Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Symphony Preview: The folk school

This weekend (October 14 - 16, 2016) guest conductor Hannu Lintu leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program of works by composers with their roots firmly in the traditions of their native lands: Poland's Witold Lutoslawski (1913 - 1994), Czechoslovakia's Antonín Dvorák (1841 - 1904), and Russia's Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971).

Witold Lutoslawski
Photo: W. Pniewski and
L. Kowalski
Lutoslawski, whose music opens the program, embraced his Polish heritage in many of his early works, especially those written in the aftermath of World War II. But the time he wrote this weekend's opener, Chain 3, in 1986, the composer had, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, "evolved into a modernist whose music is international in style". The piece is the last of a trio of Chain pieces that Lutoslawski wrote in the 1980s, each of which was written for very different musical forces. Chain 3 is scored for a large orchestra-just under 100 players this weekend. Like its two companion works, it consists of small musical ideas which overlap and combine, like the links of a chain, to create a larger aural whole.

As it builds towards its conclusion, Chain 3 creates an impressive "wall of sound" that would have done Phil Spector proud and incorporates elements of aleatoric or "chance" music in that (quoting Mr. Schiavo again) "certain passages to be played ad libitum, with only loose coordination among the players." That sounds like it might be a recipe for sonic chaos and to some extent it is, but it's controlled chaos and pretty compelling.

Up next is a masterpiece that leaves nothing to chance and offers great opportunities for a soloist willing to take on its technical and emotional challenges: Dvorák's Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104.

The cello doesn't appear in the symphonic spotlight that often. It's not that there aren't concerti out there (although far fewer than for violin or piano); it's just that most of them are relatively obscure. The Dvorák A minor concerto is probably the most popular-right up there with the Elgar-and justifiably so. Written during the composer's final year in America, it's nevertheless a work that is suffused with the dark romanticism of the Bohemian countryside that the composer loved so dearly.

The Dvorák family in New York, 1893
This is mature and deeply felt music of genuinely symphonic proportions. It's also technically challenging without being superficially flashy. There are no cadenzas, for example, and the demands on the soloist's technique arise naturally out of the concerto's dramatic narrative.

To play this concerto well, then, you need not only nimble hands but also a warm heart. This is music of deep sorrow and overflowing joy. The soloist had better be open to all of it.

The cellist this weekend is Germany's Alban Gerhardt, a man praised as "one of the finest cellists around" by The Guardian and dubbed "Ein Kantabilitätszauberer und Meister virtuoser Rasanz" ("a magician of cantabile playing and a master of virtuosic panache" by Der Tagesspiel. "His gift for shedding fresh light on familiar scores," says his SLSO program bio, "along with his appetite for investigating new repertoire from centuries past and present, truly set him apart from his peers." All of which suggests that he has the right combination of skills to not only make the most of the concerto, but to offer some fresh insights into it as well.

The concerts this weekend close with a work in which folk influences are visual as well as auditory: the 1947 version of Stravinsky's Petrushka ballet, originally presented by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris in 1911 with the legendary Pierre Monteux in the orchestra pit. Stravinsky was struck by the idea for the ballet while he was in the midst of working on the score for what would prove to be his most (in)famous Diaghilev collaboration, Le Sacre du Printemps.

Here's the composer describing his inspiration (as quoted in program notes for the Minnesota Orchestra): "I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet-blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet." Even without the dancers and scenery, this is tremendously descriptive music. If you're unfamiliar with it, I think you'll find it easy to play the story out in your mind's eye. Depending on your imagination, it might even be more vivid than the real thing.

Nijinsky as Petrushka
When Diaghilev discovered that Stravinsky had stopped work on Sacre for Petrushka he was indignant, but as soon as the composer began to play the score on his piano, the impresario was smitten. With the great Vaslav Nijinsky in the title role, the ballet was well received and went on to be one of the most popular items in the company's repertory and in Stravinsky's catalog.

Originally conceived as a work for piano and orchestra, Petrushka retains a prominent role for that instrument-a role emphasized even more in the 1947 revision you'll hear this weekend. At the keyboard will be Peter Henderson who, while not officially a member of the orchestra, nevertheless frequently appears as an ensemble keyboard player with them and has occasionally even been in the solo spot-something I wish would happen more often. I recall with fondness his remarkable performance of Frederic Rzewski's daunting The People United Will Never Be Defeated! at the Pulitzer Foundation back in 2012.

I also recall conductor Hannu Lintu's previous appearances with the SLSO fondly. He's a commanding and visually compelling figure on the podium. His big gestures are striking, but he can also coax delicate sounds with a minimum of physical display. He has, in short, a nearly ideal mixture of romantic intensity and intellectual control-which should work well for a program this varied.

The Essentials: Hannu Lintu conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with cello soloist Alban Gerhardt, on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. October 14 - 16. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio.

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