Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Symphony Preview: A little traveling music

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Guest conductor Robert Spano steps up to the podium this weekend (November 25-27, 2016) to lead the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a couple of vivid tone poems and a Beethoven piano concerto so noble in character it picked up the nickname "Emperor."

Jean Sibelius
The concerts open with Pohjola's Daughter from 1906, one of Jean Sibelius's many tone poems inspired by the Kalevala, an epic poem by Elias Lönnrot based on Finnish oral folklore and mythology. Originally published in 1835 and then again in an expanded edition in 1849, the Kalevala quickly attained the status of national epic in Finland and acted as a source of inspiration for Sibelius for many years.

The story told in Pohjola's Daughter is that of the aged but still vigorous warrior, minstrel, and sorcerer Väinämöinen. On his way home from one of his many adventures, he encounters one of the many daughters of Pohjola, a magical land in the far north. This particular daughter is seated on a rainbow and spinning cloth out of gold and silver fibers.

Poor Väinämöinen is smitten but, as Richard Freed writes in program notes for the National Symphony Orchestra, "she is not impressed. His overtures are answered in riddles, and when he perseveres the temptress sets him on a series of impossible tasks. He deals successfully with every challenge but the last, in which he wounds himself beyond the powers of his own magic to heal. Defeated but not humiliated, old Väinämöinen resumes his journey and the healing of his wounds begins as the laughing girl and her attendant spirits vanish."

Pohjola's Daughter begins with a vivid evocation of the dark and brooding Finnish landscape conjured up initially by low strings and deep-voiced wind instruments like the bassoon, contrabassoon, and bass clarinet. Before long, Väinämöinen arrives on the scene in the form of a heroic brass fanfare, to which Pohjola's daughter responds, decked out in diaphanous flutes and harp. Väinämöinen's futile attempts to perform his assigned tasks make up the dramatic middle section, after which the two main themes come back, followed by a quiet coda in which the strings slowly fade to black as poor Väinämöinen limps home to mull over his bad romantic choices.

Ottorino Respighi
Somewhat surprisingly, this weekend will mark this work's first performance by the St. Louis Symphony. Or maybe not; Sibelius was regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned for much of the 20th century despite being championed by luminaries like Leonard Bernstein. It wasn't until the 1980s that critics started to once again appreciate the Finnish master's unique voice.

Up next is The Fountains of Rome, the first in Ottorino Respighi's very popular "Roman trilogy" of tone poems composed between 1916 and 1928. In only fifteen minutes, Fountains takes you through a day in Rome. "In this symphonic poem", wrote Respighi in a preface to the score (quoted in its entirety in Paul Schiavo's program notes), "the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome's fountains, contemplated at the hour when their characters are most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or at which their beauty is most impressive to the observer."

We see the sun rise through the mists of the fountain at Valle Giulia, spend the morning frolicking with mythical creatures at the Triton Fountain, marvel at Neptune's majestic chariot at the Trevi Fountain at noon, and finally watch the sun go down behind the Fountain at Villa Medici. "The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, the twittering of birds, the rustling of leaves," Respighi concludes. "Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night."

It is, in short, a quick trip to the Eternal City without long security lines or jet lag. Such a deal!

There are many apocryphal stories about how the work that concludes this weekend's concerts, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, op. 73, got the nickname "Emperor." Personally, I think it's just a nod to the noble character of the work overall and of the main theme of the first movement in particular.

As if you didn't know.
Its noble character not withstanding, the concerto was written under the cloud of war and occupation. When Beethoven was writing the work in 1809, Vienna was not so much the fabled “City of Dreams” as a metropolis of nightmares. The French laid siege to it with shelling so fierce that at one point the composer took refuge in his brother's house and covered his head with pillows to escape the din. “[L]ife around me”, he wrote, “is wild and disturbing, nothing but drums, cannons, soldiers, misery of every sort.” The royal family-including Beethoven's friend and patron Archduke Rudolf-fled, along with many of the notable families with whom the composer had become close.

Left alone and, once the French occupation began, in difficult financial circumstances due to rapid inflation, Beethoven had little else to do but compose. The fifth concerto is probably the most famous work to emerge from this difficult period, although the Op. 81a piano sonata (“Les Adieux”) is probably a close second. Both were dedicated to Rudolph.

Much has been written about the Concerto No. 5, so I won't presume to waste your time with my own analysis, especially when there are concise and informative articles on Wikipedia and at the Classy Classical blog. The magisterial first movement, the wistful second, and the jolly concluding rondo all show Beethoven at his best.

The soloist this weekend will be the multi-talented Stephen Hough (he's a composer and a writer on music and theology as well as a virtuoso pianist), whom I last saw in the SLSO's 2012 "Rach Fest"-a series of concerts in which Mr. Hough took on the daunting task of performing Rachmaninoff's first, second, and third piano concertos over the course of two weeks. He demonstrated then that he had both tremendous power and a delicate touch, which should serve him well in the Beethoven.

The essentials: Robert Spano conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and piano soloist Stephen Hough in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor"), Respighi's The Pines of Rome, and Pohjola's Daughter by Sibelius. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 25-27, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio For more information:

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