Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Symphony Preview, April 2 and 3, 2016: Child's play

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Does anybody out there remember Professor Backwards? His real name was James Edmonson, and from the 1950s to the early 1970s he entertained TV audiences with his comedy and his remarkable ability to read, write, and speak backwards.

Professor Backwards
(James Edmonson)
Gustav Mahler did something similar with his Symphony No. 4, which is the featured work on this weekend's concerts by the SLSO and David Robertson. He wrote the piece in reverse order, starting with the fourth movement and working backwards to the first.

Mahler wasn't going for laughs, though. Instead, he was rethinking and recycling a piece he had written earlier: the 1892 song "Das himmlische leben" ("Heavenly Life"), which describes heaven as it might be seen through the eyes of a child. An expanded version of the song was originally intended as the finale for his Symphony No. 3 (which the SLSO performed in the fall of 2012), but as his thoughts on that work developed, it became apparent that the song wasn't really going to fit in. Instead, he made it the culmination of a symphony of its own.

"Mahler had to plan parts of the Fourth Symphony from the end back," writes Michael Steinberg in program notes for the San Francisco Symphony, "so that the song would appear to be the outcome and conclusion of what was in fact composed eight years after the song. From a late letter of Mahler's to the Leipzig conductor Georg Göhler, we know how important it was to him that listeners clearly understand how the first three movements all point toward and are resolved in the finale."

Gustav Mahler
The fourth is the shortest of all Mahler's symphonies, clocking in at just under an hour, and it also uses the smallest orchestra. With over 80 players it's still large, even by late Romantic standards, but Mahler uses the instruments in smaller, more intimate configurations. The big climaxes of the third or fifth symphonies are largely absent here; instead, the fourth feels almost like chamber music most of the time.

And it just oozes charm. From the jingling sleigh bells that begin the work to the touching naiveté of the little song that closes it, this is music intended to engage and beguile the audience. "Many a love affair with Mahler has begun with the sunlit Fourth Symphony," writes Mr. Steinberg. "Mahler himself thought of it as a work whose transparency, relative brevity, and non-aggressive stance might win him new friends."

No such luck, as it turns out. "It enraged most of its first hearers," reports Mr. Steinberg. "Munich hated it and so did most of the German cities—Stuttgart being, for some reason, the exception—where Felix Weingartner took it on tour with the Kaim Orchestra immediately after the premiere." Conditioned by the first three symphonies to expect something of Olympian stature, listeners were apparently unwilling to recognize that Mahler was just being Mahler. "Today," continues Mr. Steinberg, "we perceive more clearly that what he was up to was writing a Mahler symphony, uncharacteristic only in its all but exclusive involvement with the sunny end of the expressive range."

Maurice Ravel in 1925
So maybe he was going for laughs, after all—or at least, for a nostalgic smile at the way this music evokes a kind of childlike innocence.

Childhood, in fact, is a recurring theme is this weekend's concerts, which open with Maurice Ravel's Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose) Suite. It's a 1911 orchestration of some fairy-tale inspired pieces for piano four hands he originally wrote for Mimie and Jean, the young children of the composer's great friends Ciba and Ida Godebska. He had hoped the Godebska sibs would even give the first public performance of the work, but it proved too challenging for them—or at least for Mimie:
"Between 1906 and 1908," recalled Mimie three decades later, "we used to have long holidays at my parents' house in the country, La Grangette at Valvins. It was there that Ravel finished, or at least brought us, Ma mère l'Oye. But neither my brother nor I was of an age to appreciate such a dedication and we regarded it rather as something entailing hard work. Ravel wanted us to give the first public performance by the idea fill me with a cold terror. My brother, being less timid and more gifted on the piano, coped quite well. But despite lessons from Ravel I used to freeze to such and extent that the idea had to be abandoned."

Ravel got a lot of mileage out of those little pieces, using them not only for the suite you'll hear this weekend but also as the basis for a full-length ballet that premiered on 29 January 1912 at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris. The suite is a wonderfully evocative collection of little musical pictures of characters and situations which, as Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, owe more to Charles Perrault's retellings of classic folk tales than to Mother Goose. I'm particularly fond of "Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (Conversations of Beauty and the Beast)", if only because it gives the contrabassoon a rare opportunity to star as the voice of the Beast, but all five movements represent Ravel at his most engaging.

In between the Ravel and the Mahler is Lonely Child, a strangely otherworldly piece for chamber orchestra and soprano written by Canadian composer Claude Vivier for Marie-Danielle Parent, who first performed it with the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra in 1981. The text, by the composer, is a sort of lullaby written in a combination of French and a language invented by the composer. "Bel enfant de la lumière dors, dors, dors, toujours dors," it begins. "Les rêves viendront, les douces fées viendront danser avec toi." ("Beautiful child of the light, sleep, sleep, sleep, forever sleep. The dreams will come, the gentle fairies will dance with you.").

Claude Vivier
The child being rocked to sleep here just might be the composer himself "We can note," writes Mr. Schiavo, "that Vivier was given up for adoption at age three and grew up in a series of orphanages. As a child Vivier was afraid of the dark, and the words, both real and invented, may be consoling both an imaginary child and his former self." With its evocation of fairies, elves, wizards, and magical places, the text is certainly the sort of thing likely to sweep even the most recalcitrant child off to dreamland.

The music is perhaps less dreamy. There's a kind of restlessness and even tension here and there, and the eerie string harmonics towards the end sound like they might be more at home in a horror movie. But maybe that's just an acknowledgement of the fact that there can't be light without some darkness. Overall the music sounds both ancient and modern at once, rather like the work of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt with its deliberate references to Gregorian chant. It offers a nice contrast to both the Ravel and the Mahler.

The soloist for both the Mahler and the Vivier is Susanna Phillips, last seen on the Powell Hall stage in the orchestra's highly praised concert version of Britten's Peter Grimes in November 2013. She has an impressive resume, with leading roles at The Met, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Boston Lyric Opera, as well as guest soloist appearances with the San Francisco, Dallas, and Sydney symphony orchestras. The New York Times called her performance in Peter Grimes "radiant," so you know what to expect.

The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with soprano soloist Susanna Phillips in Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, Claude Vivier's Lonely Child and Mahler's Symphony No. 4 Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., April 2 and 3. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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