 2015

The Bach Society at Powell Hall
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The Bach Society of St. Louis presents Handel’s Messiah on Sunday, March 1, at 3 PM.  “Few choral works even come close to the profound impact that Handel’s Messiah has had on audiences for over 250 years. This dramatic work offers an inspiring meditation on the life of the Messiah, from the prophecy of His birth through His death and resurrection, and culminating in man’s redemption and thanksgiving. The Chorus and Orchestra are joined by four outstanding Baroque soloists. Bach Society favorites mezzo-soprano Patricia Thompson and bass Curtis Streetman will return, while introducing two new performers to our audience: tenor Steven Soph and soprano Nathalie Colas from Strasbourg, France.”  The concert takes place at Firsts Prebyterian Church of Kirkwood, 100 East Adams.  For more information: www.bachsociety.org

The Ethical Society presents a Great Artist Guitar Series concert with Martha Masters on Saturday, February 28, at 8 p.m.  "In October of 2000 Martha Masters won First Prize in the GFA International Solo Competition, a recording contract with Naxos, a concert video with Mel Bay, and an extensive North American concert tour. In November of 2000, she also won the Andres Segovia International Guitar Competition in Linares, Spain. She has been a prizewinner or finalist in many other international competitions.
In addition to being on the guitar faculty of California State University Fullerton and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Masters is also the President of the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA), dedicated to supporting the instrument, its players and its music in the US and throughout the world." The performance takes at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road.  For more information: ethicalstl.org.

The Sheldon Concert Hall presents Sheldon Classics: Asia on Wednesday, February 25, at 8 PM. “Asia is a large and diverse continent, and many classical composers have been influenced by its music, including Claude Debussy, Florent Schmitt and Dmitry Kabelevsky. We’ll hear their beautiful and imaginative works, as well as music by 20th century composer Toru Takemitsu, and top composers of today – Bright Sheng and Tan Dun.” The Sheldon is at 3648 Washington in Grand Center.  For more information: thesheldon.org.

Hans Graf
cmartists.com / Bruce Bennett
Hans Graf conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Augustin Hadelich on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., February 27-March 1.  "Following his outstanding 2013 performances of the Paganini with the STL Symphony, violinist Augustin Hadelich is back to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, a tour-de-force that will dazzle with its sizzling technical displays and tender melodies.  Hans Graf leads Stravinsky’s radiant Firebird Suite, known for its brilliant and colorful orchestration, bringing this concert to a spectacular conclusion."  The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.  For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents a chamber music concert by the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra on Tuesday, February 24, at 7:30 p.m.  The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood.   For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents Passione ed Armonia: Baroque String Band on Saturday, February 28, at 4:30 p.m.  " The Baroque string band “Passione ed Armonia” plays a program of Italian music for strings by Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Marini, Uccellini, Bertali and others." The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood.   For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

Symphony Review: Swooning romanticism with Watts and Valcuha at Powel Hall, February 20 and 21, 2015

Juraj Valcuha
rte.ie
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Who: The St. Louis Symphony conducted by Juraj Valčuha
What: Music of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky
When: Friday and Saturday, February 20 and 21, 2015
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis

[Find out more about the music with the symphony's program notes and my preview article.]

The young (late 30s) Slovenian conductor Juraj Valčuha came to town for his SLSO debut this weekend with a stack of impressive reviews from locations as diverse as London, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Brahms to Szymanowski. Critics have praised his big sound, his precision, and what the Los Angeles Times critic called "his eloquent and flowing baton gestures."

All of that was certainly on display Friday morning in a program of two big Russian romantic blockbusters: Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2" in C Minor, Op. 18 (first performed in 1901) and Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6" in B minor, Op. 74 (a.k.a. the "Pathetique"), which had its first performance only eight years earlier. Also on display was a kind of lush, almost swooning lyricism and a tendency to linger over and emphasize details of phrasing.

That worked remarkably well for the Tchaikovsky. From the hushed statement of the first theme in the first movement—beautifully played by Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo and the low strings—to the massive, nearly hysterical final orchestral outburst that precedes those final dying chords in the cellos and basses in the last, this was a "Pathetique" that wrung every ounce of melodrama out of the score.

Mr. Valčuha made smart use of dramatic contrasts in dynamics throughout. Here's just one example: the little dying clarinet solo that ends the first movement exposition—sensitively played by Associate Principal Diana Haskell—was allowed to fade out almost to inaudibility, which gave the massive orchestral outburst that starts the development section that much more impact. It's a stormy movement anyway, but under Mr. Valčuha's baton it was more of a hurricane.

The wistful little 5/4 waltz of the second movement with its anxious contrasting second theme has never sounded more haunting. The aggressive march of the third movement radiated power, which made the opening despair of the last movement (Adagio lamentoso)—played after only the briefest pause—all the more heartbreaking.

To sum it up, this was a "Pathetique" that could stand with the best of them, and played with perfection by the orchestra.

That same intense, hyper-romantic approach served the Rachmaninoff less well. Tempi were on the slow side and the composer's long melodic lines were sometimes stretched to the breaking point. The big, lyrical second subjects in the first and last movements were as opulent as I have ever heard them but the outer movements sometimes lacked the rhythmic drive and sense of forward motion that I'm accustomed to hearing. This is a concerto that normally clocks in at around 35 minutes. Mr. Valčuha's version came in at closer to 45 by my reckoning, and not just because of the long pause after the first movement while we waited for latecomers to be seated.

André Watts
cmartists.com / Steve J. Sherman
That said, it was still a captivating performance. Mr. Valčuha is, as other critics have noted, a very commanding and theatrical presence on the podium. That LA Times review describes him as conveying the impression that he was spontaneously creating the music out of thin air—a very apt description of the way he seems to be physically molding the sound. And while I don't think his approach to the Rachmaninoff was ideal, especially for any listeners who might have been encountering the piece for the first time, it was certainly a personal and rather fascinating take on music that can often seem over-familiar.

I am, of course, assuming that tempo choices and the overall approach were largely Valčuha's idea. I should point out, in all fairness, that when this weekend's soloist, the legendary André Watts, last appeared with the SLSO in 2010, his Grieg concerto was a bit on the slow side as well, so perhaps this was a collaborative decision.

Mr. Watts' performance was, in any case, impressive—technically solid and poetically expressive. He has often performed and recorded the Russian romantic repertoire, Rachmaninoff included, and has apparently been touring extensively with the second concerto recently—often to rave reviews. The concerto is often given flashy performances that emphasize the virtuoso nature of the work, but Mr. Watts and Mr. Valčuha made, my misgivings not withstanding, an awfully good case for taking a more leisurely and autumnal view of this music.

Next at the SLSO: Hans Graf conducts the orchestra with violin soloist Augustin Hadelich on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., February 27-29. The program includes Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto" and the suite from Stravinsky's "Firebird" ballet. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of February 20, 2015

As always, the choices are purely my personal opinion. Take with a grain (or a shaker) of salt.

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New This Week:

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Edward Albee's dark comedy Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through March 1 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. "George, a professor at a small college, and his wife, Martha, have just returned home, drunk from a Saturday night party. Martha announces, amidst general profanity, that she has invited a young couple-an opportunistic new professor at the college and his shatteringly naïve new bride-to stop by for a nightcap. When they arrive the charade begins. The drinks flow and suddenly inhibitions melt. It becomes clear that Martha is determined to seduce the young professor, and George couldn't care less. But underneath the edgy banter, which is crossfired between both couples, lurks an undercurrent of tragedy and despair. George and Martha's inhuman bitterness toward one another is provoked by the enormous personal sadness that they have pledged to keep to themselves: a secret that has seemingly been the foundation for their relationship. In the end, the mystery in which the distressed George and Martha have taken refuge is exposed, once and for all revealing the degrading mess they have made of their lives." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

My take: This is a script that surely needs little introduction from me. Albee's play has become a modern classic and a corrosive commentary on the dark side of American life. "Over the course of a long, alcohol-fueled night, the script expertly cuts, saws and chews its way through secrets, insecurities, accusations and infidelities until, worn out by the explosive force of its final battle, the show finds a comfortable, if not necessarily stable, resting place," writes Tina Farmer at KDHX. "Director John Contini clearly understands the nuances and shades in the script and leads the actors at a relentless pace. The dialogue is sharply crafted and expertly delivered by the cast – the tension never ceases and the stakes are never high enough until they come crashing down."

Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Terrence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy through March 8. "When young Ronnie Winslow is expelled from military school for stealing a five-shilling postal order, his father wages an exhaustive fight to clear his son's name. What begins as a private matter quickly becomes a larger question of the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Though the legal battle jeopardizes his health and the reputation of the entire family, Arthur Winslow is determined that right will prevail, no matter what the sacrifice." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org.

My take: Terrence Rattigan's work seems to have fallen into obscurity in the decades since his death in 1977. Which is a pity, as his better-known works are very well-constructed pieces, filled with subtle touches and well-rounded characters. Appearing in Separate Tables several years ago at Act Inc reminded me of what great dialog and situations he wrote. The Rep appears to be doing Rattigan justice. "A splendid cast and keenly sharpened direction," writes Chris Gibson at broadwayworld.com, "combine to provide a very compelling piece of theatre." "The show is thoughtfully directed by Steven Woolf," says Tina Farmer at KDHX, "and features fully engaged, well-developed performances by a strong ensemble."

Held Over:

God of Carnage
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM through February 21. "A comedy of manners ... without the manners. Two married couples meet to sort out a playground fight between their sons. At first, niceties are observed but as the evening progresses and the rum flows, the gloves come off and the night becomes a side-splitting free-for-all." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

My take: I'm not a great fan of this script myself, but I appear to be in the minority. In her review for KDHX, Tina Farmer calls it "a wickedly funny, sharply pointed play that questions just how civilized we really are, as a society...Gary F. Bell knows his way around smart, funny material and this thoroughly compelling show keeps to his high standards." I know and/or have acted with most of the cast at one time or another and can attest to their talent.

Photo: John Lamb
The West End Players Guild continues their 104th season with the comedy Mr. Marmalade Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, February 13-22. "Growing up isn't easy these days. Little Lucy is spending her childhood doing all the things little girls like to do - playing house, having tea parties and playing with friends both real and imaginary. But even as a tot, Lucy seems to have learned most of what she knows about life from reality TV and her childhood is chock-full of very odd, very adult stuff - the oddest of which may be Mr. Marmalade. He's the imaginary friend who rarely has time for Lucy because he's way too busy dealing with the demands of his day planner, anger management issues and some very adult naughty habits." There will also be a show on Thursday, February February 19, at 8 PM. Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union at Enright in the Central West End. For more information, call 314-367-0025 or visit www.westendplayers.org.

My take: OK, I'll admit that I'm on the play reading committee at West End as well as the sound designer for this show, so I'm not a disinterested party. And I have worked with director Steve Callahan many time in the past. That said, one of the reasons I voted for this play was that it's a very funny and very twisted comedy. Mr. Marmalade is definitely not your average imaginary friend. In fact, with imaginary friends like him, you probably don't need enemies. Consider this an antidote to Valentine's Day saccharine. "Featuring top-notch performances by Kimberly Byrnes as the precocious Lucy, Todd Schaefer as the manic title character and Michael Brightman as the best servant this side of Batman's Alfred," writes Mark Bretz at Ladue News, "Mr. Marmalade offers an abundance of laughs in its one spirited act." "It all reminds me of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at the Disney amusement parks," says Richard Green at talkinbroadway.com, "where you careen through the dark in a fun-car, nearly crashing every ten seconds or so, but end up laughing in spite of everything. And, somehow, a lot of the rocky points of childhood become beautiful and touching, even if you've never suffered them all yourself."

White to Gray
Photo: John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre presents White to Gray through February 22. "Mustard Seed Theatre is proud to offer the world premiere of local playwright Rob Maesaka’s White to Gray-the story of a young couple, one white and one Japanese-American, en route to the mainland from Hawaii on a cruise ship when bombs drop on Pearl Harbor. Amidst fear and uncertainty and caught in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, loyalties are tested and love comes under suspicion." Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, call (314) 719-8060 or visit the web site at www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

My take: The shabby treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II is one of the bits of American history that the far right would like to erase from history books, which makes it that much more important to remember it. "In many ways," says Tina Farmer at KDHX, ""White to Gray" provides a micro view of diverse American reactions to the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese citizens. In other ways, it is a love story, one that seems filled with promise until history turned it tragic. The story is compelling and provides a fictional but nonetheless thoughtful and heartfelt retelling of an important historical event." At Broadwayworld.com, Chris Gibson says the show is "an entertaining show that features a number of good performances...and Mustard Seed's production of it is definitely worthy of your time and attention." At the Stage Door STL blog, Steve Allen says "Director Deanna Jent has brought a quiet sensitivity to the situation including the somewhat schmaltzy yet highly effective ending to a story that is fraught with tension and even a bit of rage."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Symphony Preview: Two Russian romantic blockbusters at Powell Hall February 20 and 21, 2015

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Works by two giants of the Russian romantic school are on the Powell Hall Stage this week as the St. Louis Symphony under guest conductor Juraj Valcuha takes on Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2" in C Minor, Op. 18 (first performed in 1901) with famed pianist André Watts as soloist and Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6" in B minor, Op. 74 (a.k.a. the "Pathetique"), which had its first performance only eight years earlier.

Rachmaninoff in the early 1900s
en.wikipedia.org
Although he as over three decades older than Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky was nonetheless a huge supporter of the younger composer. When the latter was only 16, Tchaikovsky was already predicting "a great future" for him, according to Rachmaninoff biographer Max Harrison. In an 1892 interview with the Petersburg Gazette Tchaikovsky went even farther, naming Rachmaninoff (along with Glazunov and Arensky) as one of the younger generation of composers whom he expected to take up the torch of Russian romanticism after he retired. "That made me so glad," wrote Rachmaninoff to a friend when he read the interview. "My hearty thanks to the old man for not having forgotten about me!"

Tchaikovsky's faith certainly appeared to be validated by Rachmaninoff's early successes. "By the time he was 20," writes Paul Schiavo in his SLSO program notes, "Rachmaninoff had completed a piano concerto; an opera, Aleko, which was triumphantly produced at the Bolshoi Theater; several tone poems and chamber pieces; and a number of keyboard works, including the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor. The stage seemed set for a lifetime of rich musical accomplishment."

All that came to a crashing halt when the composer's "Symphony No. 1" had its St. Petersburg premiere in 1897. The performance was a debacle (conductor Alexander Glazunov, a notorious alcoholic, was said to be conducting under the influence) and critics hated it. César Cui, for example, famously wrote that if "there were a conservatory in Hell, if one of its talented students were instructed to write a program symphony on the ‘Seven Plagues of Egypt,’ and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would bring delight to the inhabitants of Hell.”

The psychological impact on the young Rachmaninoff's was devastating. "All my self-confidence broke down," he recalled, "and the artistic satisfaction that I had looked forward to was never realized." He spiraled down into a depression so severe that friends urged him to seek help from one Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who was then making a name for himself in Moscow with hypnotherapy.

Dahl hypnotized Rachmaninoff daily for three months. "Dahl had inquired what kind of composition was desired of me," recalled the composer, "and he was informed 'a concerto for pianoforte,' for I had promised this to people in London and had given up in despair the idea of writing it. In consequence, I heard repeated, day after day, the same hypnotic formula as I lay half somnolent in an armchair in Dr. Dahl's consulting room. 'You will start to compose a concerto—You will work with the greatest of ease—The composition will be of excellent quality.' Always it was the same, without interruption."

The result was everything Rachmaninoff could have hoped for. He took up composing with a new vigor. Ideas for the concerto "began to well up within me," he reported. The second the third movements were completed by the autumn on 1900 and by the spring on 1901 the entire work was ready for a November Moscow premiere under Alexander Siloti, with the composer at the piano. It was a hit with both critics and audiences and has remained so ever since.

The Second may not be the best of Rachmaninoff's four piano concerti—both the revised First and (my favorite) the Third are more economical and generate more momentum—but its flashy (and technically demanding) solo passages, soaring melodies, and showy finale have made it a real crowd pleaser. From its famous seven-chord introduction to the big tune of the finale (popularized by Frank Sinatra in 1945 as “Full Moon and Empty Arms”), this is a concerto that is impossible to dislike.

Tchaikovsky, aged 52.
Photographed by Alfred Fedetsky
in Kharkov, 14/26 March 1893
wiki.tchaikovsky-research.net
If the Rachmaninoff concerto is brimming with the optimism and confidence of youth, Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6" is marked by the regret and despair of age. Which, given the composer's circumstances and mood at the time, is a bit surprising.

When Tchaikovsky began working on the symphony at his country house in Frolovskoe in the spring of 1893, all the signs were positive. "Although his health and spirits had been more than usually good," wrote R.L.F McCombs in program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra, "he made sure they would remain so by taking long walks, even in bad weather. He was fifty-three, popular, respected, and in fairly easy circumstances."

Tchaikovsky actually began work on the Sixth in 1891, after he returned from a trip to America, but he abandoned work on it the following year (Soviet musicologist Semyon Bogatyrev would complete it in 1950). "You know I destroyed a symphony I had been composing and only partly orchestrated in the autumn," he wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davydov in February of 1893. "During my journey I had the idea for another symphony, this time with a programme, but such a programme that will remain an enigma to everyone—let them guess; the symphony shall be entitled: A Programme Symphony (No. 6). The programme itself will be suffused with subjectivity, and not infrequently during my travels, while composing it in my head, I wept a great deal. Upon my return I sat down to write the sketches, and the work went so furiously and quickly that in less than four days the first movement was completely ready, and the remaining movements already clearly outlined in my head. The third movement is already half-done. The form of this symphony will have much that is new, and amongst other things, the finale will not be a noisy allegro, but on the contrary, a long drawn-out adagio. You can't imagine how blissful I feel in the conviction that my time is not yet passed, and to work is still possible. Of course I might be mistaken, but I don't think so."

The first performance—in St. Petersburg, with the composer conducting—did not, alas, realize those hopes. Tchaikovsky was, unfortunately, much less capable as a conductor than as a composer. "He was too diffident to demand the best results from his players," wrote McCombs, "and would rather have a half-way performance than a fuss. In public he suffered from nervousness and had a peculiar delusion that in conducting, his head was liable to fall off if he did not support it with his left hand which, of course, permitted him only the use of his right." As a result, the first performance was "received with politeness rather than enthusiasm."

That would change with subsequent performances, but Tchaikovsky never lived to see it happen; nine days after the premiere, the composer was dead. The official cause: cholera, brought on by drinking a glass of contaminated drinking water. Whether that was true or not quickly became a matter of some contention and even today theories abound that the composer committed suicide or was murdered. What is certain, though, is that the "Pathetique" has become enduringly popular.

As well it should. This exceptionally well-crafted symphony’s compelling mix of triumph and tragedy is, as the song goes, “simply irresistible”. Only a world-class grouch, for example, could refuse to applaud after the exuberant third movement and only a heart of granite could fail to be moved by the despairing finale. Those final, dying chords in the low strings are just heartbreaking. A well-conducted "Pathetique" leaves the audience feeling that they need to take a moment to exhale.

The Essentials: Juraj Valcuha conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist André Watts on Friday at 10:30 a.m. (a Coffee Concert with free Krispy Kreme doughnuts) and Saturday at 8 p.m., February 20 and 21. The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of February 16, 2015

[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 web site.

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KTK Productions presents the comic thriller Any Number Can Die through February 22. "A hilarious take off on the mystery plays of the Twenties complete with sliding panels, robed figures, wills being read at midnight, etc. The idioms, costumes, hairdos, and make up of the period add to the thrills and laughter. Four ingenious murders take place in an island mansion as a pair of elderly detectives set to work on their first case. The ever popular storm, the unexpected guests, the cryptic poem, and the missing fortune all add to the intricate and inventive mystery off which the laughs bounce." Performances take place at Southampton Presbyterian Church, 4716 Macklind. For more information: kurtainkall.org or call 314-351-8984.

Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts presents Charles Mee's Big Love Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, February 18 - March 1. "A runaway bride, one of 50 sisters escaping marriage contracts, takes refuge in a sumptuous Italian villa. Undoing her wedding dress, discarding everything underneath, she is a woman released, jumping into a bathtub, to be cleansed, unchained at last. [...] The woman named Lydia and her 49 sisters have sailed away from Greece. No sooner has the boat docked than a helicopter lands, bearing the jilted grooms, all brothers. Wearing military fatigues, as if armed for the marriage wars, they have come to claim their rightful possessions." Performances take place in the Emerson Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. Fore more information, events.webster.edu or call 314-968-7128.

Blues for Mr. Charlie
Photo: Whitney Curtis
The Performing Arts Department at Washington University presents Blues for Mr. Charlie, directed by Ron Himes, February 20 - March 1. "In this searing drama by James Baldwin, sex and racism explode in a small Southern town when a bigoted store owner kills a young black man and dumps his body on the side of the road. " The performances take place in the Edison Theater in the Mallinckrodt Student Center on the Washington University campus. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.artsci.wustl.edu.

Gateway Opera presents The Boor by Dominick Argento, based on the Chekov comedy, Friday and Saturday, February 20 and 21, at 7:30 p.m. " In this hilarious contemporary opera, a youthful widow receives an unwanted social call from a neighbor who was owed money by her late husband. Their polite conversation quickly turns into a standoff, and before the man knows what has happened, the widow has challenged him to a duel! But will she aim for the heart?" Performances take place at the Kranzberg Center 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: 1-800-838-3006 or gatewayopera.org.

Carol Schmidt
The Cabaret Project and 88.1 KDHX present the cabaret open mic night on Wednesday, February 18, from 7 to 10 PM at the Tavern of Fine Arts. “Drop by and enjoy a night of great music from St. Louis cabaret artists, backed up by the inimitable Carol Schmidt on the baby grand.” The master of ceremonies for the evening will be Chuck Lavazzi, senior performing arts critic at 88.1 KDHX. If you're planning to sing, be prepared to do one or two songs and bring music, preferably in your key. At least one of your two songs should be a medium-or up-tempo number. We'd also recommend that you have your song memorized. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt at Waterman in the Central West End. There's free parking in the lot right across the street. For more information, visit tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com or call 314-367-7549.

The Florissant Fine Arts Council presents Della's Diner on Sunday, February 22, at 4 PM at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre at Parker Road at Waterford Drive in Florissant, MO. "Join us for this Off-Broadway song and dance jukebox type musical comedy with original country blues, gospel and rockabilly tunes." For more information: florissantfinearts.com/wp1/

God of Carnage
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM through February 21. "A comedy of manners ... without the manners. Two married couples meet to sort out a playground fight between their sons. At first, niceties are observed but as the evening progresses and the rum flows, the gloves come off and the night becomes a side-splitting free-for-all." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

The Alexandra Ballet presents Adolphe Adam's Giselle Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., February 21 and 22. "The talented dancers of Alexandra Ballet will present this masterpiece of the Romantic Era at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. This poignant story is about an innocent peasant girl who grants protection and mercy to the man who betrays her. Music by Adolphe Adam and restaging by internationally-renowned choreographer Marek Cholewa. Performing the feature role of Giselle will be Alexandra Ballet Alumna Georgia Reed." The performance takes place at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri St. Louis campus. For more information: touhill.org.

Alfresco Productions presents the two-actor comedy Greater Tuna Friday through Sunday, February 20-22. Performances take place at the Alfresco Art Center, 2401 Delmar in Granite City, IL. For more information: (618) 560-1947 or www.alfrescoproductions.org.

Strut and Fret Stage presents Kilroy Was Here, a world première play written and directed by Jim Sala, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Februay 19-28. "It's 1943 and war rages abroad. At a boarding house in a provincial Illinois town, a precocious young boy entertains an eclectic bevy of roomers with his improvised radio station, his repertoire of celebrity impersonations, and his laudable dream of fomenting world peace. As the boy transforms into a man and the lofty idealism of his youth calcifies into strident dogmatism, he finds himself yearning for the relative simplicity of his childhood; for a halcyon age that was paradoxically both tranquil and acutely tumultuous." Performances take place at Yemanja Brasil Restaurante, 2900 Missouri Avenue in Benton Park. For more information: 314.361.1885, 314.276.7321, or email jommyslaw at gmail.com.

Mr. Marmalade
Photo: John Lamb
The West End Players Guild continues their 104th season with the comedy Mr. Marmalade Thursday Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, February 19-22. "Growing up isn't easy these days. Little Lucy is spending her childhood doing all the things little girls like to do - playing house, having tea parties and playing with friends both real and imaginary. But even as a tot, Lucy seems to have learned most of what she knows about life from reality TV and her childhood is chock-full of very odd, very adult stuff - the oddest of which may be Mr. Marmalade. He's the imaginary friend who rarely has time for Lucy because he's way too busy dealing with the demands of his day planner, anger management issues and some very adult naughty habits." There will also be a show on Thursday, February February 19, at 8 PM. Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union at Enright in the Central West End. For more information, visit www.westendplayers.org.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Murder in Mayberry. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Brass Rail Players present Dan Goggins' musical comedy Nunsense II: The Second Coming through February 22. The performances take place at The Turkey Hill Grange, 1375 Illinois Rte. 15 in Belleville, IL. For more information, visit brassrailplayers.org.

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble presents Or by Liz Duffy Adams Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., February 18-27. "Or, takes place (mostly) during one night in the life of Aphra Behn: poet, spy, and soon to be first professional female playwright. Aphra is desperate to get out of the spy trade. She has a shot at a production at one of only two London companies, if she can only finish her play by morning despite interruptions from sudden new love, actress Nell Gwynne, complicated royal love, King Charles II, and very dodgy ex-love, double-agent William Scot-who may be in on a plot to murder the king in the morning. Can Aphra save Charles' life, win William a pardon, resist Nell's charms, and launch her career, all in one night? " Performances take place at The Chapel Venue, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Ole Opery through April 26. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

St. Louis University Theatre presents Niel Simon's comedy Rumors February 20 - March 1. "The Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. Guests arrive to find their unconscious host bleeding and his wife missing. Hoping to avoid a scandal, his lawyer concocts a story to hide what is assumed to be the truth. But as the rest of the guests arrive, the story grows awry with everyone complicit in a hilarious cover-up that no one even really understands. Neil Simon at his farcical best!" Performances take place in Xavier Hall, 3373 West Pine Mall. For more information, call (314) 977-2998 or visit www.slu.edu/theatre.

St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley presents John Guare's comedy Six Degrees of Separation through February 21. Performances take place in the Fisher Theatre on the campus at 3400 Pershall Road. For more information, call 314-644-5522.

The Black Rep presents Stick Fly through February 22. "This is the new, knockout comedy-drama featuring steamy romance, sexual sparks and generational conflicts. A wealthy African-American family gather in Martha's Vineyard for a few, super-charged days, and the results are gasp-worthy revelations. Directed by Lorna Littleway, director of The Piano Lesson." Performances take place at the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University in midtown. For more information: theblackrep.org Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

The University of Missouri at St. Louis presents Shakespeare's The Tempest Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m., February 19-22. One of Shakespeare's last romances, The Tempest combines magical storms, shipwrecks and monsters, enslaved spirits, and the power of love, to tell the story of a father's quest for redemption." Performances take place at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. For more information, touhill.org or call 314-516-4949.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks February 21 - March 1. The performances take place in the Metcalf Theatre on the campus in Edwardsville, IL. For more information, www.siue.edu/artsandsciences/theater/ or call 618-650-2774.

COCA presents Walking the Tightrope Saturday and Sunday, February 21 and 22. “Winner of three Drama Critics Circle Awards and honored with more than a dozen nominations for acting, music, video design and more, this magnificent production is an experience adults and children can enjoy together. Written by Mike Kenny, one of England's leading writers for young audiences, and produced in Los Angeles by 24th Street Theatre, Walking the Tightrope is a creative and moving story of a grandfather and granddaughter who must redefine their relationship after Grandma leaves to "join the circus." Featuring a cast of talented actors, a sophisticated set and original music, Walking the Tightrope will not be easily forgotten.” COCA is at 524 Trinity in University City. For more information, call (314) 725-6555 or visit www.cocastl.org.

White to Gray
Photo: John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre presents White to Gray through February 22. "Mustard Seed Theatre is proud to offer the world premiere of local playwright Rob Maesaka’s White to Gray-the story of a young couple, one white and one Japanese-American, en route to the mainland from Hawaii on a cruise ship when bombs drop on Pearl Harbor. Amidst fear and uncertainty and caught in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, loyalties are tested and love comes under suspicion." Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, call (314) 719-8060 or visit the web site at www.mustardseedtheatre.com. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Edward Albee's dark comedy Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through March 1 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. "George, a professor at a small college, and his wife, Martha, have just returned home, drunk from a Saturday night party. Martha announces, amidst general profanity, that she has invited a young couple-an opportunistic new professor at the college and his shatteringly naïve new bride-to stop by for a nightcap. When they arrive the charade begins. The drinks flow and suddenly inhibitions melt. It becomes clear that Martha is determined to seduce the young professor, and George couldn't care less. But underneath the edgy banter, which is crossfired between both couples, lurks an undercurrent of tragedy and despair. George and Martha's inhuman bitterness toward one another is provoked by the enormous personal sadness that they have pledged to keep to themselves: a secret that has seemingly been the foundation for their relationship. In the end, the mystery in which the distressed George and Martha have taken refuge is exposed, once and for all revealing the degrading mess they have made of their lives." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Terrence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy through March 8. "When young Ronnie Winslow is expelled from military school for stealing a five-shilling postal order, his father wages an exhaustive fight to clear his son's name. What begins as a private matter quickly becomes a larger question of the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Though the legal battle jeopardizes his health and the reputation of the entire family, Arthur Winslow is determined that right will prevail, no matter what the sacrifice." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org.

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.