Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Symphony Preview: E Pluribus Unum

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For Election Day weekend, former music director Leonard Slatkin will conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program of works by American composers. Ironically, given the outcome of that election, the evening is a celebration of our nation's diversity, with music informed by African-American and Jewish-American culture, as well as two major works by gay composers.

You can't say Fate doesn't have a dark sense of humor.

Leonard Slatkin
The concerts open with Kinah (Hebrew for "elegy") written by Mr. Slatkin and first performed by him last December with the Detroit Symphony, where he is currently Music Director. It's a memorial to his late father Felix Slatkin, conductor of (among others) the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Slatkin's mother, Eleanor Aller, was a distinguished cellist who often played with the Warner Brothers Orchestra. In 1963, she and her husband were scheduled to present a public performance of a work they had often practiced at home but had never performed in public, the Brahms Double Concerto. That performance never happened. Between the Wednesday night rehearsal and the planned Saturday night performance, Felix Slatkin suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 47.

In prefatory remarks for the 2015 premiere, Mr. Slatkin described Kinah as "a tribute to my parents and in particular of my dad's passing because it's based on four notes that form the opening theme of the Brahms Concerto. It's heard in chords, and it's heard in fragments of melodies that occur throughout the work. It is only heard in more or less its complete form at the very end."

The scoring includes an offstage violin and cello (representing the composer's parents) that only play at the very end. They play fragments of the Brahms melody but never complete any of the phrases-a reminder that they never played the complete work. This weekend, the cello part will be played by the performer who performed at the world premiere, Mr. Slatkin's brother Frederick Zlotkin. The instrument he will be playing belonged to Mr. Slatkin's mother.

Listening to the work on line, I was struck immediately by a sense of delicate beauty, longing, and loss. If you can sit through all twelve minutes of this with a dry eye, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Samuel Barber, photographed by
Carl Van Vechten, 1944
Up next is a work premiered the year before the elder Slatkin's death, the first and only piano concerto by Samuel Barber (gay composer no. 1). Barber began writing the work while he was a student at Curtis Institute, gave up, and didn't try again for over three decades, when the piano firm of G. Schirmer commissioned him to write a new concerto for pianist John Browning. "Inspired by the muscular virtuosity of his chosen soloist," writes René Spencer Saller in her program notes, "Barber began working on the concerto the following spring. To reacquaint himself with the form, he pored over contemporary scores by Boulez, Copland, Webern, Berg, and Schoenberg. He finished the first two movements in 1960, but the finale remained in flux until only two weeks before the premiere, in September of 1962. Barber incorporated technical advice from both Browning and Vladimir Horowitz, who persuaded him that the third movement was unplayable at the original tempo."

Even at the designated tempo of Allegro molto, that last movement is a pretty wild ride-a fiercely energetic perpetual motion machine that requires a pianist of real skill and stamina. Olga Kern, the originally scheduled soloist, would have been a natural for this. Fortunately her substitute, Elizabeth Joy Roe, apparently knows the work well, having recorded it for Decca with the London Symphony Orchestra under Emil Tabakov.

The second half of this weekend's concerts starts with a suite drawn from the 1938 ballet Billy the Kid by our second gay composer, Aaron Copland. Composed to a scenario by Lincoln Kirsten for Ballet Caravan, Billy the Kid was the first of Copland's two "cowboy" ballets (the other one is the popular Rodeo) and the first major work to display the popular, "open" sound that would come to characterize his most often-played pieces. It was also the first time he incorporated American folk songs into his music (although he had already used Mexican tunes in El Salon Mexico two years earlier).

Aaron Copland, 1962
By CBS Television - eBay
itemphoto frontphoto back,
Public Domain
Copland's Billy the Kid is not the brutal killer of reality but rather a symbolic figure who is part outlaw and part tragic hero. In addition, as Richard Freed writes in his lines notes for the 1985 recording of the complete ballet Mr. Slatkin and the SLSO, "[o]thers have recognized in the music a symbolic representation of the various elements in the American 'frontier spirit' that made possible the westward expansion."

Certainly the music vividly evokes the vast plains of the mythic west with wide, open harmonies as well as a bustling frontier town with lively polyrhythms and a climactic gun battle with percussion outbursts. This is cinematic stuff that makes it easy to conjure up the action of the ballet in the mind's eye.

The concerts close with Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture for Orchestra by the noted composer and arranger Robert Russell Bennett. It's a work featuring African-American musical ideas translated for the stage by a Jewish-American composer and then arranged by a native Missourian who would go on to work with some of the biggest names in Broadway and Hollywood. In many ways it encapsulates our nation's rich, multi-cultural heritage.

Although Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is now widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th century opera, it took (to quote one of the opera's lyrics) “a long pull to get there”.
With a book by DuBose Heyward (based on his own original novel and play) and music and lyrics by the Brothers Gershwin, the original 1935 Theatre Guild production was a financial failure, and critical reaction was mixed and, from a contemporary standpoint, clueless. New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson dismissed it out of hand, and the paper's music critic, Olin Downes, found the mix of vernacular musical elements and sophisticated symphonic form completely baffling (a position which he would later recant).

Despite revivals of interest in the 1940s and 1950s, Porgy and Bess remained an essentially marginal work until a 1976 production of the complete score by the Houston Grand Opera—one that restored nearly an hour of music that had been cut from earlier productions—demonstrated conclusively that Gershwin's crowning achievement was also a great work of musical art.

George Gerwhsin, 1937
Some expansions and alternations not withstanding, the 1942 Bennett arrangement sticks pretty closely to Gershwin's own orchestration and covers some of the same territory as the composer's 1936 Catfish Row suite (which the SLSO recorded with Mr. Slatkin in 1990) including the banjo solo for "I Got Plenty o' Nothing". If you're a fan of the opera, you'll find a lot to like here, including nearly all of the opera's "greatest hits." Although I have to say I miss the Act I fugue that accompanies the murder of Robbins from Gershwin's own suite.

The Essentials: Leonard Slatkin conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist Olga Kern in Barber's Piano Concerto, Copland's Billy the Kid Suite, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: Symphonic Picture for Orchestra, and Slatkin's own composition Kinah. Performances are Friday at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 11 - 13, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio.

Mr. Slatkin will also conduct Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Overture as part of a concert by the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra on Friday at 8 p.m. Gemma New conducts the rest of the program, which includes music by Copland, Grieg, and Beethoven.

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