Monday, January 09, 2017

Preview: Made in America, the St. Louis Symphony season resumes

[UPDATE: The Friday, January 13, concert has been cancelled because of an ice storm.  The Saturday and Sunday concerts are still scheduled to go ahead as planned.  If you have tickets for Friday, you can call the box office at 314-534-1700 to exchange them for Saturday or Sunday.]

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The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra resumes its regular concert series this weekend (Saturday and Sunday, January 14 and 15) with a preview of the repertoire for its tour of Spain, which consists of appearances in Valencia on February 8, Madrid on February 9 and 10, and Oviedo on February 11. All three works on the program were written here in the USA, although only one of them is actually the work of an American composer.

John Adams
That native-born American is John Adams, whose "The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra" opens the concerts. Written for but eventually dropped from his groundbreaking 1987 opera Nixon in China, this short (around 12 minutes) piece was intended to accompany a surrealistic scene in which a painting of Chairman Mao comes to life and dances with his widow during a state dinner. It has since had an independent life of its own and is probably one of the composer's most commonly heard short works, right up there with his "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" from 1986.

Up next is Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35, which first saw the light of day right here in Mound City back in 1947. Jascha Heifetz was the soloist, and on the podium was the French-American conductor Vladimir Golschmann. Golschmann was music director of the SLSO from 1931 to 1958 (the longest-reigning SLSO music director to date) and made a number of recordings with the orchestra.

Korngold's name will be familiar to classic film fans. Born in Moravia in 1897, Korngold was a child prodigy hailed as a "musical genius" by Gustav Mahler. He composed his first ballet at age 11 and his most famous opera, Die tote Stadt, at 23. In 1934 director Max Reinhardt enticed Korngold to Hollywood to write the music for his lavish film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (well worth seeing, despite the many cuts in Shakespeare's text). He returned to Austria, but was drawn back to California in 1938 to write the score for The Adventures of Robin Hood. While he was there, Hitler's Anschluss of Austria took place, and Korngold became an émigré ("We thought of ourselves as Viennese," he would recall later. "Hitler made us Jewish.")

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Even if you didn't know Korngold was a film composer, you could guess it by the lush romantic sound of this music. You might also recognize some of the themes since Korngold, like many other notable composers throughout history, was not shy about recycling his own musical material. In this case, he repurposed melodies from the films Juarez (1939), Anthony Adverse (1936), Another Dawn (1937), and—in the lively finale—The Prince and the Pauper (1937). It's flashy stuff and should fit nicely under the hands of soloist Gil Shaham (Mr. Robertson's brother-in-law), who did such an impressive job with it the last time he performed the concerto with Mr. Robertson and the SLSO in 2014.

Closing the concerts is the Symphony No. 9 in E minor, op. 95, (“From the New World”) by Antonín Dvořák. The Czech master wrote it during a visit to America in the early 1890s, and while he never explicitly quotes any American folk material, there's still something about this music that strongly suggests America. From the flute theme in the first movement that seems to echo "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," to the second movement Largo that has (at least for me) always evoked the majestic solitude of the plains (Dvořák said he wrote it after reading Longfellow's "Hiawatha"), to the "bluesy" flatted seventh chords of the finale, Dvořák "New World" symphony just shouts "USA"—even if it does so with a strong Czech accent.

Some critics have complained of the symphony's structural weaknesses and its episodic nature. In his book Nineteenth-Century Romanticism in Music, for example, British musicologist Rey M. Longyear disses the composer's "labored attempts" at cyclic form and dismisses it as "one of [Dvořák's] weaker works."

Dvořák with his friends and family
in New York
English composer/conductor Julius Harrison, on the other hand, had a more balanced view in an essay published posthumously in The Symphony (Penguin Books, 1967). He acknowledged that the symphony "has come in for considerable criticism as being mainly a succession of enchanting and virile tunes loosely strung together in patchwork style, presided over or helped out by a strongly rhythmic phrase bundled into each movement whenever Dvořák found himself wondering how best to proceed." But he then went on to note that "only a cynic can be deaf to the call of this warm-blooded music, so spontaneous it all sounds even in its moments of calculated joinery… The symphony was in fact a heartfelt greeting from the New World to [Dvořák's] friends parted from him by circumstances and the ocean."

I couldn't agree more. This tremendously appealing piece is one of the first classical works I ever encountered, and I've never lost my affection for it. If you've never heard it before, I'll bet it will strike you the same way.

The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist Gil Shaham on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., January 14 and 15. The concert takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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