Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Symphony Preview, February 19 and 20, 2016: The Shakespeare celebration begins

Shakespeare has inspired an astonishing amount of music over the centuries, and over the next four weeks the St. Louis Symphony, in partnership with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, is giving us a wonderfully varied sampler of it.

The "Chandos Portrait" of Shakespeare
The orchestra's four-concert Shakespeare series begins this Friday and Saturday with a program that spans over a hundred and fifty years, beginning with the overture to Hector Berlioz's 1862 opera "Béatrice et Bénedict," based on Shakespeare's comedy "Much Ado About Nothing."

Berlioz wrote the libretto himself (even though he neither spoke nor read English all that well), considerably condensing the original "battle of the sexes" comedy in the process. Huge swathes of plot were axed, along with great comic characters like Constable Dogberry. Nevertheless, it's still (to quote NPR's "World of Opera") "an appealing and insightful comedy" that combines "the signature brilliance and bombast" of Berlioz with " the sly, comedic insights" of Shakespeare's play. And while it doesn't make the world-wide top 50 at, it does come in at number 32 in France, where both it and Berlioz's other big Shakespeare opera, "Romeo et Juliette," remain fairly popular.

The overture quotes extensively from the opera but, Berlioz being the skilled composer that he was, it's more than just a collection of tunes. "The Overture," writes Michel Austin at The Hector Berlioz web site, "is one of Berlioz's most delicate and subtle orchestral pieces, and its allusiveness constantly teases the listener...Though drawn from no less than six different arias or ensembles, the music is seamlessly fused by Berlioz into a coherent symphonic whole, much as Weber had done in his overtures to Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon." And it manages all that in just around eight minutes.

Harriet Smithson as Ophelia
Berlioz, as you may recall, became smitten with both Shakespeare and the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson at the same time. He wooed her for years and finally won her after convincing her to attend a performance of the work that she inspired, his titanic "Symphonie Fantastique". They were married after Berlioz threatened to kill himself with an opium overdose if she didn't say "yes". Alas, the marriage, unlike Berlioz's fascination with Shakespeare, did not last.

In addition to operas, Shakespeare has inspired his share of great incidental music to accompany his plays. Probably the best-known Shakespearean score was composed by Mendelssohn for a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1842. The symphony will be performing that next weekend, but this weekend we get selections from Sibelius's far less familiar score for a 1926 Royal Theatre of Copenhagen production of "The Tempest."

Written late in Shakespeare's career (it may, in fact, be the last thing he wrote without a collaborator) "The Tempest" has an autumnal feel to it. As Wikipedia notes, "early critics saw Prospero as a representation of Shakespeare, and his renunciation of magic as signaling Shakespeare's farewell to the stage." In this respect, Prospero's speech in Act IV becomes especially poignant:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And—like the baseless fabric of this vision—
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep
Sibelius in 1923
Photo by Henry B. Goodwin
It seems only fitting, then, that Sibelius's score for "The Tempest" was one of the last things he wrote before the great compositional silence that marked the last three decades of his life. As Prospero put down his books, so Sibelius put down his pen—but not before creating a big, impressive score of 34 pieces (plus an Epilogue written a year later), for vocalists, mixed-voice choir, harmonium, and a large orchestra.

The composer would later reduce the music to two suites, but for this St. Louis premiere performance Maestro Robertson has pulled selections together from both suites and combined them with readings from the play by actors whose names and voices will likely be familiar to St. Louis theatre lovers. St. Louis stage veteran Joneal Joplin will play Prospero, with the versatile Ben Nordstrom and Webster Conservatory student Sigrid Wise and the lovers Ferdinand and Miranda. The sprite Ariel will be played by another Webster Conservatory student,t August Stamper. They'll be directed by Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis Associate Artistic Director Bruce Longworth and dressed by Festival costumer Abby Dorning. Michael B. Perkins, whose work has enhanced local theatre and opera productions, will be providing video design.

After intermission, Shakespeare takes a back seat to the "Thousand and One Nights" as violinist Leila Josefowicz joins the orchestra for John Adams's "Scheherazade.2." First performed last March by Ms. Josefowicz and the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert, this "Dramatic Symphony" was inspired by a visit to an exhibit at the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris, the theme of which was the history of the Arabian Nights stories.

What Mr. Adams took away from the exhibit, however, was not the exotic orientalism that inspired Rimsky-Korsakov's famous "Scheherazade," but—as he writes on his web site—something much darker:
The casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many of these tales prodded me to think about the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated that we see today in the news on a daily basis. In the old tale Scheherazade is the lucky one who, through her endless inventiveness, is able to save her life. But there is not much to celebrate here when one thinks that she is spared simply because of her cleverness and ability to keep on entertaining her warped, murderous husband...

So I was suddenly struck by the idea of a "dramatic symphony" in which the principal character role is taken by the solo violin—and she would be Scheherazade. While not having an actual story line or plot, the symphony follows a set of provocative images: a beautiful young woman with grit and personal power; a pursuit by "true believers;" a love scene which is both violent and tender; a scene in which she is tried by a court of religious zealots ("Scheherazade and the Men with Beards"), during which the men argue doctrine among themselves and rage and shout at her only to have her calmly respond to their accusations); and a final "escape, flight and sanctuary" which must be the archetypal dream of any woman importuned by a man or men.

John Adams
Photo: Lambert Orkis,
You can find a more detailed description of the work in René Spencer Saller's program notes and a complete performance on YouTube. Mr. Adams's music has become quite challenging lately, so I'd recommend taking the time to read the former and hear the latter. This is a highly dramatic and emotionally charged piece, often quite intense and even disturbing. You will want to be prepared.

Ms. Josefowicz is not the only soloist in " Scheherazade.2," by the way. The work also features a prominent role for the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer commonly used in Hungary and nearby nations like Poland, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Greece. The cimbalom is featured prominently in Zoltán Kodály's "Háry János" suite as well as in works by Stravinsky, Liszt, and Bartók. Adams uses it for a variety of atmospheric effects, including a somewhat delirious duet with the violin in the second movement, "A Long Desire (Love Scene)". The cimbalom soloist this weekend is Chester Englander.

The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist Leila Josefowicz in music by Sibelius, Berlioz, and John Adams at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., February 19 and 20. There will also be a special " Tales from Shakespeare" Family Series concert on Sunday at 3 p.m. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information:

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