Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Preview: Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballets dominate the stage at Powell Hall this week

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If there's one thing you can count on at Christmas time, it's that someone somewhere will be putting on a production of Tchaikovsky's popular 1892 ballet The Nutcracker. This weekend (December 2-4, 2016), that includes the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. But their Nutcracker is probably going to be unlike any other you might have seen.

Tchaikovsky in 1906
That's because, to begin with, it will only be half a Nutcracker—specifically, the second half, which takes place entirely in the fanciful Kingdom of Sweets. And, since it's a concert performance, it will be a Nutcracker without dancers. What it will have, though, is "visual design" by Webster University's Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts.

Your guess is as good as mine as to what that will mean, but I can tell you that in the past the SLSO has found some fairly ingenious ways of using projected images to enhance works written for the stage, from a performance of Copland's Appalachian Spring ballet suite accompanied by watercolors inspired by the ballet to vivid projected scenery for a complete performance of Verdi's Aida.

The second act of Nutcracker certainly offers plenty of colorful scenes. There are the various "national" dances (Chinese, Arabian, Spanish, and the Russian Trepak) along with the dance of the mirlitons (a 19th-century cousin of the common kazoo as well as a type of cake). There's also the popular "Waltz of the Flowers," the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" with its famous celesta solo, and the dramatic "Pas de Deux" for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

Mother Giggle and her children
Act II also has one of the odder numbers, at least for contemporary American audiences: "La mère Gigogne et les polichinelles" (roughly: "Mother Gigogne and the puppets"). A character whose origins lie in French marionette theatre, she's usually portrayed as a woman (although often danced by a man) with a huge skirt out of which bursts a collection of tumblers and/or clowns. She would have been recognizable to Tchaikovsky's audiences. These days, not so much. The SLSO program describes the number as "Polchinelle (The Clown)," which has the advantage of being less obscure.

All of this, in any case, means that the Webster artists should find a cornucopia of visual inspiration in Tchaikovsky's music.

UPDATE: According to a press release today, December 2nd, from the SLSO: "Due to technical difficulties beyond our control, the visuals planned in partnership with Webster University Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts will not be displayed for this weekend's performances. However, there is no change to the pieces performed on the program."


Tchaikovsky dominates this weekend's concerts, in fact. Most of the first half of the evening will be taken up with a suite consisting of six selections from Swan Lake (1876) and two from Sleeping Beauty (1889) that will feature concertmaster David Halen's violin, along with Principal Cello Daniel Lee and Principal Harp Allegra Lilly. The Swan Lake numbers include dances for both the White and Black Swans and a couple of "national" dances (Russian and Hungarian). From Sleeping Beauty we get the "Entr'acte symphonique" from Act II, a piece written expressly for the noted Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer, along with music from the following scene, in which Prince Désiré discovers the sleeping Princess Aurore.

The program will open with the overture to Alexander Borodin's patriotic opera Prince Igor. Left unfinished at the time of the composer's death in 1887, Prince Igor was eventually completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. The overture was cobbled together by Glazunov, who based on themes from the opera and some sketches Borodin left behind, so in a way it's as much his work as it is Borodin's.

Alexander Borodin, 1865
No matter; it's vibrant and dramatic music, filled with memorable themes-including one that, along with many other Borodin melodies, made its way into Wright and Forrest's 1953 musical Kismet. It pops up repeatedly, but you'll hear it for the first time early in the overture, following the big brass fanfares that come right after the slow introduction. In Kismet it's the basis for the song "The Olive Tree," in which the poetic beggar Hajj realizes life might have great things in store for him.

At the podium will be former SLSO Resident Conductor Ward Stare, whose star has clearly been on the rise since he left St. Louis. I saw him conducting Francesca Zambello's excellent Porgy and Bess in Chicago a couple of years ago and he was recently appointed Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also had guest conducting gigs in Houston, Québec, and Dallas. It will be good to see him back on his old home turf.

The Essentials: Ward Stare conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist David Halen Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., December 2-4, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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