Sunday, February 16, 2020

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of February 17, 2020

The IN UNISON Chorus celebrates Black History Month this week and the St. Louis Cathedral Concerts bring a cappella sounds to the Cathedral Basilica.

The Metropolitan Orchestra performs on Sunday, February 23, at 7 pm. "This concert will feature Conductors Allen Carl Larson and Andrew Peters. The orchestra will perform Mozart's Piano Concerto in C major with pianist Jerry Chan and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A." The concert takes place at First Presbyterian Church, 100 E. Adams in Kirkwood. For more information: moslmusic.org.

VOCES8
St. Louis Cathedral Concerts presents the a cappella vocal ensembles VOCES8 and the Crossroads Quartet on Friday, February 21 at 8 pm. The concert takes place at the Cathedral Basilica in the Central West End. For more information: cathedralconcerts.org.

The St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra presents a concert of music by Charbrier, Howard Hanson, Leonard Bernstein, and Rimsky-Korsakov on Friday, February 21, at 8 p.m. The concert takes place in the Scheidegger Center for the Arts on the Lindenwood University campus in St. Charles. For more information: stlphilharmonic.org.com.

The IN UNISON Chorus and SLSO
Kevin McBeth conducts the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus and soloist Oleta Adams in Lift Every Voice: A Black History Month Celebration, on Friday, February 20, at 7:30 pm. "Join the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Grammy-nominated soprano Arlissa Hudson and the IN UNISON Chorus for Join the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and IN UNISON Chorus for this cherished annual tradition - an evening of reflective and soulful music that celebrates the music of African-American and African cultures, which have inspired and influenced the St. Louis region and communities around the world." The concert takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Gemma New conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and narrator Bobby Norfolk in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf on Sunday, February 16, at 3 PM. “Join Peter and his animal friends on a symphonic adventure in Prokofiev's beloved work Peter and the Wolf. Introducing generations to orchestral music, each character in this musical fairy tale is represented by a different instrument of the orchestra. Together we experience the beautiful tapestry of orchestral color which reminds us of our own unique voices and personalities.” The performance takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of Feruary 17, 2020

There are new shows all over the place this week, including the Fox, West End, The Black Rep, and Washington University, along with the monthly Singers Open Mic.

Annapurna
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Actors' Studio
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Annapurna by Sharr White running Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm through February 23. "After twenty years apart, Emma tracks Ulysses to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere for a final reckoning. What unfolds is a visceral and profound meditation on love and loss with the simplest of theatrical elements: two people in one room. A breathtaking story about the longevity of love." Performances take place at the Gaslight Theatre on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

CSZ St. Louis presents The ComedySportz Show on Saturday nights at 7:30 pm. The show is "action-packed, interactive and hilarious comedy played as a sport. Two teams battle it out for points and your laughs! You choose the winners the teams provide the funny!" Performances take place on the second floor of the Sugar Cubed, 917 S Main St. in St Charles, Mo. For more information: www.cszstlouis.com.

Flanagan's Wake
Photo by John Flack
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presents the interactive comedy Flanagan's Wake running through March 21. "The hit show from Chicago, Flanagan's Wake, is the hilarious interactive show that brings Flanagan's Irish family to St. Louis where they will memorialize his passing. Audiences participate in this comedic memorial with plenty o' pints, crazy sing-a-longs, telling of witty tales and mourn the passing of one of their own: Flanagan. Audiences will pay their respects to glowering Mother Flanagan and to poor grieving fiancée, Fiona Finn. Listen to a eulogy written by County Sligo's best-known writer, Mickey Finn, and tip a pint with Brian Ballybunion, himself a weaver of tales. You can cross yourself with the blessings from St. Gregory's parish priest, Father Damon Fitzgerald, or cross your fingers that local pagan Kathleen Mooney doesn't cast a spell on you. Mayor Martin O'Doul will preside over the proceedings with an iron hand (and a parched throat)." The Playhouse at Westport Plaza is at 635 West Port Plaza. For more information: playhouseatwestport.com.

Ghost
Photo by Jennifer A. Lin
Metro Theatre Company presents Ghost Fridays at 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through March 1. "Metro Theater Company presents the rolling world premiere of a new play adapted by Idris Goodwin from Jason Reynolds's award-winning best-seller for young readers. Running is all that Castle Cranshaw, a.k.a. "Ghost," has ever known, but he runs for all the wrong reasons until he meets Coach, who sees something in him: raw talent. The story follows Castle as he tries to stay on track, literally and figuratively, harnessing his aptitude for speed on an elite local track team while battling the difficult realities of his past and present. Ghost also highlights the importance of allyship. As his teammates become friends and Coach stands in as a father figure, Castle finds a place where he belongs. " The performances take place at The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center. For more information: metroplays.org.

Katie Karel
The Blue Strawberry presents Katie Karel in How Lucky Can You Get ?on Thursday, February 20, at 8 pm. "Kansas City's Katie Karel is really, really good in all sorts of ways, and you should go see her, even if you don't know who she is. Not only does she have a great voice and technique, she is gorgeous, drop-dead funny, and turns on a dime into the most reflective moments an actor can produce. She first came to Blue Strawberry's attention in a standout performance of Indecent last year, one of the continually terrific and superbly cast productions that Stellie Siteman and De Kaplan mount as Max and Louie." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

The St. Louis Family Theatre Series presents the TheatreworksUSA production of The Magic School Bus: Lost in the Solar System Sunday, February 23 and Saturday, February 29, at 2 pm "When the class gets lost on the way to the planetarium, Ms. Frizzle saves the day by blasting into outer space for an epic interplanetary field trip! But when rivalries both old and new threaten to tear the students apart, our young heroes must learn to pull together or risk getting forever lost in the solar system. Hop on the Magic School Bus for a ride in this new musical adaptation based on the original book series published by Scholastic." Performances take place at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre at Parker and Waterford in Florissant, MO. For more information, call 314-921-5678 or visit www.florissantmo.com

The Performing Arts Department at Washington University presents Men on Boats February 21 - March 1. "Men on Boats recounts the exhilarating story of John Wesley Powell's expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers. The history of this 19th Century journey may have been the exclusive domain of men, but Jaclyn Backhaus calls for casting "…radically diverse actors who are female identifying, trans-identifying, gender fluid, and/or non-gender conforming." This dynamic and very funny piece of writing is a provocative lens for re-examining an extraordinary American moment. " The performances take place in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre on the Washington University campus. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.artsci.wustl.edu.

St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley presents Milk Like Sugar Thursday through Sunday, February 20-23. "Milk Like Sugar is an astute gut-wrenching observation of the impact of racism on African American youth. We see the cyclical nature of inherited trauma, the normalization of underfunded communities, the dire need for education that nurtures latent talent, childhood hunger, the categorization of Black youth as adults, and the injustice of the criminal system. The myth of self-determination and seeing those who cannot escape their circumstance as inferior is keeping us for mobilizing and tithing whatever time and talent we might have to give into those communities. This play affirms these children need us, just as much as we need them." Performances take place in the Fisher Theatre on the campus at 3400 Pershall Road. For more information, www.stlcc.edu/fv/ or call 314-644-5522.

Lindenwood University presents Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play Wednesday through Saturday, February 19-22, at 7:30 pm. "After the collapse of civilization, a group of survivors shares a campfire and begin to piece together the plot of The Simpsons episode "Cape Feare" entirely from memory. Seven years later, this and other snippets of pop culture (sitcom plots, commercials, jingles, and pop songs) have become the live entertainment of a post-apocalyptic society sincerely trying to hold onto its past. Seventy-five years later, these are the myths and legends from which new forms of performance are created." Performances take place at the Scheiegger Center for the Arts on the Lindenwood campus in St. Charles, MO. For more information: www.lindenwood.edu.

The Touhill Center presents the one-man show The Most Reluctant Convert on Sunday, February 23, at 4 pm. "After sold-out performances in New York, Chicago, and D.C., award-winning actor Max McLean brings his acclaimed portrayal of the brilliant Oxford Don's extraordinary journey from hard-boiled atheist to "the most reluctant convert in all England." This performance is recommended for ages 13 and older. " The performance takes place at Touhill Performing Arts Center on the UMSL campus. For more information: www.touhill.org.

The Mystery of Irma Vep
Photo courtesy of The Rep
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Charles Ludlam's comedy The Mystery of Irma Vep running through March 3. "Classic horror, B-movie mysteries and wild farce get tossed into a blender in this feverish, supernatural sprint. On a dark and stormy night, the howls of a werewolf echo across the moors, a newly revived mummy stirs in its sarcophagus and a mysterious portrait holds the key to an ancient family curse. Two actors bring this diabolical tale to life, with the help of a few dozen costume changes and a lot of wigs." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry through April 26. "Millions of people flock to the Grand Ole Opry House to see Tammy Whino's one woman show, "Stand By Your Man." Here, amid the fried chicken, line dancing and dinner theatre, Tammy is the Queen of the Grand Ole Opry. Or is she? When she is found murdered, many suspect the Phantom because everyone knows the house is haunted. Or could the murderer be Billy Ray Serious, Naomi Dudd, and we can't forget about Nelson Willy?" For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com.

Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts presents William Inge's Picnic Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, February 20 - March 1. "The play takes place on Labor Day weekend in the joint backyards of two widows. One house belongs to Flo Owens, who lives there with her two daughters, Madge and Millie, and a schoolteacher boarder. The other house belongs to Helen Potts, who lives with her elderly and invalid mother. Into this female atmosphere comes a young man named Hal Carter, whose animal vitality seriously upsets the entire group." Performances take place in the Stage III Auditorium on the Webster University campus. For more information, www.webster.edun or call 314-968-7128.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presents the rock musical Rent Friday through Sunday, February 21-23. "In 1996, an original rock musical by a little-known composer opened on Broadway… and forever changed the landscape of American theatre. Two decades later, Jonathan Larson's RENT continues to speak loudly and defiantly to audiences across generations and all over the world. And now, this Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning masterpiece returns to the stage. A re-imagining of Puccini's La Bohème, RENT follows an unforgettable year in the lives of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams without selling out. With its inspiring message of joy and hope in the face of fear, this timeless celebration of friendship and creativity reminds us to measure our lives with the only thing that truly matters-love." The Fabulous Fox Theatre in on N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

The Roommate
Photo by John Lamb
The West End Players Guild continues its 109th season with the St. Louis premiere of The Roommate Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, February 21 - March 1, with an additional 8 pm show on Thursday, February 27. "Sharon lives alone in a big old house in Iowa City, IA. Her husband has left her; her grown son has moved to New York and rarely calls; and Sharon looks somewhat fearfully ahead to the decades to come. She has a lot of life left to live but no idea what to do with it, and she is really, really bored with her life to date. She decides that a roommate might at least help with the constant loneliness and she posts an ad. Enter Robyn. Robyn turns out to be just about everything Sharon isn't. Sharon is small-town Iowa; Robyn is the big, bad Bronx. Sharon's diet is Iowa health food - porkchops, baked beans, corn on the cob, all with lots of butter; Robyn is a vegan (and has to explain to Sharon was a "vegan" is). Sharon is white wine; Robyn is recreational drugs, some of which she grows herself. Sharon is straight; Robyn is…. flexible. Sharon needs a new life; Robyn needs a place to hide." Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union at Enright in the Central West End. For more information, call 314-367-0025 or visit www.westendplayers.org.

Chuck Lavazzi
The Cabaret Project presents its monthly Singers Open Mic Night on Tuesday, February 18, from 7 to 10 pm. Drop by and enjoy a night of great music from St. Louis cabaret artists, backed up by pianist and music director Carol Schmidt. Your MC is KDHX Senior Performing Arts Critic Chuck Lavazzi. If you're planning to sing, be prepared to do one or two songs and bring music, preferably in your key. It's also recommend that you have your song memorized. The event takes place at Sophie's Artist Lounge on the second floor of the .ZACK performing arts space at 3224 Locust in Grand Center. For more information: thecabaretproject.org.

The Black Rep presents Ntozake Shange's Spell #7 opening on Wednesday, February 19, at 7 pm and running through March 8. "This striking choreopoem by the author of For Colored Girls, Ntozake Shange,is set in a bar in St. Louis frequented by Black artists and musicians, actors, and performers. In a series of dreamlike vignettes and poetic monologues, they commiserate about the difficulties they face as black artist. The piece is framed by the narrator, Lou, a magician who wants to use his magic to help the artist come to terms with their blackness and rejoice in their identities. " Performances take place at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus. For more information: theblackrep.org.

Three Tall Women
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents Edward Albee's drama Three Tall Women through February 22. "A young lawyer has been sent to sort-out the finances of an elderly client, although more than money is at issue. With a nurse companion steadily alongside, the old woman's conflicted life is laid bare in all of its charming, vicious, and wretched glory. Winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize, Three Tall Women, a semi-autobiographical view of the playwright's mother, is often seen as Albee's most personal and compelling play." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

A Call to Conscience presents Times A Gettin' Harder, Stories of the Great Migration on Friday, February 21, at 7 pm. The performance takes place at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis City Library on Euclid in the Central West End.. For more information: acalltoconscience.org/

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents Xtigone Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, February 19-23. " Xtigone's brothers have been killed in drive-by shootings by each other's rival gang. Her uncle, Marcellus da Man, calls a press conference on CNN to announce that the bodies should be buried instead of uncovering the reality of violence in the streets of the city. Will Xtigone go against her powerful uncle and risk death by uncovering her brothers' bodies? Using hip hop poetry, dance, and dialogue that speaks with an urban voice, this re-imagining of Sophocles' Antigone tells the story of the ill-fated Xtigone and her quest for her community's truth. " Performances take place in the Dunham Hall Theatre on the campus in Edwardsvile, IL. For more information, call 618-650-2774 or visit www.siue.edu.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of February 14, 2020

New this week: Cabaret at the Blue Strawberry and drama at Stray Dog.

New This Week:

Valerie Lemon
The Blue Strawberry presents Valerie Lemon in The Jane Froman Songbook on Saturday, February 15, at 8 pm. "Valerie Lemon has created a veritable time machine. With her sophisticated look, elegant garb, command of the stage and her nostalgic songs, she transports her audience to the heyday of the New York's 'forties and 'fifties nightclub scene. Offering many of the most memorable numbers from the Jane Froman Songbook (Somebody Loves Me, I'll Walk Alone, That Old Feeling, Blue Moon), she effectively sweeps the room back to the era of the Empire Room, the Persian Room, La Chansonette, Café Society, the nights of shows at 10,12,and 2,and the heyday of American Songwriters." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

My take: When I saw an earlier edition of this show back in 2005, I was impressed by Ms. Lemon's musical talent but thought the show itself needed a bit of fine tuning to work in a cabaret setting. At the time I wrote the following: "Ms. Lemon strikes me a bright enough to learn from experience and talented enough to make use of what she learns, so it should be interesting to see what the future brings in this area." Well, the future is here, and if I weren't already committed for Saturday night I'd definitely be on hand to see what changes the ensuing 15 years have wrought in the show, which was fundamentally sound, informative, and entertaining even back then.


Three Tall Women
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents Edward Albee's drama Three Tall Women through February 22. "A young lawyer has been sent to sort-out the finances of an elderly client, although more than money is at issue. With a nurse companion steadily alongside, the old woman's conflicted life is laid bare in all of its charming, vicious, and wretched glory. Winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize, Three Tall Women, a semi-autobiographical view of the playwright's mother, is often seen as Albee's most personal and compelling play." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

My take: Albee's plays are not always the most approachable form of theatre, but Three Tall Women is pretty compelling if done well. At the Post-Dispatch, Calvin Wilson calls this a "compelling and wonderfully performed production". "Stray Dog artistic director Gary F. Bell," writes Mark Bretz at Ladue News, "is meticulous in adhering not only to Albee’s script but also to the show’s mood and tempo." "This well-directed production," says Tina Farmer at KDHX, "is a marvelous opportunity to introduce the play to any unfamiliar St. Louis audiences. For spectators already acquainted with the script, the production's quality makes it a worthwhile occasion to refamiliarize one's self."


Held Over:

Dress the Part
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents Dress the Part through February 15. "The Q Brothers return to high school in a new hip-hop musical based on Shakespeare's Two Gentleman of Verona. Proteus and Valentine are high school football stars at Verona College Prep who learn a thing or two about love, friendship and loyalty. Over twenty characters are played by two actors who never leave the stage in this 75-minute wild ride." Performances take place at The Ready Room in the Grove neighborhood. For more information, including dates and times: sfstl.com.

My take: What can I say? This sounds like great fun and apparently it is. "Do yourself a favor," writes Judy Newmark, "and be part of the crowd for one of the wildest, wittiest sharpest comedies you've seen in ages." "It's not necessary to be a fan of hip-hop or Shakespeare to enjoy this richly imaginative and off-the-charts experience," writes Calvin Wilson at the Post-Dispatch. "To paraphrase legendary jazz trumpeter and Alton native Miles Davis, 'Dress the Part' is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on."

Ghost
Photo by Jennifer A. Lin
Metro Theatre Company presents Ghost Fridays at 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through March 1. "Metro Theater Company presents the rolling world premiere of a new play adapted by Idris Goodwin from Jason Reynolds's award-winning best-seller for young readers. Running is all that Castle Cranshaw, a.k.a. "Ghost," has ever known, but he runs for all the wrong reasons until he meets Coach, who sees something in him: raw talent. The story follows Castle as he tries to stay on track, literally and figuratively, harnessing his aptitude for speed on an elite local track team while battling the difficult realities of his past and present. Ghost also highlights the importance of allyship. As his teammates become friends and Coach stands in as a father figure, Castle finds a place where he belongs " The performances take place at The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center. For more information: metroplays.org.

My take: Metro has a long history of presenting children's theatre that can appeal to adults as well while still delivering powerful messages. Plus, the script is by Idris Goodwin, whose hip-hop play How We Got On so impressed me at the Humana Festival in 2012. At Ladue News, Mark Bretz calls this "enchanting, persuasive tale of a modern kid with contemporary problems."

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Symphony Preview: Ex cathedra

"Stepping inside a cathedral, we are filled with awe," runs the description of the program this weekend (February 15 and 16) at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) web site. "Our breathing slows, our senses awaken. The music of Bruckner and Gubaidulina captures this feeling of escaping the everyday world for something beyond."

Sofia Gabaidulina
Photo courtesy of Boosey and Hawkes
Being well-acquainted with the Bruckner work on the program (his Symphony No. 7) and having listened to Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina's "Offertorium" more than once, I'd say that's not a bad description, although the "something beyond" in question is vastly different for the two composers.

Originally written for and first performed by the noted violinist Gidon Kremer in 1981, "Offertorium" was revised in 1982 and 1986, finally getting a recording in its final form by Mr. Kremer and the Boston Symphony in 1988. It's music that makes extravagant demands on both the violinist and the audience. Which is somewhat appropriate, given the events that inspired its main theme.

That theme is the one that Bach used as the subject of the great six-part fugue (the Ricercata) from the 1747 "Musical Offering" which was, itself, the result of an extravagant demand by Frederick the Great of Prussia. At a meeting in 1747, the king presented Bach with a long and highly chromatic theme (supposedly his own, although he may have lifted it from Handel) and challenged him to use it as the subject for a three-voice fugue. A skilled improviser, Bach did so on the spot, at which point the king, in what might have been an attempt to teach this wise guy a lesson, upped the ante to a six-voice fugue. Two months later Bach replied with his Musical Offering--two ricercars, ten canons, and (for good measure) a sonata all based on that theme. Game, set, and match.

The king's reaction has been lost to posterity.

Anton Webern's orchestration from nearly two centuries later (1934-35) raised the ante even further by making this mid-18th century piece sound entirely new. An advocate of Klangfarbenmelodie--the practice of breaking a melodic line up and distributing it to individual instruments a few notes at a time--Webern shattered and re-assigned the individual voices in ways that sound the way a kaleidoscope looks.

It is the Webern orchestration that Ms. Gubaidulina uses to introduce the Bach/King Frederick theme at the start of her "Offertorium." Listen closely to it, because both it and you will soon be off on a wild ride.

The theme is stated a total of three times, with each statement followed by something of a fantasia for the violin and various parts of the orchestra on the interval created by the last two notes. The first time, it's the interval of a minor second based on the notes F and E. The second time around the first and last notes have been dropped (along with a host of rhythmic and orchestral changes), so the final two notes are now G and F (a major second). By the third statement two more notes are gone and the final notes are D and G, leaving lots of fourths and fifths to play with.

Those fantasias tend to be on the aggressive and anguished side, in keeping with the notion that this is an act of sacrifice. It all leads, at around the halfway point, to a massive orchestra blowup (led by the brasses and horns) followed by a long violin cadenza that leads to a more tranquil section.

Anton Bruckner
By Otto Schmidt -
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,
Bildarchiv Austria,
Inventarnummer: 154.959 - B,
Public Domain, Link
The tranquility soon gives way to an angry, biting orchestral scherzo that crashes into silence from which the violin, backed up by the strings, returns with a hymn-like figure over a repeated descending piano and percussion melody that suggests the structure of a passacaglia. In marked contrast to the previous 25 minutes or so, the hymn is a beautiful thing that continually ascends towards the heavens in a way that put me in mind of some of Leonard Bernstein's work, finally ending on a soft high D on the violin.

Both this week's soloist, the young Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, and the guest conductor Rafael Payare (a graduate of Venezuela's celebrated El Sistema musical education program) will have their work cut out for them with this complex and challenging piece.

Following intermission, we get the major event of the concert, the Symphony No. 7 by Anton Bruckner, in the 1951 Nowack edition.

Writers of music criticism seem unable to discuss the symphonies of Anton Bruckner without invoking the cathedral imagery cited at the top of this article. Perhaps that's because they so strongly suggest a connection between the material and ethereal planes--great blocks of sound alternating with moments of otherworldly beauty. In Bruckner's music you can hear both great, heaven-storming power and quiet mystery. Time seems to act differently in a Bruckner symphony, with each movement incorporating so much emotional depth that it can feel both shorter and longer than the clock indicates. Amazing stuff, really.

First performed in 1884 and last heard here in 2011 under David Robertson, the Seventh is (as I noted at the time) in some ways the quintessential Bruckner symphony. The opening movement alternates moments of great, heaven-storming power and quiet mystery, the Adagio builds to a rapturous climax, the Scherzo swings back and forth between the demonic and the bucolic, and the finale builds inexorably to sheer, brass-heavy exultation. If you only wanted one Bruckner symphony in your collection, this would be it.

Each movement of the Seventh is a kind of world unto itself, and not just because of the sheer length of each ("In the first movement alone," Sir Thomas Beecham once remarked, "I took note of six pregnancies and at least four miscarriages."). The challenge for the conductor is to fully realize each of those musical environments without losing a sense of what Mr. Robertson referred to back in 2011 as the work's "insistent pulse." What will Mr. Payare make of it? We'll see this weekend.

The Essentials: Rafael Payare conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, along with violinist Baiba Skride on Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 15 and 16. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of February 10, 2020

Love is in the air this week, especially at the Chamber Music Society and the Touhill.

The Chamber Music Society of St. Louis
The Chamber Music Society of St. Louis presents Lovefest Rides Again, a concert of Romantic music for Valentine's Day week, Monday and and Tuesday at 7:30 pm. The performances take place at the Sheldon Concert Hall in Grand Center. For more information: chambermusicstl.org.

Eliot Unitarian Chapel presents a Friends of Music concert on Sunday, February 16, at 3 pm. Baritone Robert McNichols, Jr. and pianist Rebecca Koebbe will perform Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe, Op. 48 and cellist Beverly Field and pianist Toni Pearson will play Beethoven's Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 5, no. 2. The concert takes place at Eliot Unitarian Chapel is at 100 South Argonne in Kirkwood. For more information: fomcstl.org.

The St. Louis Chamber Chorus
The St. Louis Chamber Chorus presents Einstein Considered Light as Waves on Sunday, February 16, at 3 pm. " Join the Chamber Chorus for music exploring the motif of light. The title comes from an extraordinary piece by the Anglo-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova, who is fast becoming a major figure in choral music in Europe. Other pieces include The Music of Light by the late Steven Stucky and part-songs by Robert Schumann, Randall Thompson and Valborg Aulin. The Chorus is also honored to present the world premiere of a piece commissioned for Sarah Bryan Miller, long-time classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This new work is a gift from a consortium of music programs in gratitude for her tireless efforts to promote vocal arts in St. Louis." The church is at 4501 Westminster Place in the Central West End. For more information: secondchurch.net.

Ben Folds joins The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on Thursday and Friday, February 13 and 14, at 7:30. “Top indie rock sensation Ben Folds is back by popular demand after sold-out performances in 2017. A champion for orchestras, Folds blends pop and classical music to highlight the beauty of orchestra music, creating an engaging concert experience. Treat your special someone this Valentine's Day weekend while Ben Folds serenades for this one-of-a-kind performance, featuring fan-favorites and orchestral arrangements with the SLSO.” Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Rafael Payare
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
Rafael Payare conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, along with violinist Baiba Skride on Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 15 and 16. The program consists Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium for violin and orchestra as well as Bruckner's Symphony No. 7. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Touhill Performing Arts Center presents presents The Arianna String Quartet and the St. Louis Ballet in Could This Be Love? on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2:30 pm, February 14-16. "The program features “The American”, a ballet by Tony Award-_Winning director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, known to audiences _from An American in Paris on Broadway. One of today's most lauded_ choreographers, Wheeldon set the ballet to Dvorak's String Quartet #12 in F_ Major, Op. 96." The Touhill Center is on the campus of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. For more information: touhill.org.

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of February 10, 2020

New entries this week include St. Louis Actors' Studio, cabaret at the Blue Strawberry, and a Charles Ludlam farce at The Rep.

An American in Paris
Photo by Patty Wolfe

The Stifel Theatre presents the musical An American in Paris on Wednesday, February 12 at 7:30 pm. "In post war Paris, romance is in the air and youthful optimism reigns. Gershwin's soaring melodies are matched by gravity-defying dance as the world rediscovers the power of love in this breathtaking production. Hoping to start a new life, World War II veteran Jerry Mulligan chooses newly-liberated Paris as the place to make a name for himself as a painter. But Jerry's life becomes complicated when he meets Lise, a young Parisian shop girl with her own secret - and realizes he is not her only suitor. Winner of four Tony Awards and inspired by the Academy Award-winning film, this exquisite production features your favorite Gershwin songs." The Stifel Theatre is at 14th and Market downtown. For more information: stifeltheatre.com.

Annapurna
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Actors' Studio
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Annapurna by Sharr White opening on Thursday, February 13, and then running Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm through February 23. "After twenty years apart, Emma tracks Ulysses to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere for a final reckoning. What unfolds is a visceral and profound meditation on love and loss with the simplest of theatrical elements: two people in one room. A breathtaking story about the longevity of love." Performances take place at the Gaslight Theatre on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

St. Louis Community College at Meramec presents Circle Mirror Transformation Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 pm, February 12-16. "When four lost New Englanders who enroll in Marty's six-week-long community-center drama class begin to experiment with harmless games, hearts are quietly torn apart, and tiny wars of epic proportions are waged and won. A beautifully crafted diorama, a petri dish in which we see, with hilarious detail and clarity, the antic sadness of a motley quintet." Performances take place in the theatre on the campus at 11333 Big Bend Road. For more information, www.stlcc.eduor call 314-984-7500.

CSZ St. Louis presents The ComedySportz Show on Saturday nights at 7:30 pm. The show is "action-packed, interactive and hilarious comedy played as a sport. Two teams battle it out for points and your laughs! You choose the winners the teams provide the funny!" Performances take place on the second floor of the Sugar Cubed, 917 S Main St. in St Charles, Mo. For more information: www.cszstlouis.com.

Dress the Part
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents Dress the Part through February 15. "The Q Brothers return to high school in a new hip-hop musical based on Shakespeare's Two Gentleman of Verona. Proteus and Valentine are high school football stars at Verona College Prep who learn a thing or two about love, friendship and loyalty. Over twenty characters are played by two actors who never leave the stage in this 75-minute wild ride." Performances take place at The Ready Room in the Grove neighborhood. For more information, including dates and times: sfstl.com.

Flanagan's Wake
Photo by John Flack
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presents the interactive comedy Flanagan's Wake running through March 21. "The hit show from Chicago, Flanagan's Wake, is the hilarious interactive show that brings Flanagan's Irish family to St. Louis where they will memorialize his passing. Audiences participate in this comedic memorial with plenty o' pints, crazy sing-a-longs, telling of witty tales and mourn the passing of one of their own: Flanagan. Audiences will pay their respects to glowering Mother Flanagan and to poor grieving fiancée, Fiona Finn. Listen to a eulogy written by County Sligo's best-known writer, Mickey Finn, and tip a pint with Brian Ballybunion, himself a weaver of tales. You can cross yourself with the blessings from St. Gregory's parish priest, Father Damon Fitzgerald, or cross your fingers that local pagan Kathleen Mooney doesn't cast a spell on you. Mayor Martin O'Doul will preside over the proceedings with an iron hand (and a parched throat)." The Playhouse at Westport Plaza is at 635 West Port Plaza. For more information: playhouseatwestport.com.

Ghost
Photo by Jennifer A. Lin
Metro Theatre Company presents Ghost Fridays at 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through March 1. "Metro Theater Company presents the rolling world premiere of a new play adapted by Idris Goodwin from Jason Reynolds's award-winning best-seller for young readers. Running is all that Castle Cranshaw, a.k.a. "Ghost," has ever known, but he runs for all the wrong reasons until he meets Coach, who sees something in him: raw talent. The story follows Castle as he tries to stay on track, literally and figuratively, harnessing his aptitude for speed on an elite local track team while battling the difficult realities of his past and present. Ghost also highlights the importance of allyship. As his teammates become friends and Coach stands in as a father figure, Castle finds a place where he belongs. " The performances take place at The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center. For more information: metroplays.org.

Valerie Lemon
The Blue Strawberry presents Valerie Lemon in The Jane Froman Songbook on Saturday, February 15, at 8 pm. "Valerie Lemon has created a veritable time machine. With her sophisticated look, elegant garb, command of the stage and her nostalgic songs, she transports her audience to the heyday of the New York's “forties and' fifties nightclub scene. Offering many of the most memorable numbers from the Jane Froman Songbook (Somebody Loves Me, I'll Walk Alone, That Old Feeling, Blue Moon), she effectively sweeps the room back to the era of the Empire Room, the Persian Room, La Chansonette, Café Society, the nights of shows at 10,12,and 2,and the heyday of American Songwriters." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Mystery of Irma Vep
Photo courtesy of The Rep
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Charles Ludlam's comedy The Mystery of Irma Vep opening on Wednesday, February 12, and running through March 3. "Classic horror, B-movie mysteries and wild farce get tossed into a blender in this feverish, supernatural sprint. On a dark and stormy night, the howls of a werewolf echo across the moors, a newly revived mummy stirs in its sarcophagus and a mysterious portrait holds the key to an ancient family curse. Two actors bring this diabolical tale to life, with the help of a few dozen costume changes and a lot of wigs." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry through April 26. "Millions of people flock to the Grand Ole Opry House to see Tammy Whino's one woman show, "Stand By Your Man." Here, amid the fried chicken, line dancing and dinner theatre, Tammy is the Queen of the Grand Ole Opry. Or is she? When she is found murdered, many suspect the Phantom because everyone knows the house is haunted. Or could the murderer be Billy Ray Serious, Naomi Dudd, and we can't forget about Nelson Willy?" For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com.

Clinton County Showcase presents the musical Rock of Ages Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through February 16. " t's the tail end of the big, bad 1980s in Hollywood, and the party has been raging hard! Aqua Net, Lycra, lace, and liquor flow freely at one of the Sunset Strips last legendary venues, a place where sex machine Stacee Jaxx takes the stage and groupies line up to turn their fantasies into reality. Amidst the madness, aspiring rock star Drew longs to take the stage as the next big thing and longs for small-town girl Sherrie, fresh off the bus from Kansas with stars in her eyes." Performances take place outdoors at the Avon Theatre, 535 N. 2nd St. in Breese IL. For more information, visit ccshowcase.com.

The Monroe Actors Stage presents the comedy The Solid Gold Cadillac Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:30 pm, through February 16. "When down-to-earth secretary Laura Partridge asks some highly pertinent but embarrassing questions at the stockholders' meeting of a major New York corporation, the company's arrogant board of directors tries to buy her silence with a cushy position in shareholder relations. The scheme backfires, however, when Laura falls in love with the company's gruff CEO and makes herself the leader of an all-out shareholders' revolt." Performances take place in the Historic Capitol Theatre in downtown Waterloo, Illinois. For more information, visit www.masctheatre.org or call 618-939-7469.

Storm Large
The Blue Strawberry presents Storm Large and Le Bonheur on Wednesday and Thursday, February 12 and 13, at 8 pm. "An astonishingly gifted singer, an achingly funny and wickedly smart truth teller who manages to be powerful, vulnerable and sexual in the same beat, a killer beauty with a killer band in an unsurpassed live show. It just doesn't come together like this. You just have to see her. You just have to." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: https://www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

Three Tall Women
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents Edward Albee's drama Three Tall Women through February 22. "A young lawyer has been sent to sort-out the finances of an elderly client, although more than money is at issue. With a nurse companion steadily alongside, the old woman's conflicted life is laid bare in all of its charming, vicious, and wretched glory. Winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize, Three Tall Women, a semi-autobiographical view of the playwright's mother, is often seen as Albee's most personal and compelling play." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

Act Two Theatre presents the comedy Who's in Bed With the Butler Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through February 16. " A California billionaire has bequeathed all of his assets to his only daughter, Constance - except the $22 million yacht he wanted Josephine to have, a $25 million art collection left to Renee, and some priceless antique automobiles willed to Marjorie. Constance arrives at her father's mansion with her lawyer, determined to find out who these women are and to buy them off or contest the will. The butler seems to hold the key, and she learns from him that the three sultry ladies were her father's lovers." Performances take place in the St. Peters Cultural Arts Centre at 1 St Peters Centre Blvd, St. Peters, MO 63376. For more information: act2theater.com.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Review: A revolutionary No. 9

I have been known to gripe about the tendency of local St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert audiences to give a standing ovation to pretty much anything that, as the Venticelli say in Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," has "a good bang at the end...so you know when to clap." Sometimes, though, that "standing o" is so wildly enthusiastic and so richly merited that even I find myself willingly swept along in the tidal wave of adulation.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]
 
Stéphane Denève
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat
Such was the case Friday night (February 7) when SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève conducted the orchestra and chorus in what was the best damn Beethoven Symphony No. 9 ("Choral") that I have ever heard, either live or on recordings. Olympian in its grandeur, electrifying in its impact and stunningly perfect in its execution, this was perhaps the Ninth against which all others must now be measured.

In his pre-concert chat, Mr. Denève talked about Beethoven's enthusiasm for what was, in the early 19th century, a cutting-edge piece of technology--the metronome. Patented in 1815 by the composer's sometime friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, the device for precisely indicating a musical tempo was happily adopted by Beethoven. His Ninth symphony contains 14 separate metronome markings but, as Mr. Denève pointed out, conductors rarely (if ever) observe all 14 because some have been viewed as "just too crazy" to be credible.

Amy Kaiser
Photo: Gerry LOve
And so we've had centuries of Beethoven Ninths in which it was assumed that those "crazy" tempo markings must have been mistakes, or signs of Beethoven's failing powers, or a symptom of his total deafness. Mr. Denève decided to observe all 14 of those metronome markings, on the now somewhat radical assumption that Beethoven actually knew what he was doing.

The result was a revelatory performance in which this familiar 1824 warhorse suddenly sounded brand new and, more importantly, so utterly compelling that I failed to take a single note about it. I was so transfixed by the drama of the work and, in particular, the pure exultation of the choral finale that my notebook lay forgotten in my lap.

Not that I really need written notes to remember that the singers in Amy Kaiser's chorus sounded as excellent as always and were apparently completely unfazed by the sometimes breakneck tempos. In fact, as one member of the bass section told me during intermission, going back to Beethoven's original ideas actually made the work easier to sing. The singers acquitted themselves brilliantly in any case.

The same must be said of the four soloists. Soprano Ellie Dehn, mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Issachah Savage, and bass Morris Robinson (a last minute substitute for an ailing Davóne Tines) all invested their singing with a complete commitment to the lyrics that made their performances very compelling. Mr. Robinson, in particular, projected extremely well, which is not always easy for the lower voices.

As for the orchestra, they surely all deserve laurel wreathes for their superb work Friday night, even in sections like the Trio of the Molto vivace second movement, which moved at something close to the speed of light.

It was, in short, a Beethoven Ninth for the ages. That, alone, would have been enough to make this concert one of my best experiences ever at Powell Hall. But the work that preceded the Ninth--the "Silent Night Elegy" by St. Louis-born composer Kevin Puts--placed the evening firmly at the top of the heap.

The "Elegy," which had its world premiere in 2018 in San Francisco, is based on themes from the composer's 2011 opera "Silent Night." The opera is based on the 2005 French film "Joyeux Noël," which in turn was inspired by an actual event: the legendary "Christmas truce" of December 1914, when around 100,000 British and German soldiers agreed to celebrate Christmas together. Carol singing and even football (or, as we Yanks say, soccer) matches were held.

The "Elegy" begins with elegiac and technically challenging solos for horn and cello (played quite well by Thomas Jöstlein and Daniel Lee, respectively) that shortly give way to increasingly complex battle music as themes associated with the French, German, and Scottish armies collide in the kind of precisely orchestrated chaos that Charles Ives did so well. It all builds into what I can only call a massive, anguished orchestral scream that abruptly gives way to a mournful duet for harp and flute (masterfully done by Allegra Lilly and Andrea Kaplan) as the soldiers bury their dead and plans for the impromptu truce begin, to the sound of a remarkably accurate imitation of bagpipes by the woodwinds.

Kevin Puts
Photo by David White, kevinputs.com
The mood changes again in the next section, "The Generals' Rage," as the guys at the top fume at the news that some of the troops have stopped killing each other for 24 hours. The musical depiction of their petulant anger takes the form of slashing, aggressive themes in the strings and angry banging on the anvil and brake drum in the percussion section. But this, too, comes to an abrupt halt with a cello solo that introduces the final section, "Sleep," as the armies drift off to exhausted post-battle slumber. The music becomes a calm, sweetly comforting string chorale that called to mind the Wilfred Owen poem from Britten's "War Requiem" in which the shades of two opposing soldiers meet:
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now...
That last melody slowly fades to silence--a silence which Mr. Denève made an integral part of the music by holding it for 30 seconds or so. And a good thing, too; we certainly needed it at that point. When Mr. Puts stepped out on stage to take his curtain call, he got the first of the two well-earned standing ovations for the evening.

It's worth noting that the 2018 "Elegy" is not just a moving depiction of the horrors of mechanized warfare. It's also a powerful declaration of human fellowship. It's a value that Beethoven--a fierce advocate of political liberalism and freedom--expressed so forcefully in his setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in the Ninth Symphony. That made the combination of the two a courageous choice in an era when (to quote Mr. Owen again):
The scribes on all the people shove
and bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.
In his program notes on the Beethoven Ninth, Tim Munro writes: "Perhaps this moment--repressive, divided--was perfect for Beethoven to launch a defense of progressive ideals in the most public forum he knew: the symphony." The moment he's referring to was in 1824, but it could just as easily be today.

There are two more opportunities to experience this crowning musical achievement: tonight (Saturday, February 8) at 8 pm and Sunday (the 9th) at 3 pm. The Saturday night concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public radio but, really, this is an event that can only be properly appreciated by purchasing a ticket at the SLSO website or by calling the box office at 314-534-1700.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of February 7, 2020

New this week: Hi-hop sorta-Shakespeare and a new play at Metro.

New This Week:

Dress the Part
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents Dress the Part through February 15. "The Q Brothers return to high school in a new hip-hop musical based on Shakespeare's Two Gentleman of Verona. Proteus and Valentine are high school football stars at Verona College Prep who learn a thing or two about love, friendship and loyalty. Over twenty characters are played by two actors who never leave the stage in this 75-minute wild ride." Performances take place at The Ready Room in the Grove neighborhood. For more information, including dates and times: sfstl.com.

My take: What can I say? This sounds like great fun and apparently it is. "Do yourself a favor," writes Judy Newmark, "and be part of the crowd for one of the wildest, wittiest sharpest comedies you've seen in ages." "It's not necessary to be a fan of hip-hop or Shakespeare to enjoy this richly imaginative and off-the-charts experience," writes Calvin Wilson at the Post-Dispatch. "To paraphrase legendary jazz trumpeter and Alton native Miles Davis, 'Dress the Part' is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on."

Ghost
Photo by Jennifer A. Lin
Metro Theatre Company presents Ghost Fridays at 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through March 1. "Metro Theater Company presents the rolling world premiere of a new play adapted by Idris Goodwin from Jason Reynolds's award-winning best-seller for young readers. Running is all that Castle Cranshaw, a.k.a. "Ghost," has ever known, but he runs for all the wrong reasons until he meets Coach, who sees something in him: raw talent. The story follows Castle as he tries to stay on track, literally and figuratively, harnessing his aptitude for speed on an elite local track team while battling the difficult realities of his past and present. Ghost also highlights the importance of allyship. As his teammates become friends and Coach stands in as a father figure, Castle finds a place where he belongs " The performances take place at The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center. For more information: metroplays.org.

My take: Metro has a long history of presenting children's theatre that can appeal to adults as well while still delivering powerful messages. Plus, the script is by Idris Goodwin, whose hip-hop play How We Got On so impressed me at the Humana Festival in 2012. At Ladue News, Mark Bretz calls this "enchanting, persuasive tale of a modern kid with contemporary problems."

Held Over:

My Name is Asher Lev
Photo by John Gitchoff
New Jewish Theater presents My Name is Asher Lev Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm through February 9. "My Name is Asher Lev follows the journey of a young Jewish painter torn between his Hassidic upbringing and his desperate need to fulfill his artistic promise. When his artistic genius threatens to destroy his relationship with his parents and community, young Asher realizes he must make a difficult choice between art and faith. This stirring adaptation of a modern classic presents a heartbreaking and triumphant vision of what it means to be an artist." Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283.

My take: Reviews for this one have been good as well, but rather than give you a sampling, here's a longer quote from Michelle Kenyon's review at her blog that seems to sum it up well: "New Jewish Theatre's latest production is a compelling showcase for excellent local actors. It's also a fascinating look at one person's struggle to find his place in two different worlds that seem at odds with one another. My Name is Asher Lev is a well-structured, almost poetic look at an artist's journey of self-discovery, and his relationship with his art, his faith, his family, and the world around him."


The Thanksgiving Play
Photo by Phil Hamer
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents The Thanksgiving Play through February 9. "Four earnestly progressive theatre-makers want to create a politically correct Thanksgiving play that is historically accurate, avoids all possible stereotypes and doesn't offend anyone. Guess how long it takes for everything to fly off the rails? This wickedly hilarious satire hurtles into glorious chaos, skewering both its characters' pretensions and the traditional "Thanksgiving story."" Performances take place in the Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org.

My take: The best of intentions can be taken to silly extremes. I have seen it happen in real life, so the premise of this comedy strikes me as fairly plausible. As Ann Lemmons Pollack writes in her blog, playwright Larissa FastHorse is "really tired of how history is so often wrong, being written by the winners, and how strongly people cling to the errors despite information to the contrary. Her attempt to set things straight on the subject of Thanksgiving, rather than a this-is-what-really-happened line, is a comedy to remind us to think more about the real story of Thanksgiving, and, by inference, a lot of other things...Great fun, considerable laughter, and ninety minutes with no intermission. " "FastHorse's satire is incisive but affectionate," writes Calvin Wilson at the Post-Dispatch, "maintaining a tone somewhere between 'Doonesbury' and Dorothy Parker. And her comically flustered characters are at once quirky and recognizable."


Wildfire
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
Upstream Theater presents Wildfire through February 9. "Claudette, Claudia, Claudine, Carol, Callum, and Caroline have more in common than names that begin with C-they are haunted by a family history of childhood trauma, which unfolds across three generations-and then loops back … to the future. They do what they can to survive. Sometimes by baking cookies, sometimes by playing fantasy games, and sometimes by smashing a hammer into a TV. Highly absurd, terribly funny and beautifully constructed, WILDFIRE is a mix of ferocious black comedy and a humanistic worldview which recognizes that seemingly unremarkable lives can experience extraordinary fates." Performances take place at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center. For more information, including show times: upstreamtheater.org.

My take: The concept behind this show is intriguing, and reviews have generally been quite good. At the Post-Dispatch, for example, Calvin Wilson describes this as a "strange and wonderful comedy...which is not only incredibly imaginative but also outrageously hilarious." KDHX's Jacob Juntunen calls it "a fast-paced, fun, darkly humorous production." It's clearly not a conventional work, but maybe that's all the more reason to go.

Symphony Preview: Revolution No. 9

At first glance, the two works that make up this weekend's St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert might not appear to have a lot in common. Kevin Puts's "Silent Night Elegy," based on music from his 2011 opera "Silent Night," had its premiere in 2018. Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 ("Choral") was first performed in 1824. And yet, despite the nearly two centuries separating the two works, their composers appear to share a similar political outlook.

More on that anon. First, though, I'd like to give you a feel for what you can expect when you see "Silent Night Elegy" performed for the first time this weekend. Unfortunately, I can't.

Kevin Puts
Photo by David White, kevinputs.com
When there's a new work on the program at the SLSO, I usually manage to track down a recording of it (more often than not on YouTube) and listen to it multiple times, so I can give you some idea of what it sounds like. So far, I have come up with nothing for "Silent Night Elegy," so I will instead refer you to the composer's web site for a detailed description.

The opera that provided the themes for "Silent Night Elegy" is itself based on the 2005 French film "Joyeux Noël," which in turn was inspired by an actual event: the legendary "Christmas truce" of December 1914 , when around 100,000 British and German soldiers agreed to celebrate Christmas together. Carol singing and even football (or, as we Yanks say, soccer) matches were held. The event inspired many fictional adaptations, including the a cappella musical "All is Calm". St. Louis theatregoers will recall that this was, for several years, an annual event at Mustard Seed Theatre.

Although the truce is seen now as something of a unique event it was (as the Wikipedia article on the truce notes) actually one of the more obvious examples of "the widespread spirit of non-co-operation with the war and conduct by serving soldiers" who, unlike the generals far away (or, for that matter, today's remote-control drone operators), saw the cost and futility of war first hand. It's a reminder (as Peter Weiss wrote in "Marat/Sade") that in a war all soldiers ultimately want the same thing: "Not to lie under the earth but to walk upon it without crutches."

Which brings us back to Mr. Puts's words on his composition:
If there is a message borne by the film--or the libretto--it is that once your sworn enemy ceases to be faceless, war becomes far less possible. This is a message I fully believe in.
It is, in short, a message of universal human fellowship. It's an idea Mr. Puts shares with Beethoven, who expressed it most plainly in his Symphony No. 9 by using Friedrich Schiller's poem "An die Freude" ("Ode to Joy") as the text for his choral finale. It's perhaps most obvious in the first verse:
Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Which, in a singable English translation, becomes:
Joy, thou source of light immortal,
Daughter of Elysium!
Touched with fire, to the portal,
Of thy radiant shrine, we come.
Your sweet magic, frees all others,
Held in custom's rigid rings,
All men on earth become brothers,
In the haven of your wings.
It's hard to justify warfare with those sentiments. Ditto autocratic rule, which is not surprising, given that Beethoven was "a staunch republican and in both his letters and conversation spoke frequently of the importance of liberty."

Handwritten page from the 4th movement
of the Symphony No. 9
fr.wikipedia.org, Public Domain, Link
The late Leonard Bernstein certainly understood that. In December 23, 1989, he led an orchestra of musicians from New York, London, Paris, Leningrad, and both East and West Germany in a performance of the Ninth in Berlin to celebrate the lifting of regulations governing travel between East and West Berlin--a change which marked the beginning of the end of the infamous Berlin Wall. To drive the point home, he changed the word "freude" ("joy") to "freiheit" ("freedom"), making it literally an "Ode to Freedom."

Given the current obsession of some of my fellow citizens with building walls and turning large segments of humanity into faceless enemies, the combination of these particular works of Mr. Puts and Mr. Beethoven on the same program feels especially appropriate right now.

Let me conclude with nine interesting (I hope) facts about Beethoven's Ninth:
  1. By the time the Ninth had its premiere, Beethoven was already completely deaf. He never heard a note of his last major work live.
  2. Nevertheless, Beethoven "had absolute pitch, so he could imagine the sounds and the harmony in his mind without hearing them on an instrument."
  3. Beethoven spent at least three decades trying to set Schiller's poem to music. As an article on the Ninth in the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, the composer started working on a musical setting of the poem as early as the 1790s and, once he finally decided to include it in his symphony, he "considered and rejected more than 200 different versions of the 'Ode to Joy' theme alone."
  4. The music (but not the words) of Beethoven's setting of the "Ode to Joy" was adopted by the Council of Europe as its anthem in 1972 and as the official anthem of the EU in 1985.
  5. That last fact might explain why, on July 2, 2019, members of Nigel Farge's Brexit party attending the European Parliament in Strasbourg petulantly turned their backs on a performance of the EU anthem.
  6. All audio CDs are 12 cm in diameter because that was the size necessary to accommodate a complete performance of the Ninth which usually runs between 65 and 74 minutes.
  7. The instruments used by contemporary orchestras are, in many cases, very different from those used in Beethoven's day, so most contemporary performances sound very different from what the audience would have heard at the 1824 premiere. Roger Norrington's 1987 recording with the London Classical Players (a personal favorite of mine) was the first one to use reproductions of period instruments. At 62 minutes, it's also one of the shortest.
  8. The finale of the Ninth makes huge demands on the chorus. You can hear that most clearly in Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1951 Bayreuth Festival recording (another of my favorites, even if it comes from a completely different universe than Norrignton's). At 74 minutes, it's one of the longest.
  9. Bottom line: the Ninth is great enough to have inspired wildly different interpretations from both critics and performers. As Nicholas Cook wrote in his book "Beethoven: Symphony No. 9" (cited in an excellent article by Tom Service at The Guardian): "Of all the works in the mainstream repertory of Western music, the Ninth Symphony seems the most like a construction of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the values, hopes, and fears of those who seek to understand and explain it ... From its first performance [in Vienna in 1824] up to the present day, the Ninth Symphony has inspired diametrically opposed interpretations."
What will Stéphane Denève do with it? Come to Powell Hall this weekend and find out!

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with soloists Ellie Dehn, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Issachah Savage, tenor; and Morris Robinson, bass-baritone (replacing an ailing Davóne Tines) on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 7-9.. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.