We call it a soundtrack now, but back before movies and recorded sound the music that accompanied a dramatic presentation was performed by live musicians and was known as "incidental music." This weekend, as part of its ongoing Shakespeare Festival, the St. Louis Symphony and guest conductor Hans Graf gave us sterling performances of a couple of excellent examples from the mid-nineteenth century.
[Find out more about the music with my Symphony Preview.]
The concerts opened with a brief (six-movement) suite from the score Gabriel Fauré wrote in 1889 for an Odéon Theatre production of "Shylock," a verse adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" by the playwright and poet Edmond Haraucourt. The play, which (its title notwithstanding) emphasized the romantic subplot over Shylock's tragedy, quickly dropped from sight. Fauré's music has fared little better and, in fact, this weekend marked its first appearance on the Powell Hall stage.
That "Chanson" was the first of two languorous love songs Fauré wrote for the play, and tenor DeWayne Trainer delivered them with great feeling, along with a real sense of what program annotator Paul Schiavo calls Fauré's "quiet rapture." Mr. Graf conducted with a sure hand, bringing out all the delicate shades of this shimmering score.
Maestro Graf's solution to that problem was to collaborate with playwright John Murrell and Canadian actress Maureen Thomas to create a kind of mini-version of the play in which Ms. Thomas plays all ten of the principal roles, skillfully switching between characters with small but clearly delineated changes in voice, body language, and even accent. Ms. Thomas appeared with the symphony this weekend, turning in a bravura performance that made for a very entertaining evening. The use of special blue lighting and a darkened stage for the "fairy land" sequences were also very effective.
Mr. Graf found lots of interesting moments and elegantly shaped phrases in this music, especially in the coda of the "Overture," and his "Scherzo" was noticeably fleet-footed. He took it at a tempo that might have been risky with a less capable orchestra, but there were no such concerns here. This was, overall, a very coherent and dramatically effective reading.
The St. Louis Symphony's Shakespeare-themed concerts continue next weekend as Gilbert Varga conducts the orchestra in selections from Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet" and Tchaikovsky's rarely heard "Hamlet" overture. The program includes Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 2 with Denis Kozhukhin as the soloist. Performances are Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., March 5 and 6; visit the SLSO web site for details.