Thursday, January 27, 2022

Symphony Preview: Adams family values

With COVID-19 numbers slowly trending down, some local performing arts organizations are returning to live performances, albeit with the usual vaccination and masking requirements. That includes the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which returns to Powell Hall this Friday and Saturday (January 28 and 29) with a program that features John Adams in the dual roles of composer and conductor.

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

Pianist Jeremy Denk
Photo by Michael Wilson

Originally scheduled for the fall of 2020, “Adams Conducts Adams” features the local premiere of the composer’s 2018 piano concerto “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” Commissioned for and first performed by pianist Yuja Wang, the concerto calls for a large orchestra with more than a few unconventional items in the percussion section. Those include a bass guitar, a set of tuned cowbells (insert Saturday Night Live reference here) called almglocken, and a “honky-tonk piano.”

The latter is a normal piano detuned to make it sound more like the battered upright found in every bar in every Hollywood Western ever made. Copland used a similar effect in his “Rodeo” ballet, as did Gershwin in the “Piano Playin’ Jazzbo Brown” sequence that opens “Porgy and Bess.”

As the previous two paragraphs suggest, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”  is an eclectic mashup of sounds, with the emphasis on jazz, blues, and other quintessentially American musical styles. The jazz and funk influences are clearest in the first movement, marked “Gritty, funky, but in Strict Tempo; Twitchy, Bot-like.” It opens with an ostinato in the piano that, for listeners of a certain age, may be more than a bit reminiscent of Henry Mancini’s theme for the hard-boiled private eye TV show “Peter Gunn” (1958-1961). That soon morphs into hard-driving motifs in the percussion and lower strings, over which the solo and barroom pianos layer an aggressive, almost motoric line that is, indeed, “twitchy” and “Bot-like.”

After around 12 minutes, the wheels come off the machine as soft, hesitant orchestral chords lead without pause into the “Much Slower; Gently, Relaxed” second movement. The solo piano spins out a tender, sometimes elaborately  [no hyphen after adverb]ornamented melody that summons up the ghosts of Chopin and François Couperin over somewhat uneasy-sounding strings.

The peace doesn’t last, though. The solo line becomes more syncopated, veering rather close to the version of “Heart and Soul” so popular with amateur pianists as it segues into the final movement: “Più Mosso: Obsession / Swing.” Bells chime, the Sharks and the Jets rumble, the tempo quickens, and all hell generally breaks loose in wild, technically demanding music that sounds like it’s going to end in a big, noisy finale. Adams has another trick up his sleeve, though. The soloist hammers out a series of three ascending chords with increasing ferocity and then abruptly stops as the concerto concludes with a single bang of the chime.

That description of the work, lengthy as it is, probably doesn’t do it justice. Fortunately, my Spotify playlist includes the world premiere recording by Adams and Wang, so you can hear it all for yourself.

Gabriella Smith

This weekend’s soloist is Jeremy Denk, who strongly impressed me with his Mozart Concerto No. 23 back in 2016. The Adams work will call for a very different type of virtuosity, but given that Denk once cited “the wonder of each moment” as an important part of his approach to Mozart I would think Adams’s compositional habit of building big works out of small melodic blocks would be right in his wheelhouse.

Preceding the Adams concerto is another work making its first appearance here, “Tumblebird Contrails” by California-born composer/environmentalist Gabriella Smith. In a sharp contrast with the urban bustle of Adams’s music, “Tumblebird Contrails” is a fanciful sonic evocation of, in the composer’s words, “a single moment I experienced while backpacking in Point Reyes, sitting in the sand at the edge of the ocean, listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the Pacific.” Violin harmonics suggest sea birds while irregular timpani strokes and trombone glissandos bring to mind winds and surf. It’s all very trippy, and it’s no surprise to learn that Smith describes the title as “a Kerouac-inspired, nonsense phrase I invented to evoke the sound and feeling of the piece."

It reminds me of nothing so much as the vivid musical landscapes of the late Alan Hovhaness who, like Smith, was strongly influenced by the natural world. There are no recordings of this 2014 work on Spotify but there is, happily, one by the Nashville Orchestra on YouTube.

This weekend’s concerts conclude with Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1, first performed in 1899. That might seem like a radical departure from what has gone before but Adams, as it turns out, is a great admirer of the legendary Finnish master. Quoted in this weekend’s program notes, Adams confesses that he’s “always been a little bit obsessed with the story of Sibelius” and has conducted almost all of his symphonies. He says he has ignored the Symphony No. 1 in the past but “once I started learning it, I became full of admiration. The material is so beautifully integrated and woven.”   

Sibelius in 1890
Photo by Paul Heckscher

What Adams especially admires is Sibelius’s ability to “find a melody or a motif, and create a larger form out of this atom.” Given that this pretty well describes Adams’s own compositional process, his affection for the composer is, perhaps, not surprising at all. Certainly some of Sibelius’s greatest works—his Symphony No. 5 comes to mind—are imposing musical structures assembled from very simple material.

In the case of the Symphony No. 1, the building blocks are all there in the opening clarinet solo, which Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program annotator Janet E. Bedell has described as “a lonely song, bleak as Finland's rocky coast.” That’s a fitting description, since the four-movement work that unfolds from this is strongly redolent of the majestic, windswept Finnish landscape that rarely sees the sun for months on end. I have always found it irresistible, and the performance by Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra in the playlist is one of the best available.

The Essentials: Composer John Adams conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and piano soloist Jeremy Denk in Gabriella Smith’s “Thunderbird Contrails,” Adams’s “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?,” and the Symphony No. 1 in E minor, op. 39, by Sibelius. Performances are Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 8 pm, January 28 and 29, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. Saturday’s concert will also be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classical 107.3 both over the air and on the Internet.

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

Sunday, January 23, 2022

St. Louis theater calendar for the week of January 24

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.

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 on most major platforms including Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube, and BandCamp. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present Bullets in the Bathtub J through May 7. "Mob bosses, flappers, bootleggers and crooked cops will abound as event attendees are transported back in time to Trixie's speakeasy right in the heart of the roaring 20's. There will be plenty of rowdy characters at this fun, interactive event but none so dangerous as Harry "Bullets" Hyde. He’s the boss of the bosses and he is not too keen on "The Familys" taking over his territory. Parts will be passed out at the door and guests can participate as much or as little as they would like too. Some might be famous gangsters of the past, others may dodge the cops as they bootleg over state lines and a few might even be fun, flirty flappers. When a group like this gets together, it’s almost inevitable that somebody ends up "sleeping with the fishes." The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

The Prom
Photo by Deen Van Miller
The Fabulous Fox presents the musical The Prom, opening on Friday, January 28, at 7:30 pm and running through February 6.  “Everyone’s invited to the joyous Broadway hit that New York Magazine hails as “smart and big-hearted” while The New York Times declares it “makes you believe in musical comedy again!” THE PROM is a new musical comedy about big Broadway stars on a mission to change the world and the love they discover that unites them all.” The Fabulous Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: https://www.fabulousfox.com

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

Iphigenia in Splott
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
Upstream Theater presents the St. Louis premiere of Iphigenia in Splott by Welsh playwright Gary Owen Fridays through Sundays through February 6. “Hear me roar: Effie is the kind of person you’d avoid eye contact with as she stumbles around Cardiff’s gritty Splott neighborhood at 11:30 am drunk. You think you know her, but you really don’t—because here is someone whose life spirals through a mess of drink, drugs and drama every night, and a hangover worse than death the next day … until one night gives her a chance to be something more. In light of the recent upsurge in Covid cases, we are severely limiting attendance to our opening weekend, and encouraging patrons to buy tickets for the final weekend, in the expectation that by then the Omicron surge will have receded. We will also offer a streamed version of the live event to be made available during the run--please stay tuned for more information on how to access." Performances take place at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Dr. in Grand Center. For more information: www.upstreamtheater.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.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of January 17, 2022

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.

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 on most major platforms including Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube, and BandCamp. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present Bullets in the Bathtub J through May 7. "Mob bosses, flappers, bootleggers and crooked cops will abound as event attendees are transported back in time to Trixie's speakeasy right in the heart of the roaring 20's. There will be plenty of rowdy characters at this fun, interactive event but none so dangerous as Harry "Bullets" Hyde. He’s the boss of the bosses and he is not too keen on "The Familys" taking over his territory. Parts will be passed out at the door and guests can participate as much or as little as they would like too. Some might be famous gangsters of the past, others may dodge the cops as they bootleg over state lines and a few might even be fun, flirty flappers. When a group like this gets together, it’s almost inevitable that somebody ends up "sleeping with the fishes." The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Sarah Lynne Holt
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

Upstream Theater presents the St. Louis premiere of Iphigenia in Splott by Welsh playwright Gary Owen Fridays through Sundays, January 21 – February 6. “Hear me roar: Effie is the kind of person you’d avoid eye contact with as she stumbles around Cardiff’s gritty Splott neighborhood at 11:30 am drunk. You think you know her, but you really don’t—because here is someone whose life spirals through a mess of drink, drugs and drama every night, and a hangover worse than death the next day … until one night gives her a chance to be something more. In light of the recent upsurge in Covid cases, we are severely limiting attendance to our opening weekend, and encouraging patrons to buy tickets for the final weekend, in the expectation that by then the Omicron surge will have receded. We will also offer a streamed version of the live event to be made available during the run--please stay tuned for more information on how to access." Performances take place at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Dr. in Grand Center. For more information: www.upstreamtheater.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.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of January 10, 2022

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.

Jeff Harnar
The Blue Strawberry presents Jeff Harnar in I Know Things Now, a Stephen Sondheim cabaret, on Saturday at 7:30 pm, January 15th. “Jeff Harnar draws from the words and music of Stephen Sondheim to create a self portrait of an openly gay New Yorker.  Together with jazz piano virtuoso Jon Weber, the duo revisits a song list from Follies, Into The Woods, A Little Night Music, Road Show, Dick Tracy, Passion, Company and more. From its London engagement by way of Feinstein's 54 Below."  The Blue Strawberry is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with mandatory vaccination and masking.  The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. The performance is also available as a live video stream. 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 on most major platforms including Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube, and BandCamp. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present Bullets in the Bathtub January 14 through May 7. "Mob bosses, flappers, bootleggers and crooked cops will abound as event attendees are transported back in time to Trixie's speakeasy right in the heart of the roaring 20's. There will be plenty of rowdy characters at this fun, interactive event but none so dangerous as Harry "Bullets" Hyde. He’s the boss of the bosses and he is not too keen on "The Familys" taking over his territory. Parts will be passed out at the door and guests can participate as much or as little as they would like too. Some might be famous gangsters of the past, others may dodge the cops as they bootleg over state lines and a few might even be fun, flirty flappers. When a group like this gets together, it’s almost inevitable that somebody ends up "sleeping with the fishes." 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

Winter Opera presents Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, January 15 and 16. “Two gondoliers discover that one of them is the long-lost king of a distant kingdom. Can politics, riches, and romance be untangled?” Performances take place at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, 201 E. Monroe in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: www.winteroperastl.org/the-gondoliers/

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, January 06, 2022

Symphony Preview: Who's on first

This Friday and Saturday, January 7 and 8, Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program of firsts: The first symphony of Brahms, the first published piano concerto of Beethoven, and the first St. Louis performance of Detlev Glanert’s “Brahms-Fantasie”—a work inspired by the Brahms symphony.

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

Detlev Glanert
boosey.com

Detlev Glanert, whose music opens the program, is not an unknown name here. The orchestra performed his Richard Strauss homage/pastiche "Frenesia" ("Frenzy") under David Robertson in 2015 and his "Vier Präludien und ernste Gesänge" ("Four Preludes and Serious Songs") in 2014. The latter is yet another Brahms-inspired work, being an arrangement of the earlier composer’s op. 121 "Four Serious Songs" interspersed with orchestral preludes by Glanert.

If that makes you think Glanert might have a high regard for Brahms, you’d be right. The two composers share a hometown (Hamburg) along with what Glanert calls "a specific North German tradition, in which I believe myself to be connected with Brahms, to do with a melancholy in his pieces, with a certain severity." It’s not surprising, then, that Glanert was one of four composers commissioned by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to write short companion pieces for each the four Brahms symphonies. Glanert’s companion piece for the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68, was the last to be presented, getting its world premiere by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow in March 2012.

Usually, I’m able to find performances of works that have been around for few years online, but no such luck this time around (hence its absence from my Spotify playlist), so just like most of you, I’ll be hearing the “Brahms-Fantasie” for the first time this weekend. Fortunately, Thomas Tangler provides a fairly detailed analysis at the Boosey and Hawkes web site. The “Fantasie” is subtitled “Heliogravure for orchestra” which, according to Tangler, refers to “a nineteenth-century technique, no longer common today, in which photographs are painted over by means of a chemical process—an original material thus appears as something transfigured and ‘re-kneaded,’ remains present in its original form and is nevertheless something new through the intervention of an artist.”

In short, old wine in new bottles—probably with a distinct 21st-century tang.

Beethoven in 1803
Painted by Christian Horneman

Up next is the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15, by Beethoven. It's officially his Piano Concerto No. 1 because it was the first of his five concerti to be published, but it was actually his second essay in the form, dating from 1797—two years after the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major. It is, as a result, more richly orchestrated, more sophisticated, and a bit less derivative of Mozart and Haydn than the B-flat major concerto. I think Haydn’s influence is most apparent in the Allegro scherzando finale, both in the jollity of the music and in the fact that it’s a rondo—a favorite form of the composer. The noble opening theme of the first movement, though, strikes me as pure Beethoven.

This brings us to the final item on the program, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68.

Although Brahms was an early bloomer as a composer—he reportedly wrote his first piano sonanta at the age of 11—he got off to a late start as a symphonist. His Symphony No. 1 wasn't performed until 1876 (when Brahms was 43) and wasn't published in final form until the following year. "Part of the problem," wrote Larry Rothe in program notes for the San Francisco Symphony, "was that Brahms was such a harsh critic of his own work. He honed his material until he was satisfied, and he held himself to tough standards.” Worse yet he ”was intimidated by Beethoven. 'You have no idea what it's like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you,' he said."

You can, I suppose, hear those footsteps in the steady tread of the tympani that forms the basis of the magisterial opening of the first movement, but even so it seems astonishing that music projecting such assurance could have sprung from the brain of a man consumed with self-doubt.

The other movements are equally impressive. A lyrical Andante is next—featuring a graceful trio for oboe, violin, and horn—followed by a terpsichorean third movement marked un poco allegretto e grazioso. And then Brahms caps it all with a highly charged finale which, as Tom Service writes in The Guardian, “crowns the work's dramatic trajectory.”

Brahms in 1885
Photo by Fritz-Luckhardt

The notion that the final movement should carry the most dramatic weight in a symphony was not new—Beethoven did it back in 1808 with his famous Symphony No. 5—but even so (as Service notes in his article) it was a departure from a long-standing 19th-century tradition.

Brahms might have gotten a late start at the symphony game, but maybe that’s one reason why it’s such a robust start. Most first symphonies unmistakably come from a place of youthful experimentation. The Brahms First comes from a place of mature confidence. “By the time the symphony was premiered,” writes Tim Munro in this week’s program notes, “Brahms was a professional success. His journey from obscurity to fame had been long, and the First Symphony had been his private companion. Now it would belong the world.”

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the SLSO and piano soloist Shai Wosner (substituting for the originally scheduled Lars Vogt) in the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and Detlev Glanert’s 2012 “Brahms-Fantasie.” Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, January 7 and 8 at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

Note that due to the sudden sharp increase in COVID-19 cases, concessions will not be available and there will be no eating or drinking allowed in the foyer or lobby spaces. Masks must be worn at all times, and a (1) vaccination card or negative COVID-19 test and (2) a photo ID are required for entry.

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

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Symphony Review: The SLSO rings in the 20s with music of the (19)20s

The year 1921 was no picnic. Traumatized by political violence, a ruinous and ultimately pointless foreign war, and a pandemic that killed more people than the war itself, Americans were ready to celebrate. The result was a decade of irrational exuberance known as “the roaring twenties.” That exuberance was distilled, refined, and transmuted into musical art by one of the last century’s great composers, George Gershwin.

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

As St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Music Director Stéphane Denève noted in his opening remarks for the SLSO’s New Year’s Celebration concert Friday night (December 31st, of course), the parallels between 1921 and 2021 were reason enough to dedicate the first half of the night’s festivities to the music of Gershwin, including two of his Greatest Hits: the 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue” and the 1928 tone poem “An American in Paris.”

The evening opened, appropriately, with an overture. Specifically, the overture to Gershwin’s 1930 musical “Girl Crazy,” which ran for 272 performances at Broadway’s Alvin Theater. Orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett (a decent composer in his own right), this lively curtain raiser includes hits like “Embraceable You,” “But Not for Me,” and “I Got Rhythm,” which was a show stopper for the 22-year-old Ethel Merman. Denève and the band dug into it con brio, with a performance high on fun and finesse.

Michelle Cann and
Stéphane Denève

In his introduction, Denève promised Gershwin “with just a tiny French accent”—a promise on which he made good in both the “Rhapsody” and “An American in Paris,” with readings filled with panache and originality.

This was especially true of the “Rhapsody,” thanks to a fresh, imaginative take on the piano part by soloist Michelle Cann. When Kirill Gerstein was the soloist for the “Rhapsody” in 2014, (a performance recorded live and available on Spotify) he freely embellished the music in a '20s jazz style—as did the composer himself in the work's premiere. Cann imbued her performance with that same sense of freedom and improvisation but (as far as I could tell) without changing a single note of the printed score. Which is quite a remarkable accomplishment. Denève conducted with flair and the band played with true twenties zip.  The famous opening solo had a bluesy feel in the hands of Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews and Principal Trumpet Karin Bliznik, who brought a buoyant jazz age spirit to her playing throughout.

A performance like that often results in a standing ovation and an encore and we got both Friday night. The encore was a short (no repeats) and snappy piano four hands arrangement of Scott Joplin’s “The Cascades” (written for the 1904 World’s Fair) with two of the hands belonging to Maestro Denève.

Preceding the “Rhapsody” was an elegant and romantic “American in Paris.” Andrews and Bliznik had solid solos here again, as did Concertmaster David Halen and guest artist James Land on tuba. Done well, this is a work that never disappoints. The animated opening with its colorful evocation of the city's sidewalk cafes and bustling boulevards (complete with honking taxi horns in the percussion section) is a masterful bit of musical imagery. And the lyrical central section evokes not only the homesickness of the traveler but also the allure of Paris at night. Denève brought out some of the more piquant harmonies in the score—a reminder that the composer was, in his own words, writing “in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and The Six.”

The second half of the concert opened with the first and last movements of the 1926 “Mississippi Suite” by Ferde Grofé, the gent who orchestrated Gershwin’s “Rhapsody.” Although not nearly as popular as Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” the “Mississippi Suite” is not without its charms, all of which came through clearly in Friday night’s performance. “Father of Waters,” the opening movement, captured the serene grandeur of Big Muddy’s headwaters in Minnesota, while “Mardi Gras” was a rousing closer, complete with a romantic theme that would later become the 1942 Frank Sinatra hit “Daybreak.”

Up next was a world premiere that also took its inspiration from the Mississippi, the “Voyageur Fantasy” for horn and orchestra by Stefan Freund, a Missouri-based  composer and founding member of the contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Spound. The title refers to the French-Canadian trappers who were among Missouri’s earliest settlers. In comments from the podium, Denève revealed that the work’s two short movements are intended to reflect a day in the life of a voyageur, beginning with a mysterious opening depicting dawn on the river. That leads to a long, technically demanding cadenza followed by what sounds like a wild, alcohol-fueled and blues-infused dance that stretches both the instrument and player to their limits.

Dueling vocalists Debby Lennon
and Stéphane Denève

Principal Horn Roger Kaza seemed unfazed by those demands, combining a cool on-stage persona with protean technique. Rapid passages, leaps that cover the horn’s entire range, and what sounded like every conceivable form of hand muting were all handled with that deceptive sense of ease that marks the true virtuoso. Congratulations to Kaza, Denève, and the orchestra for a job well done.

The program concluded with a quartet of popular favorites: the Dick Hayman arrangements of “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “The St. Louis Blues March,” along with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Do-Re-Mi” sung with her usual élan by Debby Lennon and preceded by some comic byplay in which Denève displayed his skill at solfeggio (singing with the sol-fa syllables).

And, of course, there was “Auld Lang Syne” as a sing-along. We all sounded a bit muffled by our masks, but the sentiment was undiluted.

At the start of the evening, Maestro Denève expressed the hope that the 2020s would bring an explosion of creativity similar to the one that occurred a century ago. I hope he’s right, and I’ll happily raise a glass of something bubbly to toast the idea.

Next at Powell Hall: The regular season resumes as Stéphane Denève conducts the SLSO and piano soloist Shai Wosner (substituting for the originally scheduled Lars Vogt) in the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and Detlev Glanert’s 2012 “Brahms-Fantasie.” Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, January 7 and 8  at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

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

Sunday, January 02, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of January 3, 2022

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.

Ken Haller
The Blue Strawberry presents a Singers Open Mic Night with host Ken Haller and pianist Ron McGowan on Tuesday, January 4, from 7 to 9:30 pm. “Musicals, Standards new and established, Cabaret and Pop. First Tuesday of every month (unless we change a date here and there!). Bring music in your key. "  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 on most major platforms including Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube, and BandCamp. For more information: www.eratheatre.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

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

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.