Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sex and Violins

[This is the text of my review for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert of Friday, February 16th, 2007 for public radio station KDHX-FM in St. Louis.]

As David Robertson pointed out during his comments to the audience at this Friday's thoroughly captivating St. Louis Symphony concert, one of the little-known links between the three Russian romantic composers on the program (Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin) is that all three were involved, around the turn of the previous century, in a debate on synaesthesia.

To the psychologist or neurologist, synaesthesia is rare and somewhat mysterious condition in which (to quote the U.K. Synaesthesia Association) “two or more of the five senses that are normally experienced separately are involuntarily and automatically joined together”. Synaesthetes might head sounds when reading certain words, or see colors when they hear certain sounds or musical notes. It's not generally regarded as a pathological condition and, in fact, many synaesthetes regard it as life enhancing.

For Alexander Scriabin and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the association of specific colors with certain musical keys was a fact of life, even if they disagreed strongly as to which keys were associated with which colors. For Scriabin, this was also an integral part of what Paul Schiavo describes in his program notes as “an elaborate personal philosophy that combined art, religion and eroticism in a quest for enlightenment” - a philosophy expressed most vividly in his Poem of Ecstasy (a.k.a. his Symphony No. 4), which concluded this weekend's concerts.

Composed between 1905 and 1907, when the composer was actively involved with the Theosophical Society (and, not incidentally, pursuing one of his many extramarital affairs), the work is accompanied by a long series of verses by Scriabin, ending with: “I am a moment illuminating eternity....I am affirmation...I am ecstasy." Although scored for an orchestra of (Richard) Straussian proportions, including a massive brass section, two harps and an organ, the Poem has sections of great lyricism and transparency that are reminiscent of the French impressionists. They contrast nicely with the rock concert-level sound of the more climactic moments.

Robertson and the symphony musicians delivered a stunning performance of this complex and difficult music. Both the intimacy and exuberance of the music were given full measure, and the work as a whole never lost the underlying sense of tension that finds its final release in the massive full-orchestra climax and brief C-major coda.

Most commentators, by the way, have been a bit coy about the exact kind of ecstasy the composer had in mind with this lush, unabashedly romantic work, but Scriabin biographer Faubion Bowers, referring to the 300+ lines of verse that accompany the score, concludes that “behind this distillation of Scriabin's world-view there was something blunt - sex.” I have to agree. With the ebb and flow between states of languor and near-hallucinatory excess and its rather orgasmic coda (the piece was, after all, originally titled Orgiastic Poem), Scriabin's Poem is probably one of the more R-rated pieces in the repertory.

Sex plays a rather more indirect role in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Le Coq d'or (The Golden Cockerel). Composed near the end of the composer's life and not performed until after his death, the opera is the story of the bumbling King Dodon who is so smitten with the beautiful Queen Chimaka (part of the spoils of his war) that he double-crosses a wizard - with predictably fatal results. The Le Coq d'or Suite, which opened the second half of this weekend's program, is a classic example of the composer's melodic inventiveness and orchestral ingenuity. A recurring melismatic and vaguely Middle Eastern theme helps to establish the fairy tale atmosphere, for example, and the courtship dance for Dodon and Chimaka covers some of the same territory as Scriabin's Poem, albeit somewhat more discreetly. The finale, in which Dodon's increasingly pompous wedding procession is interrupted by the return of the vengeful sorcerer, brings it all to a rousing conclusion with a riot of orchestral color.

It has been over 35 years since the St. Louis Symphony performed the Le Coq d'or Suite, but you wouldn't know that from the brilliant and polished reading it got Friday morning. Although it calls for orchestra forces nearly as great as those in the Poem, the suite offers many opportunities for solo instruments to shine - and shine they did. It's a reminder that the orchestra these days is truly an ensemble of virtuosi.

Solo virtuosity was on display in the first work on the program, the Piano Concerto No. 1 of Sergei Rachmaninoff. A contemporary of Scriabin and friend to both him and Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff is now known as one of the last of the great Romantic pianist-composers. Originally written while both he and Scriabin were students at the Moscow Conservatory, the Concerto was later revised substantially on the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and it's not hard to hear the faint echoes of that turbulence in the sweep and drama of this. Piano soloist Stephen Hough played with the ease and confidence that are the hallmarks of solid keyboard technique, and showed a rapport with Robertson that one of the hallmarks of the accomplished musician.

Next at Powell Hall: Mozart, J.C. Bach and Frank Martin with Jeffrey Kahane as conductor and piano soloist, Friday through Sunday, February 23rd through 25th, 2007. For ticket information, call 314-534-1700 or visit the Symphony web site at slso.org.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Reality TV and Other Oxymorons

Disclaimer: as always, the opinions expressed on this blog are mine, all mine, I tell you, and do not necessarily represent those of any particular organization I might be associated with at any point in time. Or anybody else. So there.

That concert version of My Fair Lady that I discussed in my 1/29/07 blog entry (a co-production of Stray Dog Theatre and the Clayton Symphony Orchestra) opens in two days, which means we've had some decent coverage in the local press. That includes a very nice spot on the February 13th edition of Show Me St. Louis (the title is a gloss on Missouri's self-assigned reputation as "the show me state"), a TV show produced by local NBC affiliate KSDK that focuses on sports, entertainment and other "soft news" items.

The video, which runs around 5 minutes, is available at the KSDK web site. When you view it, you'll see what appears to be coverage of a typical rehearsal, complete with actors and orchestra. We're seen and heard rehearsing bits of "I'm an Ordinary Man", "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Get Me to the Church on Time" (in which the more musically astute among you will hear me blowing part of the lyric) and there are interviews with our leading lady, director, and the orchestra's conductor/director.

As with much of TeeVee, however, "things are seldom what they seem" (to lift a W.S. Gilbert lyric).

The fact is that KSDK records spots like this on its schedule, not yours. So instead of bringing the host and camera tech out to one of our evening rehearsals, we were asked to stage a rehearsal just for them on a Monday morning. Which we did. The songs chosen were based on who among us principals was able to make it to a 9 AM Monday rehearsal. That turned out to be Jennifer (Eliza), Michael (Higgins) and me (Doolittle), hence the songs listed above.

So what you really see in the video is a staged-for-TV rehearsal.

In many ways, this is a difference that makes no difference. We did do each one of those songs in its entirety on the actual stage with most of the actual orchestra, which was actually useful for those of us who could be there. But it strikes me that this could, in a very different set of circumstances, be the first step on what could be a slippery slope. At what point does the made-for-TV version of an event stop being merely a variation of the real thing and turn into an outright fabrication? Our rehearsal clearly stops short of that line, but how would you, as a viewer, know that it did unless you read it here? How many other supposedly "real" things on TV are nothing of the sort?

Hey, don't get me wrong. I really appreciate the fact that KSDK gave us the coverage, and I'm sure their viewers are happy to have the information. One this one, everybody wins. It's just that it does raise those nagging questions about the other things you see on the Tube.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Review: The Light in the Piazza (2007 American tour)

[The tour of The Light in the Piazza played the Fox Theatre here in St. Louis January 31st through February 11th, 2007. This is the text of my review for public radio station KDHX-FM.]

Corporate Broadway, like corporate Hollywood, has become a place for high-stakes gambling, where big producers spend bigger money on huge shows in the expectation of massive returns on their investments. It's a gargantuan theme park, relying on a steady stream of money from tourists who have been told, by corporate media, to expect those huge shows.

In such an environment, it's remarkable that a modest, romantic show like Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza was produced at all. That it also ran over 500 performances and garnered a raft of awards in the process is downright miraculous.

So is its appearance here at the Fox. Like the tourists at the Broadway Theme Park, Fox audiences have come to expect expensive blockbusters on that outsized stage. Choosing a beautiful and subtle show like Light shows that someone at Fox Associates has taste and courage, both of which should be saluted.

Based on Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella of the same name, The Light in the Piazza is the story of Margaret Johnson (Christine Andreas through February 8th, then Jane Brockman), an upper crust South Carolina matron traveling in Italy in 1953 with her daughter Clara (Leslie Henstock through February 4th, then Elena Shaddow). As they're admiring the naked statues in Firenze (that's Florence to us Anglos), Clara's straw hat is blown off by a fateful gust of wind and retrieved by Fabrizio, a young apprentice in his father's tie shop. David Burhnam, promoted from his position as an ensemble member in the Broadway production, plays the role here.

Fabrizio and Clara are instantly smitten with each other, but there are obstacles. Clara may be 26, but a riding accident as a child has left her with the emotional maturity of someone half her age. Trying to protect her daughter, Margaret does her best to keep the lovers apart. When that inevitably fails, Margaret has to come to terms with the flowering of her daughter's identity, the withering of her own marriage, and the future they all must face.

The cast for this tour is just plain flawless. Ms. Henstock and Ms. Andreas are (to quote a line penned by Guettel's mentor, Stephen Sondheim) “a practically perfect pair”* as Clara and Margaret. Ms. Henstock nicely captures Clara's hidden child without sacrificing the woman, and Ms. Andreas is beautifully sympathetic as her conflicted mother.

Mr. Burnham is all boyish enthusiasm as Fabrizio and handles his soaring melodic lines with ease. There are fine performances also from Jonathan Hammond as Fabrizio's older, but less mature, brother Giuseppe and Wendi Bergamini as Giuseppe's wife Franca, torn between love and anger.

Evangelia Kingsley has a show-stopping moment at the top of the second act as the leader of the impassioned Italian quintet, “Aiutami”, reminding us that, in love “risk is everything”. Her operatic background is evident in her strong contralto. David Ledingham completes the list of principals with a wise and witty Signor Naccarelli.

The book, by noted playwright Craig Lucas, handles this tale of “love among the ruins” with great warmth and, when appropriate, good humor. The characters are beautifully drawn and their relationships crystal clear, even when a scene or an entire song is in Italian.

The score, by third-generation theatre composer Adam Guettel, is lavish and romantic without being saccharine. The musically sophisticated songs are so well integrated with the book that that the show feels, in retrospect, like one continuous aria, some of which just happens to be spoken rather than sung. The illusion is enhanced by the score's heavy reliance on the strings and harp, as opposed to the winds and synthesizer typical of other recent shows. The effect is, if you'll pardon the over-used word, luminous.

But then, light is the underlying theme of this piece. Specifically, it's the warm, golden light of what Margaret calls “a city in the sun”. It's manifested in Michael Yeargan's airy and flexible set (enabling fast and fluid scene changes) and in Christopher Akerlind's lighting, which evokes mellow, autumnal or (in the one brief Roman scene) harsh moods as required.

Bartlett Sher's direction pulls it all together into one seamless whole and moves everything along at a brisk pace without ever seeming rushed. At only two and one-half hours including a thirty-minute intermission, The Light in the Piazza is relatively short by recent mega-musical standards, but it's long on believable human drama.

The Light in the Piazza will be warming our frigid winter nights through February 11th [2007] at the Fox in Grand Center. For ticket information, call 314-534-1111. Since this isn't anything like a theme park musical, you should be able to get good seats for most shows, and intelligent entertainment like this deserves our support.

*It's from Do I Hear a Waltz?, from 1965; another show about a middle-aged American woman dealing with romance in Italy, this time with music by Guettel's grandfather, Richard Rodgers.