Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Symphony Review: Travels in time and space with the SLSO

Location, location, location. It’s the real-estate agent’s mantra. And also, as it happens, a possible theme for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday night (January 28th).

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

Stéphane Denève and the SLSO curtain call

That is, at least, what Music Director Stéphane Denève suggested in his pre-concert remarks and, upon reflection, I’d say his point is well taken. The opening work, James Lee III’s “Visions of Cahokia,” is directly inspired by the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site just across the river in Illinois. Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)” also hearkens back to an ancient civilization—specifically Athens in the late 4th century BCE. And the 1902 Symphony No. 2 of Sibelius evokes the darkness of the majestic, windswept Finnish landscape, at least for me.

Interestingly, Maestro Denève also hears echoes of the northern Italian coastal town of Rapallo, where the composer began work on the symphony in 1901. At the same time, conductor Robert Kajanus, who first recorded the symphony in 1930, saw the Symphony No. 2 as a musical depiction of Finland’s struggle for independence. Which just goes to show you that a great work of art can mean more than one thing.

However you hear the Sibelius Second, I’d say you heard a darn fine performance of it last weekend. The composer’s use of silence can sometimes make his symphonies feel episodic, but I never got that sense from Denève’s approach, which always kept a sense of momentum, assisted by subtle shadings of tempo and dynamics.

The orchestral playing was of its usual high order—a thing of great importance in a work that often highlights individual sections of the band for long stretches of time. The big, warm horn passages and dance-like themes of the flutes contributed greatly to the expressive first movement, while the nuanced string pizzicatos and the ominous tone of the bassoon melodies in the second movement gave it a sense of gravitas. The skittering string motifs of the third movement stood in sharp contrast to the more lyrical trio section, with its oboe solo accompanied by the clarinets and horns. And the triumphant conclusion of the fourth movement gave the expanded horn and brass sections a chance to really strut their stuff.

James Lee III and Stéphane Denève

Lee’s “Visions of Cahokia” also allowed individual sections and players to shine. Lee has, as I have noted in the past, serious skills as an orchestrator and an impressive ability to summon a strong sense of time and place in his music. The bird calls of the flutes and use of exotic percussion instruments like the rain stick contributed to a sense of mystery and wonder in the second movement (titled “Na Yimmi,” the Choctaw word for “faith”) and the explosions of brass and percussion in the third movement colorfully evoke the games and celebrations of the Mississippian culture that flourished here from roughly 800 to 1600 CE.

That said, I’m a bit ambivalent on his use of rhythmic cliches to suggest Native American music. The combination of shaken bells and an obsessive four-note drum figure with the accent on the first beat (ONE-two-three-four, ONE-two-three-four) has, perhaps, been a bit over-used in both the concert hall and movie theatre. I was reminded the works of so-called “Indianist” composers like Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881–1946) and Arthur Farwell (1872–1952) in the early 20th century.

Still, “Visions of Cahokia” has a dramatic impact that can’t be denied. And it certainly got a rousing performance from Denève and the orchestra. Lee’s music artfully combines a distinctly contemporary harmonic palette with an approachability that was sadly absent from a great deal of “new music” in the last century. It’s good to see this sort of thing being championed by Denève.

The first half of Saturday night’s concert closed with the Bernstein “Serenade,” in the exceptionally capable hands of violin soloist James Ehnes. Ehnes is, as I observed in his previous appearances here, a performer whose solid technique and artistic insight do not come wrapped in the kind of flashy package of some other violinists. He strikes a more conservative figure on stage but, as he demonstrated in the rambunctious Allegro molto vivace finale of the fifth movement of the “Serenade,” he’s fully capable of throwing himself into the music with physical abandon when it’s appropriate to do so.

Stéphane Denève and James Ehnes

With Denève and the orchestra as his sympathetic partners, Ehnes gave us all the wide emotional range of Bernstein’s music, from the warmth of the Allegretto second movement, to the short, spiky Presto of the third and the passionate slow burn of the Adagio fourth. The latter tapers off into a delicate duet between the violin and harp, nicely done by Ehnes and Principal Harp Allegra Lilly.

There was an equally compelling moment in the dramatic Molto tenuto first section of the fifth movement, in which the violin and cello have an intimate duet that possibly reflects the dialog between Socrates and the seer Diotima in Plato’s text. Ehnes and Principal Cello Danny Lee infused it with a passionate intensity Saturday night.

Finally, let me not fail to praise Principal Tympani Shannon Wood and the SLSO’s percussion section. The members of the latter were kept extremely busy in both the “Visions of Cahokia” and the "Serenade." The Bernstein, in particular, requires five players dashing to and fro among a variety of instruments, including the xylophone, marimba, and tubular bells in addition to the usual battery of drums; quite a workout.

Next at Powell Hall: Norman Huynh conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Concert.” As with all these movie events, the orchestra plays the score live to accompany the film on the big screen. Showings are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, February 3–5. The regular season returns Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 8 pm, February 10 and 11, as James MacMillan conducts the orchestra along with violinist Nicola Benedetti and SLSO Principal English Horn Cally Banham in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture,” Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini,” and MacMillan’s own Violin Concerto No. 2 and “The World’s Ransoming.”

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

Sunday, January 29, 2023

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of January 30, 2023

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

The Black Rep, presents Loy A Webb’s The Light February 1 - 26.  “On their two-year dating anniversary, modern day couple Rashad and Genesis have plenty to celebrate—a marriage proposal and the promise of a new life together. But will their relationship survive when memories buried long ago are uncovered? The Light takes us on an emotional journey of love, laughter, and heartache as the two young adults reconcile their past and reaffirm their personal values to live in the truth.” Performances take place in the Hotchner Studio Theatre on the Washington University campus. For more information: www.theblackrep.org

The Blue Strawberry presents The Pre-Valentine’s Day Survival Guide with Katie McGrath and Chuck Flowers on Saturday, February 4, at 7:30 pm. “If New Year’s Eve is the amateur’s night for socializing, Valentine’s Day is the hopeless romantic’s day of unmet expectations. St. Louis favorites Katie McGrath and Chuck Flowers offer their musical guide for surviving the holiday that’s too often marked by other people at the office getting flowers followed by a solo viewing of ‘Sleepless in Seattle.’ Katie and Chuck explore it all inspired by pop, soul, R&B and Great American Songbook favorites. Special guests include Corey Patterson on piano and others to be announced.” The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Six: the Musical
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Fabulous Fox presents Six: The Musical  through February 5.  “From Tudor Queens to Pop Icons, the SIX wives of Henry VIII take the microphone to remix five hundred years of historical heartbreak into a Euphoric Celebration of 21st century girl power! This new original musical is the global sensation that everyone is losing their head over!” The Fabulous Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present Murder at the Abbey through May 6th. "Immerse yourself in a world full of aristocracy, old money a perhaps a touch of murder!  You’ve been invited to the dinner party held by the Earl of Grantham himself. Some would kill for the opportunity to meet the Crawley family.  They’ll all be there!  The Earl, his beautiful wife and three daughters…not to mention all your favorite characters in, and around, the Grantham house." The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Spells of the Sea
Photo: Jennifer A. Lin
Metro Theater Company presents the world premiere of the musical Spells of the Sea February 5 through March 5. “Finley Frankfurter is a 15-year-old fisherwoman who is terrible at fishing. H.S. Crank is a grumpy old lighthouse keeper who has been sitting for 20 years in the dark. Together, this unlikely pair begins an adventure through the ocean to find the Elixir of Life, an elusive remedy that will save Finley’s father from a mysterious illness. On their journey, the pair encounter mermaids and pirates, whirlpools and their worst fears, and finally a new understanding of the meaning of family, friendship, and trust in yourself.” Performances take place at the Grandel Theatre in Grand Center. The show is also available for video streaming beginning on Feburary 16.For more information: www.metroplays.org.

Mustard Seed Theatre presents Feminine Energy by Jacqueline Thompson February 3-19 .  “In this comedy, three long-time friends navigate their fertility, their relationships, and their womanhood. Content Warning: Feminine Energy contains mature themes that may not be suitable for younger audiences. Sensitive themes include: pregnancy and childbirth, medical trauma and illness, discrimination, eating disorders, and conversations on death and dying.” Performances take place in the theatre on the Fontobnne College campus, 6800 Wydown. For more information: https://www.mustardseedtheatre.com/

Broadway Bound
Photo: Ethan Aylesworth
New Jewish Theatre presents Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm through February 5. “It’s the third play in Simon’s “Brighton Beach trilogy,” and follows the trials and tribulations of the Jerome family, especially the youngest Eugene, as he grows up and becomes an adult in 1940s Brooklyn. In this final installment, Eugene is trying to break into show business with his brother, Stanley, while coming to terms with his parents’ growing estrangement. With plenty of belly laughs and a few tears, Broadway Bound shows the importance of family ties in a quickly changing world.” Performances take place at the SFC Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information: jccstl.com/arts-ideas/new-jewish-theatre

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents the musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim  through February 19. “Celebrate legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim as the Rep revisits some of his most poignant, powerful and witty contributions to the American musical theatre canon. This cabaret-style revue features a variety of Sondheim’s most notable songs, including a collection of rarely performed numbers straight from the cutting-room floor. Side by Side by Sondheim explores the breadth of Sondheim’s acclaimed career, including numbers from Follies, West Side Story, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures, Gypsy and more.” Performances take place on the Berges Mainstage Theatre at COCA in University City. For more information: repstl.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.

'Six" brilliantly remixes Tudor history

When Mel Brooks made his now famous comedy “The Producers” back in 1967, the central plot device of a musical comedy based on the life of Hitler was sufficiently absurd to be a joke all by itself.  Since then, though, we’ve had musicals based on Argentinian dictator Juan Peron and his wife (“Evita”), Presidential assassins (“Assassins”), Lizzie Borden (“Lizzie,” premiered locally at New Line Theatre in 2017), and of course, the enticing mix of serial murder and cannibalism at the hands of a barber (“Sweeney Todd”).

[Listen to the original Broadway cast album on Spotify.]

So these days Cole Porter and I would suggest that “Anything Goes.”

Zan Berube as Anne Boleyn
Photo: Joan Marcus

Still, you might think the essentially tragic fates of the six wives of Henry VIII wouldn’t be a sound foundation for a glitzy, small-cast rock musical. If so, you could hardly be more wrong.

Originally written for and performed at Cambridge University in 2017 by students Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, the musical “Six” went on to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Arts Theatre in London’s West End, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and finally, Broadway—where it copped multiple Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards. Now, finally, the ”Boleyn” USA tour is at the Fabulous Fox through February 5th and local audiences have a chance to find out why “Six” has become an international phenomenon.

The reason why is obvious from the very start. A measure or two of “Greensleeves” (the old folk tune frequently and incorrectly attributed to Henry VIII) quickly gives way to a bass drone and ominous drum thwacks from the onstage band (the appropriately named Ladies in Waiting). Then the six ex-wives, in a moment reminiscent of “The Cellblock Tango,” deliver one-word summaries of their fates: “divorced” (Catherine of Aragon), “beheaded” (Anne Boleyn), “died” (Jane Seymour), “divorced” (Anna of Cleves), “beheaded” (Katherine Howard), “survived” (Catherine Parr).

Amina Faye as Jane Seymour
Photo: Joan Marcus

Finally the lights come up on the slick, high-tech set and the Six, decked out in sparkling, mock-Tudor outfits, launch into the defiant “Ex-Wives,” the first of nearly a dozen irresistible “earworms” that blend rock, hip-hop, Latin, and pop ballad elements to produce a witty, inventive, and tuneful remix of Tudor history.

The premise of “Six” is that Henry’s ex-wives have returned as contemporary pop/rock divas. They can’t decide who should lead their new group, though (divas are like that), so they’ll tell their own stories in song and the audience will vote on who gets to lead the band based on who got the worst deal from jolly old King Henry.

The problem with that is that they’re still defining themselves in terms of Henry. And that, as they triumphantly sing in the last number, stops now:

We're one of a kind
No category
Too many years
Lost in his story
We're free to take
Our crowning glory
We're SIX!
Tercia Marie as Anne of Cleves
Photo: Joan Marcus

They’ve come a long way, baby. And they’re portrayed by six preternaturally talented performers.

Substituting for an ailing Gerianne Pérez, Dance Captain Cecilia Snow is a bold, assertive Catherine of Aragon. In “No Way,” she makes it plain that Henry’s annulment of their marriage is just the last in a series of outrages. “If you think for a moment / I'd grant you annulment, just hold up / There's no no no no no no no way.” In a sharp contrast, Zan Berube is hilariously clueless as Anne Boleyn, who Marlow and Moss have turned into a pop punk airhead in the ironically titled “Don’t Lose Ur Head.”

Amina Faye’s wounded but resilient Jane Seymour has one of the more emotionally powerful songs in “Heart of Stone.” “You can build me up / You can tear me down” she sings, “You can try but I'm unbreakable.” There’s an unmistakable resemblance to “Unstoppable” by Sia who, along with Adele, is listed in the program as one of the “Queenspirations” for the character.

"The House of Holbein"
Photo: Joan M archs

“House of Holbein,” a hilariously on-point parody of European techno (think Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”) leads into “Get Down,” in which unforgettable Tercia Marie jubilantly gloats over being “Queen of the castle” despite being cast aside by Henry. Not surprisingly, the Queenspirations for her “I’m too sexy for my crown” attitude are Nicki Minaj and Rihanna.

Aline Mayagoitia has possibly the biggest acting challenge, moving from unapologetic sexy bad girl (“I’m the ten amongst these threes”) to abuse victim in the course of “All You Wanna Do.” At a little over seven and one-half minutes, it’s a chillingly concise mini-tragedy, and Mayagoitia could not be more convincing.

Finally, there’s the inspired and inspirational Catherine Parr of Sydney Parra. Her song, “I Don’t Need Your Love,” begins with a heartbreaking farewell letter to love Sir Thomas Seymour (from whom she had to part because of the arranged marriage with Henry). But it ends with a ringing declaration of her independence from the king (whom she outlived) and a reminder of her individual accomplishments as a writer and education advocate.

Aline Mayagoitia as Catherine Howard
Photo: Joan Marcus

Marlow and Moss have written a score that’s melodically memorable and stuffed with clever rhymes and historical references. The way in which they have recontextualized 16th-century history in a 21st-century rock concert setting is just plain ingenious. In fact, everything about “Six” is a brilliant example of old Tudor wine in new, high-tech bottles, all packaged as a short (under 90 minutes), fast-paced one-act.

Too many newer musicals, in my experience, suffer from theatrical overkill, running just a little too long with just one or two production numbers too many. “Six” is one seamless package with just the right amount of everything.

Sydney Parra as Catherine Parr
Photo: Joan Marcus

The tight, energetic music of the Ladies in Waiting (Katie Coleman, Sterlyn Termine, Liz Faure, and Caroline Moore) keeps the energy level high and Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s intricate, character-driver choreography creates a torrent of arresting visuals. It also looks demanding to perform, with the actors often moving in tightly packed formations that would give even the late Bob Fosse the fantods. But they carry it off flawlessly.

“Six” will continue to light up the stage at The Fabulous Fox through March 5th. It’s a welcome change of pace from some of the bloated mega-musicals of recent years. Don’t miss it. More information is available at the Fabulous Fox web site.

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

Friday, January 27, 2023

Symphony Preview: Very old school

I’ve been listening to a lot of Great Courses audio lectures these days on world history and archeology. It’s an enlightening and humbling experience. It’s also one I highly recommend for anyone who thinks a nation that has existed for over two centuries is somehow remarkable. Or you could just read Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.”

[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]

James Lee III
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

Or you could spend some time exploring the history of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site just across the river in Illinois. That’s what composer James Lee III  (b. 1975) did for “Visions of Cahokia,” the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra commission which has its world premiere this weekend (Saturday and Sunday, January 28 and 29) under the baton of Music Director Stéphane Denève. The Mississippian civilization flourished there for around 800 years (i.e., 550 years longer than the USA) before dissolving as a result of internal strife and economic hardship brought on, in part, by climate change (the so-called “Little Ice Age,” which ended around 200 years ago). I’ll leave you to contemplate that possibly awkward bit of reality while we shift the focus to Lee.

If his name is familiar, that’s probably because this will be the fourth work by him to be heard at Powell Hall, beginning with his “Emotive Transformations” in November 2021. That was my first exposure to his work, which I described as “unquestionably contemporary, but still listener-friendly—a hallmark of the new music that Denève has introduced to local audiences.” His next two works— “Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan” last March and “Sukkot Through Orion's Nebula” last November reinforced that opinion, while demonstrating Lee’s skill as an orchestrator.

That said, since this is a world premiere, I have no idea what “Visions of Cahokia” will sound like. Fortunately, Lee provides a detailed description in this weekend’s program notes so there’s no need to repeat it here. You can, however, listen to some of his other compositions on Spotify.

Leonard Bernstein in 1955

Like “Visions of Cahokia,” the 1954 Serenade for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion by Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) was inspired by an ancient civilization—specifically Athens in the late 4th century BCE. Subtitled “after Plato’s Symposium,” the Serenade consists of five movements, each of which refers to a specific episode in Plato’s fictional depiction of a drinking party in which each guest is challenged to make a speech in honor of Eros, the god of love. The speakers include real-life characters like Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Socrates, and even (as part Socrates’s speech) Diotima of Mantinea—who may or may not have been a historical figure but who is, in any case, the only woman whose voice is heard. She’s also portrayed as acting as Socrates’s teacher rather than his student, which is an interesting reversal of the role usually played by the former in Plato’s writings.

The day after completing the score, Bernstein wrote detailed notes explaining how each movement relates to its designated character in the Symposium. It’s not clear, though, to what extent these are actual primary inspirations. Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton has suggested that they are more likely to be associations that occurred to him late in the composition process.

Having listened to both the Serenade and a dramatic reading of the Symposium, I’m inclined to agree. The serenity of the second movement (Aristophanes, Allegretto), for example, seems not entirely consistent with the cheerfully avuncular tone of the character’s speech in the Symposium. And the ominous drama of the Socrates section of the final movement seems out of synch with the quiet sense of authority that the noted philosopher projects in Plato’s text.

The real connection, as noted at the official Bernstein web site, may be more a matter of form than content. In the Symposium, each speaker takes up where the last one left off, using the last man’s ideas as a springboard for his own. Bernstein’s music does something similar, deriving the musical ideas of each movement, in part, from those of its predecessor.

If all that sounds a bit academic, fear not. The Serenade is a tremendously appealing work. You don’t need to look under the hood to appreciate the ride.

Sibelius in 1913
By fi:Daniel Nyblin (1856–1923) -
What We Hear in Music, Anne S. Faulkner,
Victor Talking Machine Co., 1913.,
Public Domain

The concerts conclude with a familiar favorite that’s a good match for the gloomy weather we’ve had recently: the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). Like many of Sibelius’s works, the Symphony No. 2 evokes the darkness of the majestic, windswept Finnish landscape that rarely sees the sun for months on end. It's the kind of darkness you might appreciate from inside a cozy cabin. Like, say, the all-wood home (Sibelius didn't want to hear the sound of rain in metal gutters) on Lake Tuusula in the Finnish forest where the composer lived and worked from 1982 until his death.

It's dramatic and uplifting, and it conjures up potent images of the natural world that so inspired Sibelius. At the same time, it’s a reflection of the political darkness griping the composer’s homeland when the symphony was completed in 1902. Only three years earlier, the composer’s “Finlandia” was a defiant protest against attempts by Russia, which then ruled Finland, of the suppression of Finnish language and culture. Indeed, conductor Robert Kajanus, who first recorded the symphony in 1930, saw the Symphony No. 2 as a musical depiction of Finland’s struggle for independence. To him, the Tempo Andante second movement represented “the most crushing protest against all the injustice which today threatens to take light from the sun,” while the finale was “a triumphant closure which is capable of arousing in the listener a bright mood of consolation and optimism.”

Which, now that I think of it, is something we could use during our own current period of political darkness.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the world premiere of "Visions of Cahokia" by James Lee III, Leonard Bernstein's “Serenade (after Plato's Symposium)” with violin soloist James Ehnes, and  the Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius. Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, January 28 and 29 at Powell Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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

Monday, January 23, 2023

Opera Review: A smartly staged 'Macbeth' at Winter Opera

“Verdi adored Shakespeare,” writes Garry Wills in his invaluable “Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater,” and goes on to note that the composer briefly considered operatic treatments of “The Tempest,” “Hamlet,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” He considered “King Lear” more seriously, but ultimately left us with only three operas based on the Bard: “Otello” (1887), “Falstaff” (1893), and “Macbeth” (1847, revised in 1865).

Michael Nansel, Nathan Whitson, and the witches
Photo: Rebecca Haas

Union Avenue Opera gave us a solid “Falstaff” last August, but it has been a good seven years since local audiences have had a chance to see “Macbeth” (in an English translation at Opera Theatre). That made Winter Opera’s admirable production last Friday and Sunday (January 20 and 22) all the more welcome. Smartly staged and powerfully sung, its only serious flaw was the fact that it ran only two performances and that, by the time you read this, it will no longer be possible for you to see it. I don’t know whether or not Verdi would have adored it, but I think he would have been happy to see his work treated with such respect.

Audiences who know their Shakespeare probably noticed that Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei’s libretto follows the bare bones of Shakespeare's original, although the story has been considerably streamlined and many secondary characters have been eliminated. But the big moments are still there: the scenes with the witches, Lady Macbeth's "letter" and sleepwalking scenes, Macbeth's "dagger" monologue, and of course, the banquet with Banquo's ghost. And in Verdi's hands, they form the basis for very powerful theatrical moments.

The banquet scene
Photo: Rebecca Haas

Stage Director John Stephens wisely decided to eschew the kind of gimmicky attempts at updating that have plagued so many productions of established operatic classics in recent decades. “Our production,” said Stephens in an interview last week, is set circa 1100 with magnificent period costumes.” And, in fact, Scott Loebl’s sparse sets, Amy Hopkins’s costumes, and Michael Sullivan’s lighting all set the appropriately Gothic atmosphere.

All this would have been for naught without a cast of strong singing actors. Verdi was, first and foremost, a man of the theatre. “Verdi,” writes Wills, “was determined to break away from ‘the tyranny of good singing,’ from the empty beauties of bel canto.” He wanted gritty, realistic characters for “Macbeth” and Winter Opera’s cast delivered them.

Michael Nansel
Photo: Rebecca Haas

Baritone Michael Nansel, whose resume includes both musical theatre as well as opera, was a big, commanding Macbeth. Verdi wanted his Macbeth to display overweening ambition and crippling self-doubt. Nansel did that, backed up by a powerful voice. Bass Nathan Whitson was an equally compelling Banquo. Both had potent stage presence, making their Act I duettino (in which Macbeth’s growing royal aspirations are contrasted with Banquo’s unease about them) truly compelling.

Unlike Shakespeare, Verdi saw Lady Macbeth as the prime mover in the action who “dominates and controls everything.” So while her role isn’t large, it’s critical, requiring either a soprano or mezzo (some of it lies quite low) with a wide vocal and dramatic range. Soprano Whitney Myers has both, and was equally convincing in both her triumphant Act II aria “La luce langue,” in which she celebrates the “voluttà del soglio” (the “rapture of the throne”), and her hollow-eyed Act IV sleepwalking/mad scene.

“Macbeth” is an opera of low voices, matching its dark themes. The only tenor role of any consequence is that of Macduff, but his one aria—“Ah, la paterna mano” (Ah, the paternal hand”), in which he laments the slaughter of his family at the hands of Macbeth’s thugs—can be heartbreaking if done properly. Jonathan Kaufman employed his heroic tenor to great effect here and was warmly applauded when we saw him on Sunday.

Whitney Myers
Photo: Rebecca Haas

Finally, let us not neglect the witches. Verdi certainly didn’t, seeing them as a powerful malign presence. The score calls for three separate groups of six each—a mob which, on the Kirkwood Arts Center’s stage, would leave little room for anything else. Winter Opera gave us three groups of three, which was not only more manageable but also allowed each which to have her own unique personality, from seductive to deranged. I have noted in the past the Winter Opera’s choristers generally avoid the trap of coming across as (in Anna Russell’s words) “homogenous—as in milk.” Both the male and female singers were consistent in projecting vocal harmony without neglecting dramatic diversity.

Finally, Edward Benyas conducted the small but solid orchestra in an excellent reading of the score, assisted by the warm acoustics of the Kirkwood theatre.

Granted, there were a couple of technical snafus Sunday, one of which left a hapless stagehand frantically dumping dry ice into the witches’ cauldron after the curtain rose on Act III. But that, my friends, is show biz.  The infamous “trampoline Tosca” of Dame Eva Turner comes immediately to mind as an example. But the bottom line is that Winter Opera’s “Macbeth” was a production of which General Director Gina Galati and her crew can be proud.

Winter Opera’s season concludes with Romberg’s “The Desert Song” March 3 and 5; visit the company web site for more information.

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

Saturday, January 21, 2023

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of January 23, 2023

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

Death of a Salesman
Photo courtesy of The Black Rep
The Black Rep, presents Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman through January 29th.  “The classic story of traveling salesman Willy Loman and his family explores the disillusionment of the American Dream and the toll it takes on all aspects of life. When Willy faces the end of his career without much to show for it, he begins to lose his grip on reality. His wife, Linda, and sons, Biff and Happy, are struggling to survive in the same crumbling world, each desperately trying to reach a version of happiness that proves elusive.” Performances take place at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus. For more information: www.theblackrep.org

Liz Callaway
The Blue Strawberry presents To Steve With Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim Tuesday and Wednesday, January 24 and 25, at 7 pm. “In 1970, Liz Callaway saw a musical that would change her life forever- Company, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, at the Alvin Theatre. A decade later, she would make her Broadway debut in Merrily We Roll Along, by the same composer at the same theatre. Now, with her critically acclaimed show “To Steve with Love,” she pays homage to the writer who changed the course of her life. Honoring the life and songs of the most influential composer of the modern musical, the Emmy winner and Tony nominee celebrates the master with a carefully curated evening of the words and music of Stephen Joshua Sondheim.” The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Six: the Musical
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Fabulous Fox presents Six: The Musical opening on Tuesday, January 24 and running through February 5.  “From Tudor Queens to Pop Icons, the SIX wives of Henry VIII take the microphone to remix five hundred years of historical heartbreak into a Euphoric Celebration of 21st century girl power! This new original musical is the global sensation that everyone is losing their head over!” The Fabulous Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com

The Kirkwood Theatre Guild presents the comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike through January 29. “Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play. Middle-aged siblings Vanya and Sonia share a home in Bucks County, PA, where they bicker and complain about the circumstances of their lives. When their movie-star sister, Masha, swoops in with her new boy toy, Spike, old resentments flare up, eventually leading to threats to sell the house. Also on the scene are sassy maid Cassandra, who can predict the future, and a lovely young aspiring actress named Nina, whose prettiness somewhat worries the imperious Masha.” Performances take place at the Robert Reim Theatre in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: ktg-onstage.org

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present A Dickens of a Killilng through January 27th, 2023. "Death is in the air as guests join Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Baaaaa Huuuumbug!!! Ebenezer Scrooge will be back to his old tricks and is bound to make a few enemies at this Christmas Party chock full of Charles Dicken's Characters. Just when Beep (The Minstrel) gets everyone in the Holiday Spirit, Scrooge barges in and starts talking about gruel. Geez, hope no one snuffs Scrooge out before he stops bellowing! Guests will dive into the fictious world of Charles Dickens and join Pip, Martha Cratchit, Oliver Twist, The Ghost of Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and so many more in this cheerful murder mystery parody of a Holiday Classic. Whether you want to participate a little or a lot, you're sure to have a jolly good time, in jolly olde England, where there is sure to be "A Dickens of a Killing!" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Broadway Bound
Photo: Ethan Aylesworth
New Jewish Theatre presents Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm through February 5. “It’s the third play in Simon’s “Brighton Beach trilogy,” and follows the trials and tribulations of the Jerome family, especially the youngest Eugene, as he grows up and becomes an adult in 1940s Brooklyn. In this final installment, Eugene is trying to break into show business with his brother, Stanley, while coming to terms with his parents’ growing estrangement. With plenty of belly laughs and a few tears, Broadway Bound shows the importance of family ties in a quickly changing world.” Performances take place at the SFC Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information: jccstl.com/arts-ideas/new-jewish-theatre

The Prison Performing Arts Alumni Company presents The Golden Record Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm January 26th through 29th. “Two cosmic travelers journey through space with their own record of stories, scenes, poems, and memories. Their task is to carry their transmissions to a new destination, but they keep forgetting where they're going, and their glitchy spaceship is struggling to get them there. Will they make it to their new home? Will it matter if they can't remember where their destination is in the first place?” Performances take place at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive in University City. For more information: prisonperformingarts.org.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents the musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim January 27 through February 19. “Celebrate legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim as the Rep revisits some of his most poignant, powerful and witty contributions to the American musical theatre canon. This cabaret-style revue features a variety of Sondheim’s most notable songs, including a collection of rarely performed numbers straight from the cutting-room floor. Side by Side by Sondheim explores the breadth of Sondheim’s acclaimed career, including numbers from Follies, West Side Story, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures, Gypsy and more.” Performances take place on the Berges Mainstage Theatre at COCA in University City. For more information: repstl.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.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Opera Preview: Something wicked this way comes

Friday and Sunday, January 20 and 22, Winter Opera St. Louis presents Verdi's first Shakespearean opera "Macbeth." Premiered in 1847, it was revised in 1865 for a Paris production. This is the version usually performed today.

The banquet scene
Photo courtesy of Winter Opera

The libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei follows the bare bones of Shakespeare's original, although the story has been considerably streamlined and many secondary characters have been eliminated. The big moments are still there, though: the scenes with the witches, Lady Macbeth's "letter" and sleepwalking scenes, Macbeth's "dagger" monologue and, of course, the banquet with Banquo's ghost. And in Verdi's hands, they form the basis for very powerful theatrical moments.

Earlier today, I had a brief email conversation with stage director John Stephens. This is how it went.  CL = me, JS = John Stephens

CL: As Verdi’s first Shakespearean opera, Macbeth has somewhat suffered by comparison to later masterpieces like Otello and Falstaff, at least in the eyes of some critics (although it has proved popular with audiences). What do you find appealing about the opera as a director?

JS: I was initially attracted to Macbeth because it is a setting of the Shakespeare masterpiece by Verdi, the master of Italian opera. I love the complexity of the characters, and Verdi's use of the orchestra to enhance those complexities.

CL: Regarding Verdi’s score: it makes some interesting musical and theatrical demands, especially for the witches. What do you see as the major challenges from the dramatic point of view?

Macbeth, Banquo, and the witches
Photo courtesy of Winter Opera

JS: Verdi's choice to turn the three witches into three small choruses gives the opportunity for some fun staging moments. Likewise, the full chorus witnessing Macbeth's mental breakdown provides some of the most powerful musical sections I have ever heard.

CL: It has been seven years since “Macbeth” has been produced here in St. Louis. For audiences who are making their first acquaintance with the work, what do you think they need to know about the opera and about your production?

JS: I wanted to keep the storyline moving along as smoothly as I could, and therefore fashioned the production with relatively simple settings, which move from location to location on the playing area.

Our production is set circa 1100 with magnificent period costumes, sung in Italian with an excellent translation. The leadings roles are performed by a very talented group of singing actors, several of whom have sung with Winter Opera previously.

The Essentials: Winter Opera presents Verdi’s “Macbeth” Friday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, January 20 and 22, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: winteroperastl.org

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

Symphony Preview: Stormy weather

Sturm und drang (usually translated as "storm and stress") was an early Romantic (late 18th century) movement in German literature and music that emphasized drama and conflict. Both Haydn and Mozart wrote symphonies that were seen as embodying the movement's approach.

[Preview the music with the SLSO's commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

Brahms in 1853
en.wikipedia.org

This Saturday and Sunday (January 22 and 23) Stéphane Denève leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and soloist Hélène Grimaud in a program that closes with the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Although written well after the sturm und drang movement had passed, it's chock full of high drama nevertheless.

Besides, sturm und drang hadn't passed so much as simply evolved into the pervading sensibility of the Romantic era by the time the young (age 21) Brahms started work on the concerto in 1854. But it comes from a stormy time in Brahms's life.

After attempting suicide by flinging himself into the Rhine, Robert Schumann, Brahms's mentor and friend, committed himself to the Edenich asylum outside of Bonn. Already devoted to both Robert and Clara Schumann, Brahms rushed to the latter’s aid and “became a reliable emotional support for her.” He frequently visited Robert at the asylum. There he had the unenviable experience of watching Robert’s slow mental and physical deterioration and reporting back regularly to Clara, whom Robert’s doctors had asked not to visit her husband for fear of agitating him. With seven children and a household to manage along with her own concert career (at this point, it was the family’s only source of income), Clara no doubt appreciated the help.

The above summary only hints at the terrible strain of the experience, of course. The harrowing details are described in Judith Chernaik's meticulously researched "Schumann: The Faces and the Masks," which quotes extensively from letters by Robert, Clara, and Brahms.

Schumann would die in the asylum two difficult years later, and it's hard not to think of the great stress and tragedy of those events when you hear the powerfully dramatic opening of the concerto, with its portentous drum rolls, declamatory first theme, and melancholy second. "The Piano Concerto No. 1," wrote Larry Rothe in his program notes for a San Francisco Symphony performance, "was born in psycho-turmoil." The piano doesn't even enter until around four minutes in, and when it does it acts more as an equal partner with the orchestra than a flashy solo player. Given the length and scope of the piece (it runs around 45 minutes; longer in some classic recordings), it sometimes feels as much like a symphony with piano obbligato as a concerto; in fact, a symphony was what Brahms had originally intended it to be.

Detlev Glanert
boosey.com

This wasn't what audiences at the time expected from a concerto, and the initial performance—in Hanover on January 22, 1859, with Brahms at the keyboard—was, as Joshua Weilerstein relates in his Sticky Notes podcast, a disaster. “The audience, orchestra, and conductor all hated the piece,” he writes, “and while Brahms continued to hold it close to his heart, he promised his friend Joseph Joachim that a second concerto would be different.” A March 1859 performance with the Hamburg Philharmonic went well, but a return engagement of the revised and final version of the concerto did not. After five performances and only one favorable reception, Brahms set the work aside. He would not write that second concerto for 22 years.

There’s plenty of sturm und drang as well in “Weites Land” (“Open Land”), written in 2013 by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert (b. 1960). Subtitled “Music mit Brahms” (“Music with Brahms”), “Weites Land” is inspired by both Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 and the geography of Hamburg, where both Brahms and Glanert were born. "There is much Northern Germany in it,” says the composer, “the Brahmsian smell of marshland and wide skies."

Like the symphony, “Weites Land” opens with a falling major third, but immediately goes off in a far more contemporary and emotionally fraught direction. Other motifs from the Brahms original pop up during the course of this 12-minute work, but in a nightmarish guise that often sounds like the soundtrack for a horror movie. It ends with a slow, uneasy repetition of the opening theme in the low strings and winds, punctuated by avian chirps in the woodwinds. This weekend will be the work’s first SLSO performance.

Kevin Puts
Photo by David White, kevinputs.com

After that local premiere, there’s the world premiere of the “Concerto for Orchestra” St. Louis-born Kevin Puts (b.1972) on a commission from the SLSO. "The Concerto for Orchestra grew out of my friendship with conductor Stéphane Denève,” says Puts in this weekend’s program notes. “It is dedicated both to him and to the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, for whom I have developed great admiration since their first performance of my music in 2004.” As this will be the work’s first performance anywhere, I think the best I can do is to recommend reading what Puts has to say about it in the program notes and in his interview with SLSO Communications Manager Caitlin Custer.

That said, I can tell you that the last Puts work I heard at Powell Hall—his “Silent Night Elegy” back in 2020—impressed me mightily with its emotional impact. He writes what I would call very “audience friendly” music—clearly contemporary but with strong expressive content. Listen to some of his music on Spotify and I think you’ll agree.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève returns with piano soloist Hélène Grimaud for Brahms’ Concerto No. 1, Detlev Glanert’s “Weites Land” (“Open Land”), and the world premiere of the “Concerto for Orchestra” by St. Louis–born Kevin Puts. Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, January 21 and 22. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Symphony Review: A romp through Ravel's candy store by Ott and Măcelaru at the SLSO

The year 1908 marked an important milestone in cinema history—the composition of the first-ever original film score. The film in question was the French historical drama “L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise” (“The Assassination of the Duc de Guise”) and the man asked to write the score was the celebrated Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Although then in his early 70s, Saint-Saëns was “fascinated by the offer to undertake something that had never been done before.” Possibly because, in reality, it wasn’t much different from the operas and theatrical incidental music he had written in the past.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]
Act IV of La foi

Last Saturday (December 14th), guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru opened his St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert with the local premiere of some of that incidental music: the last of the three “Tableaux symphoniques d'après La foi," Op. 130. Written the year after his movie music, the three tableaux were compiled from the incidental music Saint-Saëns had composed for the drama "La foi" (literally "The Faith," but usually translated as "False Gods") by playwright/polemicist  Eugène Brieux (1858-1932).

Set in ancient Egypt, “La foi” offered plenty of opportunities for Saint-Saëns to indulge in the picturesque orientalism that can be heard in the “Egyptian” Piano Concerto (1896) and the opera “Samson et Delila” (1877). Taken entirely from the play’s fourth act, the music vividly depicts the opening of the temple of Isis for the annual fake “miracle” of the goddess coming to life.

The opening “Egyptian” march for the ponderous entrances of the Pharoah and his lackeys provides great moments for the brasses, played with much splendor Saturday night, followed by a reverent hymn executed beautifully by the strings. There’s some dramatic stuff for the woodwinds, as well, as the temple opens to reveal the statue, including some stratospheric passages for the flutes and piccolo, all done to a fine turn. The whole thing ends with a stirring and powerfully played orchestral apotheosis as the disillusioned priestess Mieris renounces a faith based on trickery. Măcelaru kept it all moving along, the unavoidably episodic nature of the music notwithstanding. Saint-Saëns’s score might not be especially remarkable, but the SLSO’s performance definitely was.

Cristian Măcelaru
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

The evening closed with the Symphony No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Written as a Leningrad Conservatory graduation piece and first performed in 1926 (when the composer was only 19), the exuberant work thumbs its nose at conventional symphonic structure, with sharp contrasts of mood and orchestration. Sarcastic bombast gives way abruptly to anguished gloom, especially in the second and third movements, and the final Allegro molto wraps everything up in an abrupt flourish of brass and percussion. It’s not as episodic as the “La foi” music, but the sudden changes in atmosphere can make it feel that way.

It all sounded splendid Saturday night, in any case. The many solo bits were beautifully played, such as the little off-center waltz for the flute and clarinet and the eccentric violin solos in the first movement, the athletic clarinet line that opens the second, and the tormented oboe and trumpet figures in the third. Concertmaster David Halen and Assistant Concertmaster Erin Schreiber had a number of piquant moments throughout the work as did Principal Cello Danny Lee just before that “coming out of nowhere” slam-bang fortississimo finale in the last movement. Kudos to Măcelaru for giving full rein to Shostakovich’s sonic extremes while keeping it all in proportion.

In between the Saint-Saëns and the Shostakovich was an elegant, poetic, and technically impeccable Piano Concerto in G by Maurice Ravel (1835-1937), with soloist Alice Sara Ott romping through the composer’s tricky music (the composer himself was unable to perform it at its 1932 premiere) like a kid in a candy store, ably supported by Măcelaru and the band .  

Alice Sara Ott
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

The sheer glee with which Ott polished off the fast and furious final pages of the first movement was a joy to hear and see. Her version of the delicate, “smiling through the tears” waltz of the Adagio assai second movement was subtlety lyrical.  When she was joined by the interlaced solos of Principal Flute Matthew Roitstein, Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks, Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews, and Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo , the result was a gracefully woven web of sound that could not have been more quintessentially French. The Presto finale had a cheerful sense of snap and panache.

This was, in short, a Concerto in G of great wit and creativity, so it was hardly surprising that Ott’s choice of an encore was equally original: Arvo Pärt’s deceptively simple “Für Alina,” with its quiet intimations of chimes and softly chanting choirs. It was an unusual choice and a perfect contrast to the carnival jollity of the Ravel.

Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève returns with piano soloist Hélène Grimaud for Brahms’ Concerto No. 1, Detlev Glanert’s “Weites Land” (“Open Land”)—subtitled “Musik mit Brahms” (“Music with Brahms”)—and the world premiere of the “Concerto for Orchestra” by St. Louis–born Kevin Puts. Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, January 21 and 22. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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