Thursday, October 29, 2020

Symphon Preview: Star Chamber, Pt. 2

Last week the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) announced a series of six chamber music concerts for late October and early November. Each concert will be offered twice in rotating repertory through November 8. This is the second of three articles on the series since there's far too much music to cram into just one.

Katherine Hoover
Friday, October 30 at 11 am and Thursday, November 5 at 7:30 pm is a program that's mostly French and mostly includes the harp. It opens with the sole outlier, "Reflections" for solo flute by late composer and flutist Katherine Hoover. Composed in 1982, this short piece is described by the composer as "Variations on an ancient Norwegian chant. Written outdoors at Artpark, NY." It certainly has that solitary, "high on a mountain top" feel that I associate with (say) Andean or Native American flute music—haunting, mysterious, and compelling. Listen to Kate Steinbeck's 2002 recording on YouTube.

The harp comes into play for the rest of the program: Debussy's 2015 Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp; the delightful 1953 Sonata for Harp by the unjustly neglected Germaine Tailleferre; and Ravel's "Introduction and Allegro" for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet from 1907.

Debussy's Sonata comes from a difficult time late in the composer's too-brief life (he died in 1918 at the age of 51 after a long and painful battle with colorectal cancer) when his health, romantic relationships, and professional fortunes were all a bit rocky. Both happy and mournful, the Sonata looks back to Debussy's youthful interest in the pentatonic scale and harmonies derived from Eastern models. The composer himself voiced ambiguous feelings about it in a letter to his friend Robert Godet. "The sound of it is not bad," he modestly wrote, "though it is not for me to speak to you of the music. I could do so, however, without embarrassment for it is the music of a Debussy whom I no longer know. It is frightfully mournful and I don't know whether one should laugh or cry - perhaps both?" Listen to this 1962 recording by noted harpist Osian Ellis and the Melos Ensemble with a synchronized score and see what you think.

Written for the famed Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, (a name well known to us music lovers d'un certain âge) Tailleferre's Sonata is such a consistently entertaining and appealing work that I'm a bit surprised it's not better known. But then Tailleferre has never achieved quite the recognition she deserved. The only female member of that group of French anti-Romantic composers known as "les six" (the others were Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, and Louis Durey), Tailleferre was also the most long-lived, shuffling off her mortal coil in 1982 at the age of 91. I don't now whether she played the harp or not, but SLSO harpist Allegra Lilly (quoted in the program notes) feels that the Sonanta "could only have been written by someone with a deep understanding of the sonority of the harp and how one’s hands fit onto the strings." You can hear that in this YouTube video recorded by Woojin Lee in 2018 at the Conservatoire National Supérieur Musique de Paris.

Composed in 1905 on commission from the harp manufacturer Érard, the "Introduction and Allegro" is classic Ravel, with a short languorous introduction that quickly makes way for a lilting waltz theme, which in turn goes through some inventive melodic and harmonic changes without ever leaving the three-quarter time signature. It's the most well-known work on the program, so you've probably heard it before. If not, YouTube has a recording by members of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields that comes with a synchronized display of the score.
 
Performers for these concerts are harpist Allegra Lilly, flutist Jennifer Nitchman, and clarinetist Ryan Toher, along with violinists Eva Kozma and Rebecca Boyer Hall, violist Christian Tantillo, and cellist Alvin McCall.

Caroline Shaw
Photo: Kait Moreno
Friday, October 30 and Wednesday, November 4 at 7:30 pm there are only two works on the bill: Caroline Shaw's "Ent'racte" (first performed in 2011) and almost all of Schubert's 1824 Octet, first performed in 1827 but not published in its entirety until the 1880s.

The reason we're not hearing all of the Schubert work is that it's a very big, ambitious work in six movements. A full-length performance can take an hour or more (even the composer's titanic Symphony No. 9 isn't quite that long), so the SLSO has opted to drop the seven-minute fifth movement (a minuet) and go straight from the theme and variations of the Andante fourth movement to the lively finale.  If you want to hear the whole thing, there's a performance by Janine Jansen and friends on line that includes a synchronized display of the score. 

Inspired by (and is many ways similar to) Beethoven's popular Op. 20 Septet, it's filled with wonderful melodies and plenty of jollity, but there are darker and more dramatic moments as well possibly reflecting the composer's poor health at the time. " “I feel myself the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world,” he wrote to his friend Leopold Kupelweiser on March 31st, 1824. “Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, at best, whose enthusiasm for all things beautiful [is gone], and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being?”

Schubert composed the Octet, as he so often did, at light speed, completing the whole thing in just three weeks. “When visiting him during the day," recalled his friend Moritz von Schwind,  "he gives his greetings, asks how everything is, and when asked how things go with him, he responds ‘fine,’ without interrupting his writing. So one leaves.” Maybe he just didn't want to inflict his mood on his friends.

The Shaw work that opens the concerts has its more serious moments as well, but it's mostly a virtuoso study in just how much sonic variety a person can get out of a string quartet. There are some eerie harmonics, creative use of pizzicato and, at one point, something that sounded rather like an amiable conversation among a quartet of cats. On her publications web site, Shaw says "Ent'racte" "was written in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further." I'd say it takes the idea quite a bit further, and with intriguing results. You can hear it yourself on, of course, YouTube, in a virtuoso performance by the Calidore String Quartet.

Performers for these concerts are violinists Alison Harney and Angie Smart, violist Christian Tantillo,  cellist Jennifer Humphreys, double bassist Ronald Moberly, clarinetist Diana Haskell, bassoonist Andrew Gott, and Victoria Knudtson on horn.

Audience size for all these concerts will be limited to 150 for each performance and tickets can only be purchased by calling the SLSO box office at 314-534-1700. Only two tickets can be purchased per household. Information on the SLSOs COVID-19 safety protocols is available at the orchestra's web site.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Symphony Preview: Star Chamber, Part 1

Last week the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) announced more live concerts at Powell Hall as part of its fall season. It all starts on Wednesday, October 28, with the first of six chamber music concerts. Each concert will be offered twice in rotating repertory through November 8.  In a nod to Hallowe'en, there's also  a movie screening of the horror comedy "Beetlejuice" on Friday, November 6. Unlike other SLSO movie events, though, this time the music will be on the soundtrack rather than on the Powell Hall stage.

I'm going to assume you're all familiar with Tim Burton's 1988 comedy starring Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis. If not, Wikipedia will be happy to give you the lowdown, along with litte-known details like the proposed sequel that never happened, the animated TV series, and the stage musical version that played Broadway for about a month back in 2016 and then disappeared.

So lets talk about the music instead. This is the first of three articles on the series since there's far too much music to cram into just one.

Shelley Washington
Photo by Peter Yankowsky
Wednesday, October 28 at 7:30 pm and Friday, November 6, at 11:00 am brings us a sextet of SLSO string players performing the local premiere of Shelley Washington's 2016 "Middleground" for string quartet and Tchaikovsky's 1890 "Souvenir de Florence" for sextet. Both works are essentially musical evocations of a specific time and place, although the details could hardly be more different.

Born in 1991 in Kansas City, MO, Ms. Washington says she likes to write "music with a big palette that draws elements from jazz, rock, American folk and other musical spaces, new and old." The American folk influence is unmistakable in "Middleground," which Ms. Washington (quoted in Tim Munro's program notes) describes as "The Heartland. The prairie, the grasslands, Konza, Flint Hills, Manhattan, Emporia, Salina. Where we gathered." To my ears, though, this music evokes influences from much farther east—specifically the fiddle tunes of Appalachia and, by extension, of the British isles. Listen to those highly danceable opening measures in this recording by the Jasper String Quartet and the "high lonesome sound" that echoes through the middle section and see if you agree.

Tchaikovsky's tuneful string sextet was inspired, as its title implies, by a trip to Florence, Italy in 1890, although the composer had been tinkering with the idea of a sextet since 1887. It is, in any case, a little over a half hour of the melodic gorgeousness that a body expects from Tchaikovsky, including a rapturous Adagio second movement and a lively Allegro vivace finale. It all sounds more Russian than Italian, but that hardly matters, does it? Listen to this performance by Janine Jansen and Friends to see what I mean.

Performers for these concerts are violinists Kristin Ahlstrom and Ann Fink, violists Shannon Williams and Michael Casimir, and cellists Melissa Brooks and Bjorn Ranheim.

Thursday, October 29 and Saturday, November 7 at 7:30 pm it's a program of "Night Music" consisting of the sextet that opens Richard Strauss's 1942 opera "Capriccio," the "Vespers for Violin" by Missy Mazzoli from 2014, and Arnold Schoenberg's remarkable "Verklärte Nacht" ("Transfigured Night"), op. 4, first performed in 1902. Musically, it's a chronological progression from Strauss's warmly romantic afternoon to Mazzoli's eerie, electronically enhanced twilight, to Schoenberg's troubled but ultimately life-affirming moonlit night.

In the context of Strauss's opera, the sextet is the work of the Flamand, a composer vying with the poet Olivier for the affections of The Countess. The opera opens with the two suitors listening to a performance of the piece, after which the opera proper begins. It's short (around 12 minutes), romantic, and richly contrapuntal, much like Strauss's "Metamorphosen" from the SLSO's October 22-24 concerts, although without the funereal feeling. Listen to this performance by members of the Vancouver Recital Society with a synchronized display of the score to get a feel for the rich texture of the piece.

Ms. Mazzoli's short (five minutes) piece is contrapuntal as well, but in this case the counterpoint combines echoes of the solo violin line and electronic sounds stored on a computer. The piece has an odd otherworldly quality that calls up images of ancient cloisters and ghostly choirs. Originally performed by Monica Germino (violin) and Frank van der Weij (sound) on October 11, 2014 at the Grand Theatre, Groningen, The Netherlands as part of the Sounds of Music Festival, "Vespers" is well-represented on line, with perhaps the most interesting performance being one Jennifer Koh did for NYC classical station WQXR with the composer herself controlling the Apple laptop and mixer.

Schoenberg's painting
Der Rote Blick (Red Gaze)
1910; en.wikipedia.org
Schoenberg wrote "Verklärte Nacht" in 1899 when the composer was a struggling (and starving) artist still trying to find his own musical voice and deeply in love with Mathilde von Zemlinsky (the sister of his teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky), who would eventually become the composer's wife. Maybe that's one reason he was so taken with Richard Dehmel's 1896 poem of the same title.

Originally published as part of the collection "Weib und Welt" ("Woman and World"), the poem aroused considerable ire among religious and cultural conservatives because of its subject matter, as described in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The poem’s essence concerns acceptance and understanding. A couple is walking in the night. They are in love, but the woman is pregnant with the child of another man, not her present lover. She fears that her lover will condemn her and abandon her, yet the beauty of the evening and the intensity of their love overcome their difficulties. “Oh look,” the man exclaims, “how the universe glitters!” and their lives are transfigured by the night.
Schoenberg's music follows the poem's narrative with five sections that match each of the poem's five stanzas. But it does so in one unbroken outpouring of music which, as Tim Munro writes in the program notes, can make it "a challenging listen." Fortunately there are plenty of performances available on line, including one from 1955 by the Hollywood String Quartet (a group founded by Felix Slatkin, father of former SLSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin). That one includes a synchronized display of the score, which is always helpful. For more up-to-date sound, try the Quatour Ebène video recorded at the 2014 Wissembourg Festival.

Performers for these concerts are violinists Erin Schreiber, Hannah Ji, and Shawn Weil, violists Beth Guterman Chu and Leonid Plashinov-Johnson, and cellists Melissa Brooks and Bjorn Ranheim.

Audience size for all these concerts will be limited to 150 for each performance and tickets can only be purchased by calling the SLSO box office at 314-534-1700. Only two tickets can be purchased per household. Information on the SLSOs COVID-19 safety protocols is available at the orchestra's web site.

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

Cabaret Review: John McDaniel's new show shines light in the darkness

By now, local cabaret fans have gotten pretty familiar with singer, songwriter, and musical director John McDaniel. He is the very model of a modern local boy who made good. From his days doing musical theatre at Kirkwood High School in suburban St. Louis, he has gone on to make a major name for himself on Broadway and television.

Mr. McDaniel has taken to making regular return visits to his home town on or around the holidays, and they have always been welcome. Reviewing his Yuletide appearance at The Blue Strawberry last December, I praised his eclectic set list, his engaging stage presence, and the lively life anecdotes that he used to knit it all together.

John McDaniel at the Blue Strawberry
After seeing the live webcast of his show "Home for the Holidays (...does Halloween count?)" at the Strawberry last night (Sunday, October 25), I'm happy to report that nothing has changed.  Or at last nothing about Mr. McDaniel's massive talent and happy rapport with the audience has changed. He's still the same charming and entertaining fellow he was when I first saw him at the old Cabaret at Savor venue in 2007, even if there's more gray in his hair and mustache.

The world we're all living in is another matter.

It seems that while we were all enjoying that Christmas show last year, a virus was starting to pop up in China that would infect over 43 million people and kill 1.15 million (so far) world-wide. The impact of SARS-CoV-2 has been felt everywhere, but perhaps most keenly in the performing arts, which rely heavily on the ability to get a bunch of strangers together in an enclosed space—an ideal environment for the spread of an airborne virus.

The result is that most of 2020 has been a difficult time for both performing artists and the organizations that present them. That, combined with the madness that seems to have infected our national political leadership, provided a serious undercurrent to this consistently entertaining and very engaging show.

Certainly it had an impact on the song choices. There was a new McDaniel original titled (I think) "I Just Want to See Your House" that was inspired by many hours spent on Zoom conference calls. "I wrote this in quarantine," he quipped, "because I had time." Another original was the openly political "Vote Like Your Life Depends on It," which took what I always thought was a somewhat ungainly (if inspiring) phrase and actually made a memorable melody out of it. There must not have been that many Trump supporters in the house that night, because the audience response sounded enthusiastic. Or maybe they were just good sports.

Perhaps the most profound reflection of our current political scene, though, came in the form of a pair of songs from "Sticks and Stones," a show Mr. McDaniel wrote with lyricist/librettist Scott Logsdon. It adapts the Biblical story of David and his triumph over Goliath to address the issue of teen bullying—a problem which has become much worse since a bully took up part-time residence in the White House. Originally planned for a live performance this past July, it became instead a live webcast offered October 16th through 20th as part of National Bullying Prevention Month.

"You're Everything," a song sung to David by his mother, expressed sentiments that many parents have no doubt shared with their own children when they have been victims of bullying: "You must be strong, although it isn't easy / And although you're down, they haven't won the fight / When hope seems lost, it's harder to remember / That though it's dark, there always will be light." It was a lovely and touching thing, as was the other number "Choose to Be Kind." It's the show's finale, and the opening stanza felt particularly relevant right now: "When you're mean, what joy can you find? / Choose to be kind." Truer words have never been sung.

There were plenty of other emotionally powerful moments in the evening. His moving rendition of Kenny Asher and Paul Williams's "You and Me Against the World" was a fine tribute to the late Helen Reddy, with whom Mr. McDaniel worked in 2014. I also thought his opening medley of Jason Robert Brown's "Hope" and Melissa Manchester's "Come in From the Rain" worked exceptionally well. His encore—the whimsically melancholy "I Wish You a Waltz," from the often-revised but never successful 1978 musical "Ballroom"—was thing of beauty as well.

John McDaniel
Photo by Steve Ullathorne

That's not to say that the evening was all that solemn, on the whole. Mr. McDaniel is far too skillful a performer to present anything other than a well-balanced program, and there were plenty of chuckles to go with the more moving stuff.  That included Rodgers and Hart's classic "list" song "Manhattan" (composed for the 1925 revue "Garrick Gaieties") with all four brilliant and witty choruses, the ingenious "Rhode Island is Famous for You" from the 1948 Dietz and Schwartz show "Inside USA" (in which each state got its own number), and "Plenty of Pennsylvania" (from the 1955 show "Plain and Fancy").

His Hallowe'en-specific re-write of the old Perry Como hit "Home for the Holidays" was tremendous fun. And there were also songs that were fun without being funny, like Elton John's "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" from "Honky Chateau," the 1972 album that was his first big hit in the USA.

Mr. McDaniel preceded that encore by thanking the physically distanced but enthusiastic audience for being there. "I'm been doing shows in my living room for eight months," he wryly observed. "As you finish the song, you imagine people clapping." So being in front of a live audience was "pretty awesome."

So were you, John. We hope to see you back here again in 2021, if not before.

Shows continue at The Blue Strawberry, which is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement. That includes mandatory masking, restricted indoor capacity, and other precautions. Many of the shows, like Mr. McDaniels's, are also offered as live Internet streams—a real plus for those of us who are still not entirely comfortable with many public performance venues. If what I saw last night is any indication, the live stream is the next best thing to being there. Check their web site for details.

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

Sunday, October 25, 2020

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of October 26, 2020

The Blue Strawberry presents a Pop-Up Piano Bar with Sir Stryker, "Piano Bar Star of the Holland America Cruise Line," Tuesdays through Sundays from 6 to 10 pm. There is no cover or minimum and sidewalk seating is available. The club is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with restricted indoor capacity and other precautions. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

L-R: Marty Fox and Ken Haller
The Blue Strawberry presents an Ken Haller in When I'm 66 on Saturday, October 31, at 8 pm. "Ken Haller is another year older and perhaps even a little wiser! He returns to the Blue Strawberry with his updated annual  Halloween/Birthday Show. Looking back on his life and looking forward to what’s ahead through songs from Broadway and the Great American Songbook by Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Lerner and Loewe, Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, William Finn, and Stephen Sondheim among many others, Ken creates “…a varied and neatly balanced song list, just enough patter to let us know why the list made sense, and a perfect mix of the mirthful and the moving… ingenious [and] emotionally compelling [with] a heaping helping of humor!” (Chuck Lavazzi, KDHX)."  The club is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with restricted indoor capacity and other precautions. The show is also available as a live webcast. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presents the return of its popular Ghost Tours during October 26. Fox Ghost tours include both Fox Theatre history provided by Fox tour guides and 'ghost' stories from the St. Louis Paranormal Society following their investigation and analysis of the theatre’s “hot spots” of paranormal activity. Tours and will be limited to 15 people per departure time. In order to provide the best possible safety measures for Fox guests and to comply with the city health department requirements, the following protocols will be in place. Tours will cover 3 levels of the auditorium and the stage, but will not include the narrow underground tunnels this year. Tours will move in one direction and not cross paths with other tour groups. Tour participants will be required to wear a mask and observe social distancing. Each tour will be accompanied by a Fox tour guide and a monitor to assure adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing. Hand sanitizer stations will be available throughout the tour. For more information: www.fabulousfox.com.

Fly North Theatricals presents three new free digital series. Their new digital line up includes The Spotlight Series, the Grown-Up Theatre Kids Podcast, and Gin and the Tonic. The Spotlight Series highlights the Fly North family of students and actors performing songs from previous FNT shows. In the Grown-Up Theatre Kids podcast you can join Colin Healy and Bradley Rohlf every other Friday as they explore life after drama club and what it means to make a living in theatre far from the lights of broadway. Gin and the Tonic is a "reckless unpacking of music history’s weirdest stories hosted by Colin Healy.” The Spotlight Series and Gin and the Tonic are available at the Fly North Theatricals YouTube channel and the Grown-Up Theatre Kids podcast can also be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Sticher, other podcast platforms. All three are updated on a bi-weekly (every other week) basis.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Death of a Blackheart through November 7th. "Ahoy Matey! Join us for an exciting evening of murder, mystery and pirates at the best comedy dinner theater show in town. Don your favorite pirate gear and join us on a high seas adventure fraught with peril! What part will you play in this hilarious show full of fair maidens, lost boys, rival pirates and wenches? Whichever character you acquire, beware of that famous pirate Captain Jack Blackheart! Aye, he's a scurvy seadog if my eye ever seed one! Gee, I hope no one kills him off!" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

And in This Corner: Cassius Clay
Metro Theatre Company presents the streaming version of their critically acclaimed 2016 production of And In This Corner: Cassius Clay by Idris Goodwin for online classrooms, homeschools, learning pods, and other educational settings. "And In This Corner: Cassius Clay is the story of the young man who would become Muhammad Ali. From his relationship with a white police officer who introduced him to boxing as a kid in Jim Crow-era Louisville to his gold medal-winning performance in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Cassius holds onto the faith that his potential is unlimited. But it is the friends from his childhood who are becoming Freedom Riders who ultimately challenge him to understand that there is more to life than personal success: he must use his gifts to work for the good of his community." All tickets include a virtual lesson plan connected to Missouri curricular standards, along with additional resources to help address the topics of civil rights, racial equity, and social justice. For more information: www.metroplays.org/virtual-field-trips.

Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll
The Midnight Company
presents Eric Bogosian's one-actor show Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm through November 7 and Sunday, November 8, at 2 pm. "Like his other one-man scripts, Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll presents a menagerie of self-involved American (and one British) men  - ranging from a homeless street person to a fading rock star to a self-help guru to a Hollywood producer to a real estate agent and more - each convinced they are in control of their (and others’) lives, but caught up in the midst of the explosive mania and/or quiet desperation that our modern age breeds. The production has undergone extensive planning due to COVID-19 and The Midnight Company has received certification through Missouri ArtSafe, a program led by Missouri Arts Council." For more information: midnightcompany.com.

The Muny presents Attuned: Cast Me at the Muny, a nine-part podcast that "showcases audition tips and funny stories, while offering an inside look at what makes casting a Muny show so challenging." The series is available on demand at the Classic 107.3 web site. For more information: classic1073.org/podcasts

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents its 2020 Digital Festival with a variety of streaming content, including Opening Night Spotlights and the Spring Artists in Training Recital, available at www.opera-stl.org/season-and-events/thisisotsl-digital-festival as well as on its YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/OperaTheatreSTL.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, in collaboration with Baltimore Center Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, The Public Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, present Play at Home, a series of micro-commissioned short plays from some of the American theatre's most exciting and prominent playwrights. These new plays – which all run 10 minutes or less – are available for the public to download, read and perform at home for free at playathome.org.

Adena Varner and family
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents a live video stream of the WiseWrite Digital Play Festival running until the end of the Rep's 2020-2021 season. “Step into the imagination of three young playwrights as The Rep presents professional readings of their new plays.” The production is directed by Adena Varner, the Rep's Director of Learning and Community Engagement. For more information: repstl.org.

Come Together
The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival presents streaming videos from the SHAKE20 festival, including re-imagined, condensed versions of classic Shakespeare plays and new takes on old favorites like Joe Hanrahan's Come Together, at the Shakespeare Festival Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pg/STLShakesFest/videos

The St. Louis Writers Group streams live recordings of previous play reading sessions at their Facebook page. For more information: facebook.com.

SATE, in collaboration with COCA and Prison Performing Arts, presents Project Verse: Creativity in the Time of Quarantine. Project Verse presents two new plays: Quatrains in Quarantine by e.k. doolin and Dream On,Black Girl: Reflections in Quarantine by Maxine du Maine. The performances are streamed free of charge on SATE’s website and Facebook page. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

Stray Dog Theatre presents POEtober, a series of online streamed readings of stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The stories are The Raven read by Gerry Love, Murders in the Rue Morgue read by Laura Kyro, and The Tell-Tale Heart read by David Wassilak. All the readings will be available through the end of October at the company's web site at https://www.straydogtheatre.org.

Union Avenue Opera offers Sneak Peeks of its 2021 season operas Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) and The Cradle Will Rock on its YouTube channel.

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.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Symphony Review: Mourning becomes morning in music by Strauss and Yoshimatsu

Pre-COVID, the opening number at a symphony concert was likely to be a relatively short and dramatic "curtain raiser" like Honegger's "Pacific 231" or a popular crowd pleaser like Barber's "Adagio for Strings," to name just two openers from St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO)  concerts in the recent past.

But that, as they say, was then. This week's SLSO concerts open with a pair of works for string orchestra played attaca (i.e., one after the other with no pause) which, as Music Director Stéphane Denève notes in his opening remarks, combine to deliver a message of mourning followed by one of hope. Given the current state of the world at large and our nation in particular, that feels very apt.

It also feels apt that the longer of the two works was written in 1945 as an elegy for the death of an entire civilization by an elderly composer only a few years from his own death.

The SLSO strings tuning up
Ricard Strauss's "Metamorphosen" for 23 solo strings was written in the wake of the destruction Germany brought upon itself during World War II and particularly for the bombing of the National Theatre—the home of the Bavarian State Opera, Orchestra, and Ballet—by the allies in 1943. The theatre was completely restored to its prewar glory and re-opened in 1963, but poor Strauss never saw it, having died in 1949.

The prevailing mood is one of lamentation, a fact emphasized by the way a theme derived from the Marche Funebre of Beethoven's "Eroica" winds its way though the entire 28-minute composition, like a dark thread. There are moments of near-joy and even hope, including some glorious passages for the entire ensemble rendered with stunning power and beauty by the SLSO strings, but in the end the work fades to a quiet, resigned conclusion.

This is a piece I had only encountered in the past on recordings, which sometimes turned the composer's complex counterpoint into sonic fog. Performed live, with the 23 string players spread out across the entire width of the stage, that fog dissipated, replaced by a clear web of sound in which the individual musical lines were clearly audible and easy to follow. Staging aside, primary credit for that resplendent result goes to the skill of the musicians in the string section and to Maestro Denève's masterful command of Strauss's intricate musical structure. A hearty "bravi" is due to all involved.

So much for the mourning from 1945. The hope was delivered hard upon its heels by Takashi Yoshimatsu's "And the Birds Are Still..." from 1998. It's a much shorter work—usually around seven or eight minutes—but packs a lot of striking imagery into that brief period.  To my ears, it sounds like a day in an avian friendly garden, with awakening birds suggested by the violins playing soft triplet motifs over a drone in the lower strings that conjures up images of a world slowly emerging from sleep. It builds to a happy climax, followed by a brief pause, after which individual players begin to chime in with their own diverse songs. Eventually night falls and the violin birds we heard at the beginning return with their syncopated song, gradually fading out to pianissimo and pianississimo (pp and ppp in musical notation) as they retire for the evening.

The musical texture of "And the Birds Are Still..." is far more delicate and transparent than that of the "Metamorphosen," which leaves individual players more exposed—possibly risky in a less solid ensemble, but sheer poetry with the SLSO strings. It all added up to a moving and ultimately blissful 35 minutes or so that provided a welcome respite from the madness that dominates our media these days.

The SLSO winds ready for Dvořák
A long stage change came next, as the string players were replaced by ten members of the SLSO wind section along with Principal Cellist Daniel Lee and Principal Bass Erik Harris in a nuanced and good-humored rendition of Anton Dvořák's D-minor Serenade, Op. 44. Composed in only two weeks in January 1878 (the first movement was completed in one day) just as the 37-year-old composer's career was taking off, the Serenade is, its opening key not withstanding, a warmly cheerful piece.

Mr. Denève highlighted and enhanced the work's good cheer without neglecting its more poetic moments. The Menuetto second movement was a good example, starting lyrically and then transitioning to a positively boisterous furiant in the central trio. There was excellent playing by the entire wind ensemble, which consisted of Xiomara Mass and Cally Banham on oboes, Scott Andrews and Tzuying Huang on clarinets, bassoonists Andrew Cuneo and Felicia Foland with Ellen Connors on the contrabassoon, and a stellar trio of horns: Thomas Jöstlein, Victoria Knudtson, and Tod Bowermaster. I found the horns especially impressive in the dramatic central section of the Andante con moto third movement as well as in the happy ascending triplets that bring the work to a celebratory close.

As it was last week, the audience was kept small (around 100 people, roughly 3% of Powell's capacity) and physically distanced as part of the SLSOs COVID-19 safety protocols, but the applause and audience response felt louder than last week. Whether that denoted increased size or just more enthusiasm I can't say, but it was a good thing either way.

There are two more performances of this wonderfully uplifting program Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, October 23 and 24.  You can find more information and program notes at the SLSO web site, along with details on the many changes that have been made in seating, ticketing, and even the hall's infrastructure in response to the pandemic. To purchase tickets, though, you have to call the box office at 314-534-1700; they're not being sold on line.  Note that Saturday performances of this and other concerts in the "re-imagined" fall season will not be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio, which continues to present rebroadcasts of earlier SLSO concerts every Saturday night at 8.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Symphony Preview: In memoriam

This weekend (Thursday through Saturday, October 22-24), Stèphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) in a concert of chamber works by Richard Strauss, contemporary Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu, and Antonín Dvořák. It's a program that, in the words of Maestro Denève, "connects to our current world: there is a lot of anxiety, sadness, and division, and this music gives comfort to heal our souls. The complete orchestra appears, but not together—the strings play first, then winds."

Richard Strauss at age 74,
photographed in his garden at his country home
at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in 1938
en.wikipedia.org
In that sense, it's rather like the way most of us are living now: physically distanced in our own social "pods," not quite together but not entirely apart.

The concerts open with a pair of works for strings that, although composed over fifty years apart in completely different parts of the world, will be played together as a single unit. The result is a lovely hybrid that touches both the mind and the heart.

The first work is Strauss's "Metamorphosen" for 23 solo strings, first performed in 1946 but written largely between August 1944 and April 12, 1945—a time period that coincided with the ignominious collapse of Hitler's "Thousand-Year Reich." The music is a nearly half-hour lament for the destruction Germany brought upon itself and particularly for the bombing of the National Theatre—the home of the Bavarian State Opera, Orchestra, and Ballet—by the allies in 1943. Beginning with a slow, ascending sigh in the lower strings (violas, cellos, and double basses), the work unfolds over the next 26 minutes or so in a series of hopeful, romantic climaxes that always fall back into an undercurrent of lamentation, like the pleasant memories returning in the moments before death that you hear in Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration" from nearly 60 years earlier. Towards the end, the composer quotes the Marche Funebre from Beethoven's "Eroica" (accompanied by the words “IN MEMORIAM!” in the printed score) before fading to a quiet, resigned conclusion.

If you want to get acquainted with it in advance, there's a recording on YouTube by Antoni Wit and the Staatskapelle Weimar with a synchronized display of the score—very useful for a work with as much counterpoint as this one.

Takashi Yoshimatsu
The quiet conclusion would normally be followed by applause, but in these concerts those final notes will be followed without pause by the gentle opening chords of Yoshimatsu's "And the Birds Are Still..." from 1998. Born in 1953, Takashi Yoshimatsu turned his back on serialism and other "avant garde" techniques, when those forms of modernism were dominant forces in music, and is now, according to his biography at Naxos Records, "regarded as the standard-bearer of Neo-Romanticism in Japan." Birds and their songs are an important source of musical and personal inspiration for Mr. Yoshimatsu, and you can hear that sense of airborne serenity in this work. On his web site, the composer writes that the work "came from an image of birds gathered around a dead comrade" and while that provides a link back to the Strauss's lamentation, the sonic world of "And the Birds Are Still..." is uplifting and soothing rather than funereal.

That makes it a perfect companion for the "Metamorphosen." "In his piece," observes Mr. Denève,"the sound of birdsong gives hope. The world has known many wars, many tragic events, but birds have sung all along." As someone who has been known to take comfort in the sounds of the many songsters attracted to our back garden (which my wife has made very bird friendly by her choice of plants and water features), I couldn't agree more.

But don't take my word for it. You can hear a performance of "And the Birds Are Still..." with a synchronized display of the score on YouTube. It's a lovely thing and well worth getting acquainted with in advance.

Antonín Dvořák, 1882 - This image comes from
Gallica Digital Library  and is available
under the digital ID btv1b8417521d,
Public Domain

To conclude the concert, the strings will clear the stage to make room for ten of the SLSOs wind players (two each of oboes and clarinets, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, and three horns), who will regale us with Dvořák's D-minor Serenade, Op. 44. Composed in only two weeks in January of 1878 (the first movement was completed in one day) just as the 37-year-old composer's career was taking off thanks to a helpful boost from Brahms, the Serenade is, its opening key not withstanding, a warmly cheerful piece. Dvořák was inspired to write it after hearing a Vienna Philharmonic performance of Mozart's Serenade No. 10, K. 371/370a, and while Mozart's influence is clearly audible, especially at the beginning of the Andante con moto third movement, the music is still quintessentially Dvořák.

What does that mean?  Well, the Moderato quasi marcia first movement is a jaunty march to which the minor key imparts an air of mock pomposity. It's like the village band dressing up in deliberately silly costumes and marching through the town square to kick off a festival. The Menuetto second movement is an obvious tip of the hat to Wolfgang Amadeus, but the opening section is more of a Czech sousedská than a minuet, and the zippy central section is obviously a whirling furiant of the sort that pops up often in Dvořák's music. The Andante con moto third movement opens with a tune so similar to the beginning of Mozart's Serenade that it comes close to imitation, but the dramatic central trio is typical of the unexpected sturm und drang that we hear in many of the Czech master's slow movements (the eighth and ninth symphonies are good examples). The finale wraps it all up with a lively polka-like dance with a recapitulation of the opening march that leads to a big, happy finish.

Originally composed for winds alone, the Serenade later got additional parts for double bass and cello (presumably to add more "bottom" to the sound), but this week we'll get the original version without strings. I expect that contrabassoon will give us all the bass notes we need.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the second of a series of special chamber orchestra concerts this Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm with an additional performance on Friday at 11 am,  October 22-24. The program, which will run about an hour with no intermission, consists of Richard Strauss's "Metamorphosen" for 23 Solo Strings, TrV 290; Takashi Yoshimatsu's "And birds are still...," op. 72; and Antonín Dvořák's Serenade in D minor, op. 44. Audience size will be limited to 100 for each performance and tickets can only be purchased by calling the SLSO box office at 314-534-1700. Only two tickets can be purchased per household.

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

Sunday, October 18, 2020

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of October 19, 2020

Now including both on-line and live events during the pandemic. To get your event listed here, send an email to calendar [at] stageleft.org.

The Blue Strawberry presents a Pop-Up Piano Bar with Sir Stryker, "Piano Bar Star of the Holland America Cruise Line," Tuesdays through Sundays from 6 to 10 pm. There is no cover or minimum and sidewalk seating is available. The club is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with restricted indoor capacity and other precautions. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Rick Jensen
The Blue Strawberry presents an open mic night with singer/songwriter Rick Jensen on Wednesday, October 21, at 7 pm. "Singer, songwriter and musical-director Rick Jensen is an 8-time M.A.C. award winner and 2-time Backstage Bistro Award recipient. Rick also  recently received  a lifetime achievement award from A.S.C.A.P. honoring his work as a songwriter.  He has played for and provided musical direction and arrangements for countless theater and cabaret artists  for over 40 years."  The club is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with restricted indoor capacity and other precautions. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Blue Strawberry presents an Steve Brammeier in 68: Then and Now on Friday, October 23, at 8 pm. "Steve explores his journey from graduating Senior to (ahem) senior.  The stories, headlines and the music of '68; how that year shaped my life and maybe yours....even if you graduated in '78, '88, '98 or later."  Rick Jensen is pianist and music director for the show. Tickets are available both for the in-person performance as well as for a live video stream of the event. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Beverly Brennan
The Blue Strawberry presents an Beverly Brennen in Teach Me Tonight on Saturday, October 24, at 8 pm. "The fabulous Beverly Brennan takes us on a tour of her longtime, award-winning professional life as a teacher, with funny and poignant stories about substituting and teaching kindergarten through college.  Songs range from Gershwin to Alice Cooper, from Musical Theater to The Beatles. And can she belt! Come and put some rhythm in your nursery rhymes!"  Rick Jensen is pianist and music director for the show. The club is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with restricted indoor capacity and other precautions. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Blue Strawberry presents an John McDaniel in Home for the Holidays (...does Halloween count?) on Sunday, October 25, at 7 pm. "St. Louis's own Grammy & Emmy winner is back singing songs of hope, love, family, and maybe a goblin or two.  We had to scurry to find more chairs last time John was here, and we had twice as many then as we do now."  Rick Jensen is pianist and music director for the show. The club is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with restricted indoor capacity and other precautions. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Gateway to Cabaret stars
The Cabaret Project presents Gateway to Cabaret: A Star-Studded Virtual Event streaming live on Saturday, October 24th, at 7 pm. The evening features appearances by Broadway, TV, film, and cabaret stars Norm Lewis, Faith Prince, Brandon Victor Dixon, Alexandra Billings, Sidney Myer, Christine Andreas, Tony DeSare, Capathia Jenkins, Billy Stritch, and Steven Brinberg (noted for his Barbara Streisand tribute show Simply Barbara). "Gateway To Cabaret celebrates the rich past, present and future of the art of cabaret and song performance in the Gateway City. Going back to the Gaslight Square days of rooms like the Crystal Palace to today’s multiple offerings, St. Louis has played a wonderful role in the art form of cabaret. All proceeds will benefit The Cabaret Project of St. Louis upcoming 2020-2021 (Virtual) Season of Tributes – featuring tribute shows to Mel Torme, Edith Piaf and Frank Sinatra & Ella Fitzgerald. Proceeds also benefit The Cabaret Project of St. Louis’ two flagship performance training programs: Sing Center Stage, our summer program for talented teens and The St. Louis Cabaret Conference, our nationally renowned performance training programs for adults." Tickets are $25 for a household streaming pass. Other support opportunities are available, including a complete evening with a dinner from Dominic’s on The Hill, the event’s food sponsor. For more information: thecabaretproject.org.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presents the return of its popular Ghost Tours during the month of October. Fox Ghost tours include both Fox Theatre history provided by Fox tour guides and 'ghost' stories from the St. Louis Paranormal Society following their investigation and analysis of the theatre’s “hot spots” of paranormal activity. Tours begin on Sunday, October 4, and will continue at a variety of dates and times through October 26. Tours and will be limited to 15 people per departure time. In order to provide the best possible safety measures for Fox guests and to comply with the city health department requirements, the following protocols will be in place. Tours will cover 3 levels of the auditorium and the stage, but will not include the narrow underground tunnels this year. Tours will move in one direction and not cross paths with other tour groups. Tour participants will be required to wear a mask and observe social distancing. Each tour will be accompanied by a Fox tour guide and a monitor to assure adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing. Hand sanitizer stations will be available throughout the tour. For more information: www.fabulousfox.com.

Fly North Theatricals presents three new free digital series. Their new digital line up includes The Spotlight Series, the Grown-Up Theatre Kids Podcast, and Gin and the Tonic. The Spotlight Series highlights the Fly North family of students and actors performing songs from previous FNT shows. In the Grown-Up Theatre Kids podcast you can join Colin Healy and Bradley Rohlf every other Friday as they explore life after drama club and what it means to make a living in theatre far from the lights of broadway. Gin and the Tonic is a "reckless unpacking of music history’s weirdest stories hosted by Colin Healy.” The Spotlight Series and Gin and the Tonic are available at the Fly North Theatricals YouTube channel and the Grown-Up Theatre Kids podcast can also be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Sticher, other podcast platforms. All three are updated on a bi-weekly (every other week) basis.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Death of a Blackheart through November 7th. "Ahoy Matey! Join us for an exciting evening of murder, mystery and pirates at the best comedy dinner theater show in town. Don your favorite pirate gear and join us on a high seas adventure fraught with peril! What part will you play in this hilarious show full of fair maidens, lost boys, rival pirates and wenches? Whichever character you acquire, beware of that famous pirate Captain Jack Blackheart! Aye, he's a scurvy seadog if my eye ever seed one! Gee, I hope no one kills him off!" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

And in This Corner: Cassius Clay
Metro Theatre Company presents the streaming version of their critically acclaimed 2016 production of And In This Corner: Cassius Clay by Idris Goodwin for online classrooms, homeschools, learning pods, and other educational settings. "And In This Corner: Cassius Clay is the story of the young man who would become Muhammad Ali. From his relationship with a white police officer who introduced him to boxing as a kid in Jim Crow-era Louisville to his gold medal-winning performance in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Cassius holds onto the faith that his potential is unlimited. But it is the friends from his childhood who are becoming Freedom Riders who ultimately challenge him to understand that there is more to life than personal success: he must use his gifts to work for the good of his community." All tickets include a virtual lesson plan connected to Missouri curricular standards, along with additional resources to help address the topics of civil rights, racial equity, and social justice. For more information: www.metroplays.org/virtual-field-trips.

The Muny presents Attuned: Cast Me at the Muny, a nine-part podcast that "showcases audition tips and funny stories, while offering an inside look at what makes casting a Muny show so challenging." The series is available on demand at the Classic 107.3 web site. For more information: classic1073.org/podcasts

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents its 2020 Digital Festival with a variety of streaming content, including Opening Night Spotlights and the Spring Artists in Training Recital, available at www.opera-stl.org/season-and-events/thisisotsl-digital-festival as well as on its YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/OperaTheatreSTL.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, in collaboration with Baltimore Center Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, The Public Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, present Play at Home, a series of micro-commissioned short plays from some of the American theatre's most exciting and prominent playwrights. These new plays – which all run 10 minutes or less – are available for the public to download, read and perform at home for free at playathome.org.

Adena Varner and family
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents a live video stream of the WiseWrite Digital Play Festival running until the end of the Rep's 2020-2021 season. “Step into the imagination of three young playwrights as The Rep presents professional readings of their new plays.” The production is directed by Adena Varner, the Rep's Director of Learning and Community Engagement. For more information: repstl.org.

Come Together
The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival presents streaming videos from the SHAKE20 festival, including re-imagined, condensed versions of classic Shakespeare plays and new takes on old favorites like Joe Hanrahan's Come Together, at the Shakespeare Festival Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pg/STLShakesFest/videos

The St. Louis Writers Group streams live recordings of previous play reading sessions at their Facebook page. For more information: facebook.com.

SATE, in collaboration with COCA and Prison Performing Arts, presents Project Verse: Creativity in the Time of Quarantine. Project Verse presents two new plays: Quatrains in Quarantine by e.k. doolin and Dream On,Black Girl: Reflections in Quarantine by Maxine du Maine. The performances are streamed free of charge on SATE’s website and Facebook page. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

Stray Dog Theatre presents POEtober, a series of online streamed readings of stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The Raven read by Gerry Love and part 1 of Murders in the Rue Morgue read by Laura Kyro are streaming now. On October 24th they will be joined by The Tell-Tale Heart read by David Wassilak and part 2 of Murders in the Rue Morgue read by Laura Kyro. All the readings will be available through the end of October at the company's web site at https://www.straydogtheatre.org.

Karen Kanakis and Jacob Lassetter
Union Avenue Opera offers Sneak Peeks of its 2021 season operas Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) and The Cradle Will Rock on its YouTube channel.

Union Avenue Opera concludes its Garden Concert Series on Sunday, October 25th at 5 pm with an afternoon of grand opera arias and duets from St. Louis "musical power couple" – husband/wife duo Jacob Lassetter and Karen Kanakis. The concert will take place in the garden of Dr. Kenneth and Marjorie Smith in the Compton Heights neighborhood of St. Louis. For more information: unionavenueopera.secure.force.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: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra celebrates a return to Powell Hall with a small but mighty Beethoven "Eroica"

The mood was muted but celebratory Thursday night (October 15th) as Music Director Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) took to the Powell Hall stage for the first time in almost seven months with the first in a series of chamber music and small-orchestra concerts scheduled to run through the first week of November.

A physically distanced tune-up
It was muted mostly because, due to pandemic concerns, the audience was kept small (100 people, around 3% of Powell's capacity) and physically distanced. The celebration came from the band's outstanding performances of music by Beethoven and contemporary violinist/composer Jessie Montgomery. Although the members of the SLSO haven't appeared together on the Powell Hall stage in what seems like ages, their playing Thursday night was accomplished and precise, and their teamwork as flawless as usual. For us, at least, it felt like a kind of homecoming.

Before the first note was played on stage, the party started with a video of Maestro Denève leading a quartet of SLSO trombones in the Part 5 of Joan Tower's six-part "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman." The short piece built to a powerful conclusion, after which Mr. Denève took the stage with a heartfelt welcome message for the audience. "We are back," he said, "and you are, too!"

Jessie Montgomery
Photo by Jiyang Chen
He then led the symphony strings in a sparkling rendition of Ms. Montgomery's 2012 "Starburst." Originally composed for a nine-piece string ensemble and later arranged for string orchestra by Jannina Norpoth, "Starburst" is a delightful sonic explosion which, in the composer's words, refers to "the rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in a galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly." To my ears, "Starburst" also calls to mind musical depictions of fireworks by composers like Stravinsky and Debussy while still speaking in a sonic voice that is entirely Ms. Montgomery's own.  Rapidly ascending motifs shoot up, expand into musical stars, and then start over again in what the composer describes as "a multidimensional soundscape" that constitutes "a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors."

When I interviewed Mr. Denève back in February of last year, he observed that, when it came to new music, "my preference is for music that is very emotional, that is often very tonal, and that has a lot of melodies." That has certainly been true of the newer works he has conducted thus far, including "Starburst." Performed with pinpoint accuracy by the SLSO strings, it was an invigorating way to herald the orchestra's return to live performances at Powell.

The hour-long concert continued and concluded with one of Beethoven's Greatest Hits: the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, known as the "Eroica." It's a work that, as Mr. Denève points out in this weekend's program notes, is "a universal masterpiece. Something essential. The ‘Eroica’ is full of hope, and this is the right piece to begin making music together again." I couldn't agree more, especially with a performance as fine as the one we heard Thursday night.

The two big E-flat major chords that opened the symphony set the scene for a dramatic first movement that radiated energy and resolve. Here, as in the rest of the performance, clean, clear melodic lines and crisp articulation were the order of the day. The Marcia funebre second movement had dramatic heft, with especially plaintive oboe lines by Xiomara Mass and Cally Banham. That potent sense of tragedy made the contrast with the energetic Scherzo third movement that much more notable. The horn section under Thomas Jöstlein really distinguished themselves both here and throughout the performance. The triumphant finale, with its variations on what was apparently one of Beethoven's favorite themes, brought everything to a most satisfying conclusion.

Nobody does tragedy and triumph quite like Beethoven, and heaven knows the pandemic has brought us an ample sufficiency of both.

Stéphane Denève
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

One of the more remarkable things about this "Eroica" was the size of the orchestra. The need to provide safe physical distancing for the musicians limits the number of them who can be on stage at any one time—40 total, in this case.  That's about half the size of most contemporary orchestras, but fairly typical of the forces that would have been available to conductors back in Beethoven's day. As a result, some musical details that are sometimes lost in "big band" performances came through clearly here. I was thinking, for example, of the burbling clarinet arpeggios in the finale as well as the fugal passages in the second movement. Everything was very clear and transparent, but still with plenty of power.

The small audience size also changed the acoustics of the hall. With fewer bodies to absorb the sound, the acoustic fog that I have sometimes noticed at Powell was lifted, and everything could be heard in greater detail. Maybe I'm just looking for silver linings here, but I thought the overall result was a bit of a revelation.

Performances of "Starburst" and the Beethoven 3rd continue Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, October 17th and 18th. With only 100 tickets available for each performance, I expect the remaining two concerts to sell out quickly. You can find more information and program notes at the SLSO web site, along with details on the many changes that have been made in seating, ticketing, and even the hall's infrastructure in response to the pandemic. To purchase tickets, though, you have to call the box office at 314-534-1700; they're not being sold on line.  Note that Saturday performances of this and other concerts in the "re-imagined" fall season will not be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio, which continues to present rebroadcasts of earlier SLSO concerts every Saturday night at 8.

Next at Powell Hall: Maestro Denève conducts a program of Richard Strauss's "Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings," Takashi Yoshimatsu's "And birds are still...," and Dvorak's D-minor Serenade for winds Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm as well as Friday at 11 am, October 22-24. As with other programs in the fall series, the concerts will run around one hour with no intermission. 

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Symphony Preview: Heroics and starbursts

This weekend (Thursday through Sunday, October 15-18), Music Director Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) return to Powell Hall for the first time since the SARS-Cov-19 pandemic broke in March. For the audience, the experience will, as I noted in an earlier article, be a radical change from what used to be considered "normal." One of the two works on the abbreviated program, though, will be familiar.

Beethoven in 1803
Painted by Christian Horneman
That work is the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, known as the "Eroica." First performed on April 7, 1805, at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, the work was a radical departure from Beethoven's earlier compositions. Ironically for such a striking and ultimately triumphant work, that departure had its origins in a "dark night of the soul" brought on the composer's increasing deafness and tinnitus. I caused Beethoven to engage in a re-evaluation of his life, described in an 1802 document now known as the "Heiligenstadt Testament."

The "Testament," as most classical fans will recall, was a letter Beethoven wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann at the town of Heiligenstadt (now part of Vienna) in which he told of his despair over his hearing loss and his struggles with thoughts of suicide. The letter was never delivered (it was found among his papers after his death in 1827) and seems, in retrospect, to have acted as a kind of catharsis for the composer. Before the "Testament" he was a composer/pianist. Afterwards, he would be exclusively a composer.

But not just any early 19th-century composer. He would be Beethoven. Specifically, he would be the Beethoven we now often think of, in somewhat hyperbolic terms, as a heaven-storming, tormented genius. He would be the spark that ignited the Romantic movement in music. It's an attitude towards music that waned in the early 20th century in the face of dogged attacks by serialists and others who seemed to regard music as more of a mathematical exercise than an effort in communication, but it never really died. Indeed, the first work on this weekend's program sounds unquestionably Romantic to my ears.

But I digress.

The important point is that the Symphony No. 3 marked the beginning of the emergence of Beethoven's unique compositional voice. His first two symphonies were clearly in the mold of Haydn and Mozart. But with the "Eroica," as Paul Munro writes in his program notes, "his music decisively shifted to a bold, strange new direction."

You can hear that boldness in the first two big E-flat major chords. They're almost like a pair of gauntlets thrown down to challenge established notions of what a symphony should be, and they set the pattern for not only the first movement, but for the rest of the symphony as well. Indeed as Christopher H. Gibbs writes in an essay for NPR, "[t]he motivic, metric, and harmonic surprises continue throughout this movement of such extraordinary length, unprecedented for its time."

The bold drama continues with the heroic funeral march of the second movement, the restless energy of the third movement scherzo, and the towering finale-a set of elaborate variations followed by a powerful coda. It clocks in at around fifty minutes, which no doubt seemed absurdly excessive to audiences accustomed to symphonies half that length. "One early critic," writes Welsh musicologist David Wyn Morris, "described it as 'a very long-drawn-out daring and wild fantasia' which, at least, reveals a response to its emotive power."

The finale is also a classic example of musical recycling. The theme that serves as the basis for the variations was originally part of a set of twelve "Contredanses" Beethoven wrote between 1791 and 1802. It seems to have been a favorite of his, popping up again in (among other places) his score for the 1802 ballet "The Creatures of Prometheus." Composer and writer Derek Strahan has suggested that Beethoven saw it as a "hero" theme. It certainly becomes heroic in the course of the final movement of the "Eroica."

Violinist and composer
Jessie Montgomery
One aspect of this weekend's "Eroica" that will sound different to many listeners, by the way, will be the size of the orchestra. Physical distancing requirements limit the number of musicians that can be on the stage at any one time, so this "Eroica" will be performed by an ensemble of 40. Modern orchestras typically are much larger, but as Maestro Denève point out in this week's program notes, "when the ‘Eroica’ was premiered, it was in a very small hall, with a very small orchestra." So this is a chance to hear the work is much the way the composer's contemporaries would have heard it.

The concerts will open with a piece that, although composed back in 2012, will probably be unfamiliar to most of you since this is its first local performance. It's "Starburst" by contemporary violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery. Originally composed for a nine-piece string ensemble (and first performed in the format by the Sphinx Virtuosi in Miami in 2012), it was later expanded by Jannina Norpoth into the chamber orchestra version we'll hear this week.

The composer describes "Starburst" as "a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors. Exploding gestures are juxtaposed with gentle fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape." Now that I've had the chance to listen to it a few times, I'd describe it as a sparkling and thoroughly delightful sonic explosion that calls to mind musical depictions of fireworks by composers like Stravinsky and Debussy while still speaking in a sonic voice that is entirely Ms. Montgomery's own. It's "program music" in the best Romantic tradition and great fun. I look forward to hearing what the SLSO players do with it this week.

If you want to sample it yourself in advance, there's a recording of it by the chamber ensemble The Knights on YouTube that's hard to beat. The recording was produced entirely on line last month (September 20th) and includes a lively and informative post-performance chat with the composer and Knights violinist Christina Courtin, who is also a co-producer of the video.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the first of two special chamber orchestra concerts this Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Friday at 11 am, and Sunday at 3 pm, October 15-18. The program, which will run about an hour with no intermission, consists of Jessie Montgomery's "Starburst" and Beethoven's Symphony No 3 ("Eroica"). Audience size will be limited to 100 for each performance and tickets can only be purchased by calling the SLSO box office at 314-534-1700. Only two tickets can be purchased per household.