Friday, December 03, 2021

Cabaret Review: We still get a kick out of Steve Ross

Thanksgiving weekend (November 26 and 27), Jim Dolan’s Blue Strawberry nightclub gave cabaret lovers something to be thankful for: two nights of the legendary cabaret singer and pianist Steve Ross. I was there for the packed Friday night house, and (to quote one of Ross’s favorite songwriters, Noël Coward), “I couldn’t have liked it more.”

Steve Ross

Ross has a long and happy relationship with St. Louis, going back to the early days of the Grandel Cabaret Series, where I first saw him two decades ago. Debonair, witty, and charismatic, Ross never fails to get straight to the heart of every song, whether it’s an obscure comic gem like Milton Ager and Jack Yellen’s “Hungry Women” (introduced by Eddie Cantor in his 1928 musical Whoopee!); a sentimental standard like Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory” (Bob Hope’s theme song, which he introduced with frequent co-star Shirley Ross in The Big Broadcast of 1938); or the smoky, late-night regret of the Kingston Trio hit “Scotch and Soda”. 

Without fail, Ross makes certain that you not only hear but actually listen to the lyrics – an essential skill for the cabaret artist. An evening with Steve Ross is an object lesson in why cabaret is such a vibrant art form.

Much of Ross’s latest show, Back on the Town, was likely familiar to fans. Many of his favorite songwriters were represented, including Coward, Cole Porter, the Gershwins (“George and his lovely wife Ira,” as a misinformed DJ is supposed to have said in the 1950s), Irving Berlin, and of course, the newly-departed Stephen Sondheim. The latter was represented only by “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music) but what a lovely performance it was.

There were some songs that were new to me as well—a reminder that Ross knows well how to assemble a show that mixes audience favorites with possible future favorites. In that category I’d include “My Circle of Friends” from the 2008 album Hallways by Carol Hall (best known for her musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), with its sweetly sentimental thoughts on what Tales of the City's Anna Madrigal called one’s “logical family,” and “This Moment,” written by John Wallowitch and Bertram Ross for the autobiographical 1999 film of the same name. As someone with more years behind him than ahead, the lyric struck me as especially powerful: “It takes a life to realize / What life is all about / And life is all about this moment.”

And, happily, there were numbers by immortal French singer/songwriters like Charles Trenet (“La Mer,” done very much in the Trenet style) and Charles Aznavour (“Le Temps,” with English lyrics by Gene Lees). There was also, happily, Ross’s trademark instrumental medley of Edith Piaf favorites—always a hit with us fans. The Francophile feast included a song he co-wrote with Barry Day, “Whenever I Think of Paris.” It’s a wistful love letter to a city I adore as much as he obviously does.

Another notable item was Cole Porter’s popular “Anything Goes” with some new lyrics by screenwriter Joe Keenan. They were witty, to be sure, but I’m not sure all of Porter’s originals seem really need a rewrite to make them relevant: “The world has gone mad today / And good's bad today, / And black's white today, / And day's night today.” To say nothing of:

Just think of those shocks you've got
And those knocks you got
And those blues you got
From that news you got
And those pains you got
(If any brains you've got)
From those little radios.

Change that last line to, say, “From those angry talk shows” or “From social media prose” and everything old is new again.

“But I digress” – Tom Lehrer.

So, yeah, it was another charming and entertaining evening with one of cabaret’s leading lights. Thanks to Jim Dolan and the Blue Strawberry for bringing Steve Ross to town once again. Long may his light shine. Here in St. Louis, we still get a kick out of him.


Thursday, December 02, 2021

Symphony Preview: Nicholas McGegan on a box of Bachs and other Baroque notes

This weekend, December 3-5, Nicholas McGegan returns to Powell Hall for a program of music by JS Bach and his less-famous son CPE Bach. I talked with McGegan via Zoom on November 18th. Here’s a somewhat condensed transcript of that conversation. The complete video interview is available on Chuck’s Culture Channel on YouTube.

[Preview the music with my commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

L-R: Nicholas McGegan and Chuck Lavazzi

Chuck Lavazzi (CL): On December 3rd through 5th, you will be here with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) performing music by a pair of Bachs. The famous Johann Sebastian and one of his many musical sons Carl Philipp Emanuel. And since that's the upcoming event, let's talk a little bit about both of those guys. And I'd like to start with CPE Bach because he was a remarkable character and is probably not that well known to a lot of concertgoers.

Nicholas McGegan (NM): No, he's not. I think if his name was not Bach he might, in a way, be just as well known. There's no reason why he should be under his father's shadow, as it were. He's a wonderful composer in his own right. In terms of the kind of music he wrote and when he lived, he's kind of between two periods a little bit. He's not exactly what we think of as Baroque music, which is what, obviously, Johann Sebastian wrote. And he's not quite classical. He's an in-betweeny, if you like. Some people call it Rococo. But that makes it sound like mice in China, that it's all very pretty and stuff. His music is very daring, full of surprises. Sometimes very hard-driven. But also full of Empfindsamkeit is what the Germans call it, sensibility. It wears its heart on the sleeve, particularly in the slow movements.

CL: The Empfindsamer Stil

NM: Yeah, the sensibility. It's half of the Jane Austen novel. Without the sense. It's the sensibility. And he was much admired by Haydn, particularly, and he lived a really a very long time. He was born in 1714, but he died only four years before Mozart died, in 1788. So he had a long career. He worked for a good many years for King Frederick the Great of Prussia in Berlin, which was very much a full-time job because when the flute playing king wasn't destroying the Austrians and being rather good at the art of war, he seems to have been an extremely good flute player. And he'd certainly played a flute concerto every day of his life if he could. And so his musicians were kept very busy providing the flute concertos, making sure that they didn't have any bits he couldn't play.

CL: Yes, very important . [laughter]

NM: But he must've been really good, and he composed a little bit, too--maybe corrected by one of his lackeys. But then, CP Bach took over from his father in law, Georg Philipp Telemann, as the main Mr. Music Man, if you like, for Hamburg. So he had a very glittering career. He was famous as a keyboard player, but also as a theorist. He wrote a wonderful book on how to play the harpsichord and continuo, playing the harpsichord in the orchestra. And he also wrote a lot of music which is not performed today. He wrote many Passions, just like his father wrote the “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew Passion.” He had to produce one every year for 20 years. And they're a lot more modest than-- or should we just say - let's be honest - a lot shorter than the Matthew Passion. The Hamburgers maybe were less patient. They only wanted them to last an hour. But he wrote a lot of those. He wrote oratorios. The only thing he never wrote-- just like his dad didn't, he didn't write any opera.

CL: I know he also wrote quite a few symphonies, and we have a couple of them on the program.

MM: He did indeed. First for strings,  then he published much grander ones with lots of wind instruments. And we're doing one of each. We're doing  one of the string symphonies, which was written and dedicated to the Baron van Swieten who was the person who later in life wrote the librettos for Haydn's “Creation” and “Seasons” and was a great lover of what, in those days, they referred to as ancient music. In other words, people like JS Bach. And he was a great friend and supporter of Mozart. His symphonies are extremely, let's say, wild. The one with winds is definitely what's called the sturm und drang, storm and stress style. This is very much away from the sort of comfy elegant music of some of the earlier part of the 18th century, or the slightly pre-classical music of his much younger brother, Johann Christian, who was a great influence on Mozart. This is wild, pushing the boundaries music-- and virtuoso too. You could tell that decaf had not been invented.

CL: Well, coffee houses were very popular back then.

NM: Very popular, but it was the real thing. So you can't get too comfy in his music, and I think that's something that Haydn learned. Just constantly astonish, leading your audience up the garden path; give them something they're not expecting. And it's a terrific style he had. He also is another wonderful link because he had a number of students on the keyboard, two of whom were Mendelssohn's great-aunts. One of the last pieces that CP Bach wrote was a double concerto for Mendelssohn's great-aunts. And the Bach connection goes, obviously, from JS Bach through to his son, CP Bach, and to Wilhelm Friedemann, another of the sons, and then down through the Levy's and Itzigs, the very wealthy Berlin families who then, in the early 19th century, had Felix and Fanny, the two famous Mendelssohns at the beginning of the 19th century. They got the Bach bug big time, but they got it directly, as it were, through relatives and from Bach's children.

"Bach Carl Philipp Emanuel 1"
by Franz Conrad Löhr (1735–1812)[1]
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,
Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, M.589.
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

CL: This brings up something else that I think you talked about on the SLSO Zoom seminar Wednesday (November 16), is that Bach's music was really not well known after his death, and it tended to disappear for quite a while until it started getting revived by people like Mendelssohn.

NM: Absolutely, I mean, a lot of composers go into that sort of slump, if you like. Vivaldi's another case. If you'd asked Beethoven who Vivaldi was, he probably wouldn't have had the first idea. But Beethoven did know who Bach was because he kept a copy of the 48 Preludes and Fugues by his bed. And he'd studied that. But really, the only composer who kept a good deal of popularity after his death was Handel, but not the operatic Handel, the one that we know and love as much these days, but the oratorio one. And so oratorios like Messiah and so on, continued to be performed, and have continued to be performed up to the present day. But most composers go out of fashion, and I think you can say that that happened to JS Bach big time.

CL: In fact, two of the pieces you're going to play in the second half, the Brandenburg Concertos, just really sat on a shelf for many years.

NM: They did. And I think one of the reasons for this, is that JS Bach, relatively speaking, published very little of his music. It's slightly odd, in the sense that he lived so many years in Leipzig, which really to some extent still is the center of the European book trade. The Leipzig book fair is still a big deal, and it certainly was in Bach's day. If you wanted a book published, or you wanted to find a book, you went to Leipzig, and somebody would have a copy. That's where the publishers exhibited their wares. And so Bach's published works are merely works for the ages. He published organ preludes, he published French Suites, German Suites. These are publishing monuments, not terribly practical. Music that was meant to be played, generally just circulated in manuscript, and that's what happened to the Brandenburgs. Now, first of all, let's get the fact that the Brandenburgs, he didn't write them as Brandenburgs, he wrote them as concertos for next Thursday, wherever he happened to be. The earliest one is Brandenburg 1, some of which dates from 1713 when he was in Weimar. And then he went to the Court of the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, who being a Calvinist had no organ in his chapel, so there was no sacred music to write. But the prince himself played the viola de gamba, and could even have played in Brandenburg 6, in fact, there's a gamba part. And so what the Brandenburgs really is, is a marketing piece.

CL: A resume, in fact.

NM: A resume. One is that if you wanted to publish anything, or you wanted to get something to look like a finished piece of music, in those days you'd publish them in half dozens, occasionally in dozens. So that you have the Twelve Concertos by Corelli. You have the Six Concertos of Handel, Opus 3. The Twelve Concertos, Opus 6. So to have six Brandenburgs is sort of the standard unit, as it were, to show what you mean. He could have published them, but no one could have played them. They're very, very, very difficult, and need a very fancy orchestra that most people couldn't have afforded in those days. But it is, on the other hand, a resume, as you say. It's his, "This is what I can do. This is some of the wildest concertos that you'll ever hear." Put them in a nice book. Write a lovely preface. A very obsequious preface in French to the Marquess. Dated exactly 300 years ago, incidentally. It's March the 24th. Happens to be Telemann's birthday. Very good reasons for playing them, I think, and sent them off to the marquess who was a close relative of the king of Prussia, not Frederick the great, but his rather eccentric father and apparently put them on the shelf. And that was it. He may have opened the score. He may not have done. He might've received things like this every couple of weeks. Lots of people would like to work for a member of the Royal family and they send in their CV, some saying, "I'm really good as a wine waiter." And some saying, "Oh, I've written some concertos. You might like them." So they sat in the library, and they didn't really get opened. They went through various hands until the middle of the 19th century.

CL:  You talked about how someone might've said, "I'm a great wine waiter." Composers were kind of seen at the time and musicians just as potential employees, probably not much more respectable than a wine waiter really.

NM:  Yes. I mean, he was the boss. But it was quite normal, for example, in 18th century England to put out a wish to have a servant who could be a valet and horn player. There are even pictures of people pretty much doing that because you want to have a really good doorbell, you hired two horn players who would stand. There's even a house in Devon where there are two hooks beside the door for the two horns so that the servants could rush down and go, "Toot, toot, toot," when somebody's carriage arrived to welcome them.

CL: As long as we're talking about these concerti, let's not fail to mention who's going to be playing them the third through the fifth. The viola parts are going to be played by Andrew Francois and Beth Guterman Chu.

NM: . Wonderful members of the St. Louis Symphony. And it's unusual to have concertos for violas. On the other hand, composers themselves loved playing the viola. Bach loved playing the viola. We know that. And Mozart loved playing the viola almost more than the violin. The Sinfonia concertante, for example, he played the viola. So even though the viola doesn't have much of a solo repertoire, it loves being in the ensemble. And I'm sure Bach wrote this for himself to play with a mate because it's definitely very intimate. It's a musician's piece. You can just imagine this. It's the smallest of the Brandenburgs, not really designed for a concert hall at all, more like a drawing room and it's written for six or seven musicians to have a good time.

"Statue of J.S. Bach in Leipzig" by Zarafa
at the English language Wikipedia.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Common

CL: Yeah. Well, in fact, Beth Guterman Chu was talking about how, at least in the second movement, it felt like an intimate conversation among friends.

NM: Oh, sure. And these people, travel wasn't so easy in the 18th century. So if were at the prince's court, you were there most of the time. You'd get to know your colleagues and you're going to get to know them very well until you would want to have music to play in the little ensemble that he had. Bach only had about 10 musicians there. So it's known as an orchestra but it's not what we would think of as an orchestra, more like an expanded chamber group.

CL:  We don't want to also forget Yin Xiong, who is playing the cello part.

NM: The cello part plays with the violas a lot. The gambas sort of sit in the background being super sophisticated. String instruments like the violin, the viola, at lesser extent the cello, were not regarded as aristocrats' instruments. The viola de gamba was the aristocratic instrument. It was played by princes. It was played also by women, the most famous being, I think her name is Madame Henriette, or possibly Madame Victoire. One of the daughters of Louis XV played the viola de gamba. And she has her viola de gamba on a little tuffet, like with muffet because obviously she's got those dresses they used to wear that looked as if they would quite like to be a sofa. It's hard to get a gamba between your knees if that's what you're wearing. But you could play it on a tuffet. And lots of pieces are dedicated to her. There was also in England a famous lady called Anna Ford, who actually played the viola de gamba in public. But the cello was also an aristocratic instrument later on. And, indeed, three or four Princes of Wales, including the present one, have at some time in their lives played the cello. I know that the present one plays the cello because I was at university at the same time as he was. And I actually nearly had to conduct him playing the cello once in an orchestra. Just escaped it. Can you imagine trying to tell a prince he was flat and wanting to keep your head?

CL: Likely an issue there. So this brings me to another thing I wanted to talk about. It's not specifically about this concert. But it's something you brought up yesterday in the call. The whole soundscape surrounding music of this period has changed. I mean, the soundscape of our world has changed in general. In fact, there was an excellent book with that title by R. Murray Schafer that came out in 1993 [https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/585024.The_Soundscape] chronicling how the world has gotten increasingly louder over the past few hundred years. But these were all works intended to be performed in very small rooms for very small audiences. And there are issues, I would think, trying to scale them up for, say a 2,500-seat hall, like Powell Symphony Hall.

NM: Yeah. Certainly, things have changed a lot. It's not only sound, but light has also changed. We've got something called electricity. I think Paris was the first city to get streetlights, had about 50 of them. We can imagine everybody else just wandered around in the dark. We can't imagine that now. Of course, there were many fewer people. And you simply, in the 18th century, couldn't light a concert hall that held 2,500 people. You could light a theatre because you lit the stage. And you lit the individual boxes. But everything else was-- I should think we would think of it as pretty dingy.

So concert halls tended to be pretty small. Can you imagine lighting every single lightbulb individually in Powell Hall, how long that would take? And a candle burns half an hour, constantly needing to be changed. So aristocrat's houses had chambers, the knights' rooms or princes' rooms or ballrooms, but they would hold relatively small number of people. And the great thing about a prince's concert is in order for it to be classy, you want to keep as many people out as you can. You wouldn't want anybody less than an archduchess actually to be listening. It would lower the tone. And even if there was only one prince there and he was the guy paying you, that was enough. You could also be sure that CP Bach working in Berlin JS Bach in Cothen and the Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy for Haydn, these were all people who loved music. And a lot of them played themselves. And so we're talking a very sophisticated audience who would, should we say, get the complications of Bach whether they were actually playing it and had to experience how hard it is to play, or just listening to the intricacies of it. And being up close and personal to something like a Brandenburg really helps you hear just how intricate these pieces are. Orchestra music comes in the later part of the 18th century, but even then Haydn's concert hall is seven or eight hundred. That was considered a large space because they couldn't light anything bigger, and so-- nor could the orchestra see.

So what we think of as a concerto is something like the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. These, though, were concertos because they feature a single or a small group of instruments, in these cases, small groups of instruments, what in the 18th century would have been called concerti grossi, big concertos rather than just one solo, like “The Seasons” of Vivaldi and an audience of maybe 25 people sitting round. It's a very different aural experience. And when you're trying to project that into a space of a couple of thousands, the size of the coliseum in Rome, if you like, you have to do them in a slightly different way. In the same way, as if you were not using a microphone, if you're talking to a small group, you're talking in one way. If you're talking to two and a half thousand people, you're talking in a different way. You're enunciating, you're speaking more slowly, and so on. I've done all the Brandenburgs in Powell Hall and they worked fine, but it would be a very different experience. I always wished that the artist was on stage. Now, funnily enough, the hall where Bach played in the palace in Cothen still survived. We can see how big it was. Architecturally, it was altered in the early 19th century. It's been modernized, but it hasn't been made any bigger. And we don't even know if that was the room they were actually played in. It could have been done in a smaller one. I was quite recently in a palace just north of Berlin, where Frederick the Great lived when he was a young man. And there is a music room, but it was too big--35 feet by 35 or something. He had a much smaller room around the corner where he really liked to play, which is the size of the average living room.

CL: So as a conductor, are there adjustments you have to consciously make? Are ways that you have to think differently about this music because you're performing for such a large group?

NM: Well, one thing you have to do is not to try to aggrandize it so that you sort of sling it to the back of the hall. What you want to do is to encourage the audience maybe to move a couple of inches further towards us, sit on the edge of their chair, and just get used to the intimacy of the music.

CL: Draw the audience in as they sit, as opposed to trying to push the music out.

NM: Yeah. Yeah, I think it would be great if everyone was in theyou first 10 rows, frankly. The harpsichord is the ideal instrument for a small room. If you had a Bösendorfer or a great big Steinway on stage trying to play this, it would just drown everything out. On the other hand, a harpsichord trying to play the Tchaikovsky piano concerto would be extremely silly. First of all, you wouldn't have enough notes. You have no dynamics. And harpsichords are designed for small spaces. So I hope they won't mic the harpsichord to make it artificially loud because, in vast places, it needs to be there as part of the sound, but it's not adding any extra chords or anything like that because Bach's already fully scored. It’s continuo, so. It adds a bit of pep to the rhythm as well.

CL: And we have a harpsichordist, Mark Schuldiner. Have you worked with him before?

NM: Yes. Several times in St Louis, he came down when we were doing, I think it was the Vivaldi “Gloria,” and he actually played the organ. But I also know him from Chicago because one of the things he does besides playing very well-- is he also is an excellent tuner. And I was doing a concert of 17th Century Jewish music from Venice. And there was suddenly Mark providing all the keyboards. So it was great to see him again. So this is the third time I've worked with him. He's terrific. So that will be great fun to see him again. It's just a hop, skip, and a jump down from Chicago with the harpsichord. I don't know if he's bringing his own harpsichord. We'll find out.

CL: Okay. I think that's mostly what I had on my list of things to bring up. I do want to say this. I have seen you many times at Powell Hall and one of the things I always notice, you don't just walk out on stage, you bound out on stage. I mean at one point commented on the fact that you ran out on stage, and you walked up to the podium, and you rubbed your hands together and I said it was like he was saying, "Oh, this is going to be such fun."

NM: Well, it's going to be, I hope. I'm not sure I'm quite the bounder. I don't bound quite as much, but I do a little bit more than I used to because I had a hip replacement, so I can bounce a bit more. I'm not quite the Bugs Bunny me going out there, that that might have been a number of years ago.

I think we should also mention Yin Xiong again. She's going to be playing this remarkable CP Bach cello concerto. It's an unusual piece because there aren't that many concertos for the cello compared to the violin. And CP Bach's ones also are written for several instruments. He would write a concerto which could be played on the cello, on the keyboard, or the flute. The music is essentially the same, he's adapting them perfectly for whichever instrument it is. So he had to write a flute concerto, of course, because the king probably paid him to. But then he said, "Well, why not make it for the cello as well? We've got a mate who plays the cello, and I'm sure he'd love to have this concerto." And then he said, "Well, I'm a great keyboard player. I could play it on the harpsichord." So it gives it a bit more of a shelf life.

I have to say, the one she's playing in A major is my favorite of the three, very sparkly in the last winter, especially, but with a very, very deep, sad, miserable, back to that very sensitive, full of sensibility slow movement, wearing your heart on your sleeve, which of course, as the 18th century goes on, becomes increasingly part of the makeup of how people thought. In Goethe, you've got “The Sorrows of the Young Werther,” which is all about wearing your skin inside out, and feelings, deep feelings. And that's very much something, of course, that CP Bach got from Daddy. The slow movement of Brandenburg 6 is a very deep, beautiful, quiet piece, but he traded on it. And the slow movements of nearly all the pieces that we're playing, the CP Bach pieces, come to that format, and they're really wonderful.

CL: So you can see the seeds of what would eventually become the century of the Romantic sensibility.

NM: Absolutely. And it's not the sort of music that's merely elegant. They had beating hearts, and they loved and lost just as we do.

CL: Yes. We tend to have this artificial image of these stiffly-posed people in wigs and elaborate gowns, and we, yeah, forget that they were just as human as the rest of us.

NM: Yeah. And the ones we're thinking of are only the rich ones. Can you imagine what it'd be like if you're basically living on the street or making one of those dresses by candlelight, working through the night, sewing the silk for something that the queen might wear once.

CL: Yes. It isn't the way it looks in those Hollywood movies from the '50s, but [laughter]--

NM: Yeah, the scarlet pimpernel is not how it was for everybody.

CL: Yes. I always say that I'm glad I was not born before the age of relatively painless dentistry, myself.

NM: Yes. Young, rich, and good teeth is what you needed.

CL: Nic McGegan, thanks for taking some time to talk to me. Once again, you are going to be conducting music by CPE Bach and Johann Sebastian Bach, December 3rd through the 5th at Powell Hall, slso.org for more information. I look forward to seeing you on stage again because you always, as I alluded to earlier, have this tremendous joy and enthusiasm for the music. And you know that that really communicates itself through the audience.

NM: Thank you. I can't wait to come back because I was supposed to have a concert last February, which is of course just when the symphony was not performing, so I missed out on my annual jaunt to St. Louis. But I get to come now, and that's absolutely terrific. Can't wait. And with a live audience too.

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

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Symphony Review: Gemma New conducts a fitting tribute to the late Bryan Miller

Last Saturday (November 27) Gemma New, the former Resident Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), returned to Powell Hall to conduct the first of a special pair of concerts honoring the life and work of the late St. Louis Post-Dispatch music critic Sarah Bryan Miller. A former professional mezzo-soprano and life-long singer, Bryan (as she preferred to be called) died almost exactly one year ago (November 28, 2020) after a long and valiant battle with cancer.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

Bryan left the SLSO a substantial bequest, which was used to establish the Sarah Bryan Miller Fund to support vocal soloists and performances of choral repertoire with the SLSO. This weekend’s concerts, which featured two works for solo mezzo-soprano, represented the first use of that fund.

The concert opened with the 1898 version of Elgar’s song cycle “Sea Pictures.” Although it uses poems by five different writers (including the composer’s wife, Alice), both the sea and mortality are consistent presences. The latter is often in the subtext or just in the dark orchestral colors of the lower strings and percussion, but it’s always there.

Still, there is a wide variety of moods and imagery in “Sea Pictures,” and mezzo Sasha Cooke (whowas so very good in Bernstin's Symhony No. 2 here in 2019)  masterfully did them all justice. Her voice was rich and fluid and her acting skills (as you would expect from someone with her opera credentials) vividly brought out the joy of “In Haven (Capri)” (text by Alice Elgar), the religious ecstasy of “Sabbath Morning at Sea” (text by Elizabeth Barrett Browning), and in Richard Garnett’s “Where Corals Lie,” that unfocused, distant stare of someone who is halfway between life and death. Principal Harp Allegra Lilly’s playing here strongly reinforced that feeling.

Mezzo Sasha Cooke

Cooke did not, unfortunately, seem to have the sheer vocal power necessary to ride over Elgar’s large (just short of 70 players) orchestra. Elgar’s original soloist, Dame Clara Butt, was a dramatic contralto whose big, powerful voice was legendary. “On a clear day,” quipped Sir Thomas Beecham, “you could have heard her across the English Channel!” So anyone taking this piece on now has her work cut out for her, and Cooke’s fine voice was too often overwhelmed by the band, New’s efforts to maintain a balance notwithstanding.

Balance was less of an issue in the next work, Jake Heggie’s “The Work at Hand” from 2015. Based on a poem of the same name by late Laura Morefield (1961-2011), who had just been diagnosed with cancer, “The Work at Hand” is, in the words of the composer, “about the difficult and deeply human experience of knowing it is time to say goodbye and let go.” He calls the poet’s language and imagery “particularly striking: origami, the yoga Warrior 1 position, and a shimmering reconnection to nature.”

Here, again, Cooke was always fully in the moment, making the complex and beautiful text truly live. And Heggie’s more transparent orchestration made it easier for her to be heard and understood, but even so there were too many times when it was difficult to do both. It would have been helpful, in that respect, to have projected text to go along with the performance, as the SLSO has often done in the past. Instead, lyrics were in the printed program only—a less than ideal arrangement that forced the audience to constantly shift attention between the program and the performance.

Still, Heggie’s arrangement of his own original for voice, cello and orchestra (the latter replacing the piano) is quite imaginative, treating each of the poem’s three stanzas as separate entities; a sensible decision, given their contrasting moods. His use of woodblocks and other “Japanese” touches sets the tone for “Part One: Original Origami”; the militaristic feel of “Part Two: Warrior One” reflects the poet’s vision of defiance; and the ethereal sounds of the harp, woodwinds, and vibraphone provide an otherworldly ambiance for the quiet acceptance of “Part Three: The Slow Seconds.” A transcendent violin solo (beautifully played by Concertmaster David Halen) adds to that sensibility.

Elizabeth Chung

SLSO cellist Elizabeth Chung was also a powerful presence Saturday night, especially in the highly dramatic solo part that opens and closes the first section.

Despite the fact that the Heggie work was a local premiere and that the Elgar might as well have been (it was last performed by the SLSO 35 years ago), New and the band did a grand job of bringing them to life Saturday night. If you have seen New in action before, you know she is a theatrical conductor who engages on a very physical level with the score. Her big, sweeping gestures are a kind of 3-D metaphor for the music. That striking visual presentation only works, though, because of the rigorous effort that has clearly gone into preparing the piece in advance. Much like a theatrical director, a conductor does the vast majority of their work out of sight of the audience.

That same combination of discipline and visual drama also made Rimski-Korsakov’s popular "Scheherazade," the concluding work on the program, an experience to be savored and one which is likely to live long in my memory.

New was truly in her element here, with a majestic, high-energy rendition of the composer’s colorful fairy-tale world of the "One Thousand and One Nights.” The opening duet for harp and violin was magical, thanks to Lilly and Halen, and the main body of the movement, depicting “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” carried with it an almost visceral sense of the vast ocean and the rocking vessel. “The Story of the Kalandar Prince” was filled with a sense of adventure,with outstanding opening and closing solos by Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo and Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks. “The Young Prince and Princess” had just the right amount of romance without a trace of treacle and with some graceful dancing from the muted trumpets, flute, and tambourine. The final movement was a high-definition, big-screen evocation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s rich collage of images: a fair in Baghdad (including some brilliant double- and triple-tonguing from the trumpet section); a shipwreck; and the final, gentle triumph of Scheherazade. Some of New’s tempos here were breathtakingly fast and packed a potent punch.

You will be less than astonished to know that it brought the entire house quickly to its feet, including everyone in our party.

Next at Powell Hall: Local favorite Nicholas McGegan returns to lead the SLSO in music of C.P.E. Bach and his dad, Johann Sebastian, including two of the latter’s Brandenburg Concertos. Performances are Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, December 3-5.

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

Sunday, November 28, 2021

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of November 29, 2021

Now including both on-line and live events during the pandemic. Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills. To get your event listed here, send an email to calendar [at] stageleft.org.

The Alpha Players present The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Thursday and Friday, December 2 and 3. Performances take place in the James J. Eagen Center in Florissant. For more information: alphaplayers.org/season.html.

Christine Brewer
The Blue Strawberry presents Christine Brewer: From Grand Tower to Grand Opera Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, December 3 and 4. “Before Christine Brewer won a Grammy, before she was named one of the top 20 sopranos of all time (BBC Music), and before she played leading roles in the great opera houses of the world, she was singing gospel and folk with her friends and family in Grand Tower, Illinois, a small town about two hours south of St. Louis. In this show, Christine weaves the music of her childhood and college years with the music that she discovered in the chorus of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, with the repertoire she sang to win the Metropolitan Opera auditions, with an aria from her debut at New York City Opera in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and ultimately with many of her roles for the leading opera companies of the world. And in her cabaret debut, she tells the story of it all. Craig Terry, Pianist and Music Director."    The Blue Strawberry is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with mandatory vaccination and masking. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

ERA Theatre presents the radio play SHE by Nancy Bell with music by Joe Taylor and Lyrics by Nancy Bell via on-demand streaming  "SHE controls the radio station of the fascist regime in power. SHE's also the star of the broadcast. Her recording studio abounds with music and oysters. But in the nearby government camps full of misfits and would-be revolutionaries, only torture and starvation is thick on the ground. Tonight, however, SHE's realm feels different. The bombs sound closer. Time moves faster. But SHE will finish her radio show, and it will be her finest. If executing every number in the broadcast means some people need to die, so be it; it is a small sacrifice. The citizens need her and she will not let them down." SHE is available for digital purchase via bandcamp at eratheatre.bandcamp.com. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

First Run Theatre presents the one-act plays Fleshtones by J.E. Robinson and Playing for Real by Ron Asher Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2 pm, December 3-5. Performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: firstruntheatre.org.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present The Christmas Killer through January 8. "Join classic Christmas characters like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf, Grandma and Santa’s Elves for the annual Misfit Toys Banquet event hosted by Chatty Cathy herself.  It’s going to be a great party so long as the wrong element doesn’t show up.  We’re talking about that slimy, no good, rotten, Ricky Stitch of course.  Why, I wouldn’t touch him with a 39 ½ foot pole!  Gee, sure hope he doesn’t try to ruin Christmas…again.  If he does, I’m sure someone will show him who makes the candy canes around here! But how will we figure out whodunnit…was it you?" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Songs for Nobodies
Photo by John Lamb
Max and Louie Productions presents Songs for Nobodies, starring Debbie Lennon, December 2-12.  "This one-woman powerhouse performance, starring Debby Lennon, weaves the music of legendary divas Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, and Maria Callas throughout a mosaic of stories told by the everyday women who had unexpected life-changing encounters with these musical icons."  Performances take place at the Kranzberg Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center.  For more information: maxandlouie.com

The Midnight Company presents Tinsel Town: Three Short Plays 24 Hours in L.A. by Joe Hanrahan Thursdays through Saturdays, December 2-18. There will also be matinees at 2 pm on December 2 and 12. “In Tinsel Town, Ellie Schwetye and Joe Hanrahan each play characters in the three short plays set in the Los Angeles entertainment scene.” Performances take place at the .ZACK, 3224 Locust in Grand Center. For more information: https://www.midnightcompany.com.

Moonstone Theatre Company presents Moonstone Connections, a series of in-depth interviews with arts leaders by company founder Sharon Hunter. The latest episode features John O’Brien, who currently serves as Director of Programming for The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, where he is responsible for programming the U.S. Bank Broadway Series.  New episodes air the third Tuesday of each month; see linktr.ee/moonstoneconnections for more information.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents A Christmas Carol December 4-23. “The Rep is proud to launch a new holiday tradition with our first-ever annual production of A Christmas Carol! At long last, the ghosts of Ebenezer Scrooge’s past, present and future have caught up with him. Now London’s most infamous miser must take a transformative journey as he faces the worst parts of himself and discovers unexpected redemption. Michael Wilson’s wondrous adaptation has delighted more than 1 million audience members throughout the country.” Performances take place on the Emerson Main Stage at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: www.repstl.org.

R-S Theatrics presents While the Ghostlight Burns, a virtual discussion series featuring R-S Artistic Director Sarah Lynne Holt in conversation with St. Louis theatre artists, Mondays at 7 pm.  Conversations will be archived at the R-S Theatrics YouTube channel. For more information: r-stheatrics.com/while-the-ghostlight-burns.html

Comfort
Photo by Patrick Tube
The St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents Neil LaBute’s Comfort Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, December 3-19. “A new play by the STLAS  friend and associate Neil LaBute in which mother and son meet after some time apart to see if their relationship can survive the past and two new book deals.” Performances take place at The Gaslight Theater on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.stlas.org

Stray Dog Theatre presents Who’s Holiday Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm as well as Sunday, December 12, at 2 pm, December 2-18. “Who's Holiday is a wildly funny and heartfelt adults-only comedy that explores the twisted tales after that fateful night when a certain Grinch tried to steal Christmas.” Performances take place at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information: straydogtheatre.org.

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, November 25, 2021

Symphony Preview: Sailing to Byzantium

If you’re looking for things to be thankful for this week, how about our own St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO)? This Saturday and Sunday (November 26 and 27) while many of us are still working on that leftover turkey, they’re presenting a pair of concerts under the baton of previous Resident Conductor Gemma New (), who has gone on to a lead some big-name bands since her time here.

[Preview the music with my commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

We can also be thankful for the life and work of the late St. LouisPost-Dispatch music critic Sarah Bryan Miller, to whose memory these concerts are dedicated. A former professional mezzo-soprano and life-long singer, Bryan (as she preferred to be called) died almost exactly one year ago (November 28, 2020) after a long and valiant battle with cancer. Bryan and I were both members of the Music Critics Association of North America and the St. Louis Theater Circle and I greatly admired both her dedication to the local music scene and her critical insights. She will be greatly missed.

Sarah Bryan Miller

Following her death, the SLSO established the Sarah Bryan Miller Fund to support vocal soloists and performances of choral repertoire with the SLSO. This weekend’s concerts, which feature two works for solo mezzo-soprano, represent the first use of that fund.

The program opens with music inspired by the work of a woman fighting her own battle against cancer. Originally performed in 2015, Jake Heggie’s “The Work at Hand” is a setting for mezzo-soprano and cello (with either piano or orchestral accompaniment) of a poem of the same name by late Laura Morefield (1961-2011) whose mother, as Caitlin Custer writes in her program notes, was a close friend of the composer. Here’s how Heggie describes the composition for Bohdi Tree Concerts:

The Work at Hand is one of Laura’s post-diagnosis poems. It is about the difficult and deeply human experience of knowing it is time to say goodbye and let go: resenting, fighting, struggling, and then finding peace in acceptance. The language and imagery she chose is particularly striking: origami, the yoga Warrior 1 position, and a shimmering reconnection to nature.

Each of the three movements of “The Work at Hand” is based on a stanza from the poem. “Part One: Original Origami” opens and closes with an angry, tormented cello solo that contrasts sharply with the lyrical vocal line as the narrator imagines her “long goodbye” as a work of origami, “folding advice until it reveals hope, creasing resilience side by side with laughter”. In “Part Two: Warrior One,” an aggressive march reflects the poet’s vision of defiance (“A warrior keeps her back leg strong, connected to the earth…as her front leg leans into the territory of the enemy”) before dissolving into a kind of resignation with the words “as far as, as long as, her breath will take her.” A sense of resignation mixes with quiet acceptance in “Part Three: The Slow Seconds” as the soloist sings of the poet’s desire “to unfold a small quilt of sunlight onto the cool green and sit very still, to let the light of heaven flow over me like honey until my bones are on fire with the beauty of it all.”

It’s a beautiful image and only one of many in Morefield’s moving poem. You can read the whole thing in the program booklet for Heggie’s CD “Unexpected Shadows.” The performance of “The Work at Hand” in my Spotify playlist is from that album. It’s the original version with piano accompaniment. This weekend we’ll be hearing the orchestral version with mezzo Sasha Cooke and SLSO cellist Elizabeth Chung.

The concerts continue with Elgar’s Op. 37 song cycle “Sea Pictures.” Composed in 1844 for soprano solo and piano, the work was revised for mezzo-soprano and orchestra in 1898, largely to take advantage of the vocal prowess of Dame Clara Ellen Butt, and it’s that later version that’s on the bill this weekend. With Elgar at the podium, Butt sang at the premiere in Norwich dressed (according to Michael Kennedy’s 1968 “Portrait of Elgar”) as a mermaid.

“I’m not making this up, you know!” – Anna Russell

Dame Clara Butt

That sounds like the kind of thing for which the late Florence Foster Jenkins was (in)famous, but Clara Butt was a serious and powerful singer (“On a clear day you could have heard her across the English Channel!” – Thomas Beecham) and according to Kennedy, Elgar was very pleased with her performance.

Still, this seems a bit odd for a work which, while hardly solemn, is certainly far from frivolous.  The last three of its five movements even bring mortality back into the picture. Elgar sets poems by five different writers, including his wife Alice, that cover a wide variety of moods and imagery.

“Sea Slumber Song,” the first movement, is an occasionally uneasy lullaby set to a text by Roden Noel in which a mother sings “Hush thee, oh my child, / Forget the voices wild!... Foam glimmers faintly white / Upon the shelly sand / Of this elfin land.” The real-world inspiration for the poem, Kynance Cove in Cornwall, is evoked by gently rocking music in the lower strings. “In Haven (Capri)”, with a text by Alice Elgar, is a sweetly nostalgic evocation of the triumph of love as “storms are sweeping sea and land.” Plucked strings and a swaying rhythm are used to suggest the picturesque Italian island.

In the third movement, “Sabbath Morning at Sea” mortality begins to make its presence known. With a text by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the music builds gradually from a sense of mourning to a formidable religious fervor as the narrator, who is presumably saying farewell to life, rejoices that God “shall assist me to look higher, / Where keep the saints, with harp and song, / An endless sabbath morning.” The orchestra reflects the mood with a sweeping climax followed by calm final chords.

Death, in fact, is never far away from the last three songs. The music of “Where Corals Lie” sounds sweetly graceful, with the harp and strings accompanying a woodwind melody. But it’s deceptive; Richard Garnett’s text suggests that the narrator sees the “rolling worlds of wave and shell” not as a place to visit, but (as the final stanza implies) a place to stay: “Yet leave me, leave me, let me go / And see the land where corals lie.” And in “The Swimmer,” the most dramatic of the five movements, poet Adam Lindsay Gordon’s protagonist reflects on lost love as he strives against “seas that climb and the surfs that comb” along “a grim, grey coast and a seaboard ghastly, / And shores trod seldom by feet of men.” Elgar’s music is nearly cinematic in its vivid depiction of the storm and the swimmer’s battle with it.

The final moments are triumphant, but is it the triumph of this world or the next? The poet leaves it somewhat ambiguous because that’s what poets do. You can decide for yourself when you hear Cooke perform the work this weekend. Meanwhile, there’s a fine version by Alice Coote, Sir Mark Elder, and the Hallé Orchestra in my playlist and complete texts of the poems at the Oxford Lieder site.

Little needs to be said about this weekend’s finale. It’s Rimski-Korsakov’s popular "Scheherazade," Op. 35.

Scheherazade by Anna Rettberg
annarettberg.blogspot.com

Written in the summer of 1888, "Scheherazade" is one of those works that needs little in the way of introduction or explanation.  The four colorful movements vividly evoke the scenes from the "One Thousand and One Nights" that served as the work's inspiration. The composer himself sets the scene in a brief introduction, written for the first performance in St. Petersburg, with Rimsky-Korsakov conducting:

The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim, for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.

Talk about your toxic masculinity.

Aside from the dazzling violin part, which represents the voice of Scheherazade herself, the piece is filled with brilliant orchestral writing, including some nice solo bits for the first-chair players. That's no surprise since Rimsky-Korsakov quite literally wrote the book on instrumentation. His "Principles of Orchestration" was begun in 1873, completed posthumously by Maximilian Steinberg in 1912, and finally published 1922. It's still available today, in both print and digital editions, from Dover Books.

The role of Scheherazade will be played, as it was the last time the SLSO performed the piece in 2018tru, by our own “trusty and well-beloved” Concertmaster David Halen.

The Essentials: Gemma New conducts the SLSO along with soloists Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Elizabeth Chung (cello), and David Halen (violin) in Jake Heggie’s “The Work at Hand,” Elgar’s “Sea Pictures,” and Rimski-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 27 and 28.

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Symphony Review: Scottish snap and snappy Schubert with the SLSO

Prepandemic my wife and I traveled quite a bit. One of our favorite destinations for a time was Scotland. We haven’t been back in a while, but the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert last Saturday (November 20) summoned up, however briefly, memories of the gloomy, glorious land north of England.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

The concerts opened the USA premiere of Anna Clyne’s brief and rowdy “Pivot.” Inspired by the composer’s experiences at the 2021 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, “Pivot” lives up to its title by constantly moving from one musical style to another. It starts with a very Celtic-sounding fiddle tune backed up by a bagpipe-like drone in the brasses and percussive slaps in the lower strings. From there it switches to a mix of other styles, including a woodwind melody that sounds distinctly Middle-Eastern. Sometimes multiple musical ideas clash in way that Charles Ives would probably have appreciated. But the music always returns, rondo-style, to that fiddle tune.

“Pivot” clearly demands precise playing and someone on the podium who can hold this brilliantly organized chaos together. In his SLSO debut, conductor David Danzmayr, the newly appointed Music Director of the Oregon Symphony, proved fully up to the task. The SLSO musicians played with exciting snap and physical energy, making this a perfect opening number.

The Scots theme continued with Max Bruch’s 1880 “Scottish Fantasy” for violin and orchestra.  Bruch’s experience of Scotland was literary rather than literal in that he never set foot on Scottish soil but, as Caitlin Custer points out in this week’s program notes, Bruch read “everything Scottish he could get his hands on.” In any case, he did a surprisingly good job of communicating the majestic windswept and melancholy beauty of the countryside. That’s especially the case in the wistful third movement, which makes liberal use of the traditional air “I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie”.

Simone Porter
Photo by Elisha Knight

In her SLSO debut, soloist Simone Porter proved to be a most persuasive interpreter of Bruch’s sentimental and appealing work. Fully engaged with both the conductor and the orchestra, Porter played with rich warmth in the lyrical first and third movements. In the latter, she played with so much tenderness that I felt a temptation (wisely resisted) to hum along with her. She had a brighter sound and more physically active stage presence in the cheerful second movement, based on the lively fiddle tune “The Dusty Miller”, and brought out the majesty and pride of the finale, which is based on “Scots Wha Hae”—Scotland’s unofficial national anthem, at least back in Bruch’s day.

All of which is a loquacious way of saying that it was a damn fine performance of a tremendously appealing work, by both Porter and Danzmayr. The latter chose his tempi and dynamic contrasts with great care—including the wise use of an extended moment of silence after the third movement. The orchestra was right there with him all the way. A special shout-out is owed to harpist Allegra Lilly, whose playing added another rich layer, especially in the third and fourth movements. It has been suggested that Bruch saw the harp as an essential part of the Scottish folk tradition. If so, he was wise to include it.

The audience clearly appreciated Porter’s work and insisted on an encore, And the one she gave us was lovely: the third movement (“Sarabanda”) from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2. Porter prefaced it by describing her experience working with the SLSO as “joyous.” I think the audience would agree.

The concert closed with Schubert’s imposing Symphony No. 9 (or maybe 7 or 8) in C major, nicknamed “The Great” to distinguish it from his Symphony No. 6, the “Little,” C major. Unperformed during the composer’s brief life and ignored for many years afterwards, the symphony long had a reputation among many musicians and critics as repetitive, difficult to play, and simply too long. And while it’s now a regular part of the repertory, it’s still a work filled with challenges for both conductors and listeners, as Joshua Weilerstein recently noted in his Sticky Notes podcast.

The biggest challenge is simply bringing enough variety and sense of momentum to a work which, if one takes all of the composer’s repeats, can last fifty minutes or more. Personally, I believe they should be treated as optional, but not everyone agrees. I recall a critic on the long-defunct WQXR radio show "First Hearing” once referring to a recording that dumped the repeats in the final movement as the equivalent of “blowing a hole in the Sistine Chapel.”

Perhaps he was engaging in hyperbole.

David Danzmayr

In any case, Danzmayr apparently decided they were indeed optional, at least in the first and last movements. Omitting them, together with generally brisk tempi, clean high-level playing by the band, and an overall concept of the work that was both vigorous and subtle, produced a Schubert Ninth that was bursting with energy, sentiment, and drama.

I have about a page of notes in front of me on the many decisions by Danzmayr that made this performance such a standout, but I’m going to demonstrate adult restraint and limit myself to a just a few. To begin with, tempo choices in the first movement were ideal. The Andante opening was actually taken (as the term implies) at a “walking” pace—relaxed but not sluggish. The transition to the main Allegro ma non troppo body was dramatic, and the movement as a whole crackled with energy.

The second movement, Andante con moto, has always suggested a mysterious nocturnal procession to me, and Jelena Dirks’s oboe solo hit just the right mix of the enigmatic and mournful. The moment at which the main theme unexpectedly bursts forth in a shriek of terror was powerful, with the one-measure rest afterwards held just long enough to underline that feeling. When the pizzicato strings made their hesitant entrance, it felt like they were cautiously emerging from a bomb shelter.

The Scherzo third movement had just the right amount of contrast between the boisterous main theme and the more flowing trio section. And the Allegro vivace finale galloped along with an irresistible vitality, with a powerful coda that brought the house down. Seriously, this was one of the best Schubert Ninths ever and a real feather in Danzmayr’s cap.

And what spectacular playing by the SLSO musicians! Roger Kaza’s horns were in excellent form as were all the winds. Schubert gives most of the best stuff to the woodwinds and brasses in this symphony (one reason why string players disliked it so much at first), and ours have never sounded better.

Next at Powell Hall: Gemma New conducts the SLSO along with soloists Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Elizabeth Chung (cello) and David Halen (violin) in Jake Heggie’s “The Work at Hand,” Elgar’s “Sea Pictures,” and Rimski-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 27 and 28. The concerts are dedicated to the memory of the late St. Louis Post-Dispatch music critic Sarah Bryan Miller, who died last November 28th after fighting a long battle with cancer with courage and grace.

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

Sunday, November 21, 2021

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of November 22, 2021

Now including both on-line and live events during the pandemic. Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills. To get your event listed here, send an email to calendar [at] stageleft.org.

Steve Ross
The Blue Strawberry presents Steve Ross: Back on the Town Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, November 26 and 27. “When Steve performs, the world comes right. For Steve is an illusionist of the highest order. He’s like reading Scott Fitzgerald in high school. Although we are not in the social world of the 1930’s, we know nevertheless it is the way to be and to live. We go to a party on the water, where the world is not just one of wealth and status, but wordplay and word joy, melody and lyric and rhyme, gaiety and glamour, cocktails and cleverly convincing charm, sleek physiques and sharp, summer whites. So complete is the illusion that even though we were never there, we feel we have returned. We are in the heights of the heights, free to yearn and hope and live, insulated and protected for a night or a week or a summer from the danger, the hurt and the wolf at the door."  The Blue Strawberry is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with mandatory vaccination and masking. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Circus Harmony in St. Louis and Circus Circuli in Stuttgart, St. Louis's German sister city, present Sister City Circus, on Circus Harmony’s YouTube page.  "Through a series of online meetings, workshops, and classes the two troupes created 6 different circus acts and then filmed them at iconic architectural locations in each of their cities." This and many other Circus Harmony videos are available at the Circus Harmony YouTube channel.

ERA Theatre presents the radio play SHE by Nancy Bell with music by Joe Taylor and Lyrics by Nancy Bell via on-demand streaming  "SHE controls the radio station of the fascist regime in power. SHE's also the star of the broadcast. Her recording studio abounds with music and oysters. But in the nearby government camps full of misfits and would-be revolutionaries, only torture and starvation is thick on the ground. Tonight, however, SHE's realm feels different. The bombs sound closer. Time moves faster. But SHE will finish her radio show, and it will be her finest. If executing every number in the broadcast means some people need to die, so be it; it is a small sacrifice. The citizens need her and she will not let them down." SHE is available for digital purchase via bandcamp at eratheatre.bandcamp.com. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

Pretty Woman
The Fabulous Fox presents the musical Pretty Woman through November 28.  “PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL, based on one of Hollywood’s most beloved romantic stories of all time, is now on tour! Starring Broadway superstar and Tony Award®-nominee Adam Pascal as Edward Lewis and rising star Olivia Valli as the charming and charismatic Vivian Ward, PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL springs to life with a powerhouse creative team led by two-time Tony Award®-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde).” The Fabulous Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: www.fabulousfox.com.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present The Christmas Killer through January 8. "Join classic Christmas characters like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf, Grandma and Santa’s Elves for the annual Misfit Toys Banquet event hosted by Chatty Cathy herself.  It’s going to be a great party so long as the wrong element doesn’t show up.  We’re talking about that slimy, no good, rotten, Ricky Stitch of course.  Why, I wouldn’t touch him with a 39 ½ foot pole!  Gee, sure hope he doesn’t try to ruin Christmas…again.  If he does, I’m sure someone will show him who makes the candy canes around here! But how will we figure out whodunnit…was it you?" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Moonstone Theatre Company presents Moonstone Connections, a series of in-depth interviews with arts leaders by company founder Sharon Hunter. The latest episode features John O’Brien, who currently serves as Director of Programming for The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, where he is responsible for programming the U.S. Bank Broadway Series.  New episodes air the third Tuesday of each month; see linktr.ee/moonstoneconnections for more information.

R-S Theatrics presents While the Ghostlight Burns, a virtual discussion series featuring R-S Artistic Director Sarah Lynne Holt in conversation with St. Louis theatre artists, Mondays at 7 pm.  Conversations will be archived at the R-S Theatrics YouTube channel. For more information: r-stheatrics.com/while-the-ghostlight-burns.html

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.

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.