Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Symphony Preview: The Meaning of Life

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Grief, loss, and the meaning of life amidst the seeming indifference of the cosmos-these are the big ideas behind the music David Robertson will conduct with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus this weekend (November 18 - 20).

Charles Ives
Photo by Clara E. Sipprell
The concerts open with Charles Ives's enigmatic The Unanswered Question from 1908, a six-minute contemplation of the difficulty in finding The Meaning of Life in a vast and possibly empty universe. Musically, the universe is played by the strings, calmly playing cosmic chords that Ives described as "the silences of the Druids." Against this harmonic vastness, the solo trumpet intones four notes constituting (in Ives's words) the "perennial question of existence." A quartet of flutes tries (and fails) to provide an answer, finally deteriorating into chaos and silence. The trumpet asks its question one final time, but (true to the title) there's no answer.

Interestingly, Ives originally intended The Unanswered Question to be the first half of a two-part work. In that context, its full title was "A Contemplation of a Serious Matter, or The Unanswered Question” and it was followed by “A Contemplation of Nothing Serious, or Central Park in the Dark in the Good Old Summertime.” The latter piece, now known only as Central Park in the Dark, was described by Ives as “a picture in sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty years or so ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air) when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”

Like The Unanswered Question, Central Park in the Dark features slow-moving and harmonically unfettered string harmonies interrupted by increasingly aggressive and chaotic music from the rest of the orchestra that concludes with a realistic portrayal of a runaway horse and carriage careening into a fence-after which the strings continue on serenely on.

Humanity and humanity's questions come and go, but the cosmos is there for the long term.

John Adams
Photo: Vern Evans
Contemplations of eternity are also to be found in the work that concludes the first half of this weekend's concerts, On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for a memorial concert for the victims of the 9/11 attack and first performed on September 19, 2002, this single-movement work is scored for both adult and children's choruses, a large orchestra, and a pre-recorded track of New York City street sounds mixed with friends and family members of the composer reading lists of the names of those killed in the attack.

"My desire in writing this piece," says Mr. Adams in a 2002 interview reproduced on his web site, "is to achieve in musical terms the same sort of feeling one gets upon entering one of those old, majestic cathedrals in France or Italy. When you walk into the Chartres Cathedral, for example, you experience an immediate sense of something otherworldly. You feel you are in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them, and you sense their collected energy as if they were all congregated or clustered in that one spot. And even though you might be with a group of people, or the cathedral itself filled with other churchgoers or tourists, you feel very much alone with your thoughts and you find them focused in a most extraordinary and spiritual way."

The music, like the string choir of The Unanswered Question, evokes a sense of timelessness and calm. "The slowly changing aural tapestry conveys a dream-like atmosphere conducive to contemplation or, perhaps, subliminal receptivity to the emotional content of the text," writes Paul Schiavo in his program notes. "Only late into the approximately 25-minute composition does the orchestra unleash a sustained burst of pent-up energy, propelling the music forward on the kind of rapid motor rhythms that Adams has made a musical signature. The chorus joins in, intoning frantically, or ecstatically, the words 'light' and 'sky.'

"This musical eruption is, however, short-lived. Calm comes once more upon the proceedings, and the chorus turns to words of family, connection, and love. Both the music and text are, in the end, consoling and life-affirming."

The combination of the recorded soundtrack and the sung text, which is drawn from the missing persons signs posted around the area that came to be known as "Ground Zero," is both hypnotic and, to my ears, unbearably sad. As Mr. Adams notes in the interview, the language of these signs is "invariably of the most simple and direct kind. No one stunned by the shock of a sudden loss like this has time nor inclination to speak or write with eloquent or flowery language."

Adams himself declined to describe his music as "healing", though: "The event will always be there in memory," he observes, "and the lives of those who suffered will forever remain burdened by the violence and the pain. Time might make the emotions and the grief gradually less acute, but nothing, least of all a work of art, is going to heal a wound of this sort. Instead, the best I can hope for is to create something that has both serenity and the kind of 'gravitas' that those old cathedrals possess."

After intermission comes what is probably the big draw for many concert-goers, the Mozart Requiem. Begun during the final months of the composer's life, it's a mostly stirring and affecting setting of the standard Latin mass for the dead that's understandably popular with performers and audiences alike. I say “mostly” because Mozart died before he could complete it and the parts commonly attributed to his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr (who may or may not have had help from others) are clearly the work of a second-rater. The “Benedictus”, in particular, could do with some editing.

The first page of Mozart's Requiem
But then, early everything about the Requiem has been a source of dispute since Mozart's death, including the wisdom of using Süssmayr's completion. At least two other completions were done in the early 19th century and several musicologists have produced their own over the last four or five decades. You can read all about it on Wikipedia or take a look at Christoph Wolff's 1994 book Mozart's Requiem.

But I digress.

The important thing is that four-fifths (or thereabouts) of a Mozart masterpiece is still very fine stuff. The anguished shrieks of the violins in the “Requiem aeternam”, the dramatic “Dies irae”, the heartfelt quartet of the “Recordare”, and the famous baritone and trombone duet of the “Tuba mirum” are only a few of the many memorable things in this lovely score. Coming after the Adams work, I expect it will carry an even more powerful emotional punch.

The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soloists Caitlin Lynch, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and Kevin Thompson, bass in Mozart's Requiem and John Adam's On the Transmigration of Souls, along with The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 18 - 20, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio. For more information:

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