Saturday, October 30, 2010

After the fall

(L to R): Colin Hanlon as Luke and Jeffrey Kuhn as Adam. © Photo by Keith Jochim

What: Next Fall
Where: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
When: October 27 through November 14, 2010

Right now, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is featuring two plays in which questions of faith are paramount. The one on the main stage in Webster Groves – High – has the big star. But the one at the Grandel Theatre – Geoffrey Nauffts's funny, sad, and insightful Next Fall – has a stellar script and a uniformly fine cast to boot.

At the core of Next Fall is the five-year relationship between Luke, a thirtyish actor on the way up, and Adam, a fortyish candle salesman-turned-teacher who isn't sure which way he's going. Luke is a committed Christian who is out to everyone except his fundamentalist dad, Butch. Adam is a dedicated skeptic who is running out of patience with Luke's theology. When an accident sends Luke into a coma, his family and friends are forced to deal with their conflicting beliefs and feelings about Luke and each other.

A lesser playwright might turn this material into predictable soap opera or use it to score easy political points. Mr. Nauffts, however, avoids predictability at every turn. Luke's parents, the ideologically rigid Butch and motor-mouthed Arlene, for example, could have been one-dimensional cartoons; instead they are fully realized characters – flawed but completely believable. So, too, are Adam's ex-boss and friend Holly and Luke's fellow believer Brandon.

My wife commented that Next Fall presents a story that doesn't end with the curtain. The characters and their relationships are so credible that we found ourselves compelled to speculate what might happen next. Mr. Nauffts's script provides a resolution, but no pat answers.

It's impossible to heap too much praise on this consistently brilliant cast, but I'll give it a shot. Jeffrey Kuhn imbues Adam with a kinetic energy that mirrors the character's unsettled emotional state, making the contrast with Colin Hanlon's steady and rock-solid Luke that much more effective. Marnye Young's Holly is warm and funny, while Ben Nordstrom's Brandon is a study in the use of stillness as a way to reveal character. Susan Greenhill's Arlene is hilarious without ever descending into "Southern gal" cliché and Keith Jochim brings out the depths in Butch's persona that make him more than a standard-issue bigot.

Together, they constitute a flawless, perfectly timed ensemble. How much of that can be attributed their individual talent and how much to Seth Gordon's direction is anybody's guess, but there's no gainsaying the emotional impact of the final product. This is an evening that mixes laughter, tears, and thought-provoking dialog in an irresistible brew that seems far shorter than its nearly two and one-half hour running time.

Like so many recent plays, Next Fall seems to want to be a movie when it grows up, unfolding in a large number of small scenes, each of which requires a complete set change. Happily, Brian Sidney Bembridge has created a scenic design that transforms easily and quickly, aided by John Wylie's effective lighting and Rusty Wandall's evocative sound. Lou Bird's costumes are fine as well, nicely mirroring the internal lives of their characters.

If all of this leaves you with the impression that Next Fall is a first-rate presentation of script that fully deserved its 2009 Tony nomination then, to quote Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, this case is closed. Next Fall is this fall's hot ticket. For more information you may call 314-968-4925.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Joy of Dvorak

Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
What: Watts Plays Grieg; Varga Conducts Dvorak
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: October 8 - 10, 2010

If you wanted to describe this weekend's St. Louis Symphony concert in a single word, I think that word would be joy. The joy of rock guitarist-turned-composer Steven Mackey exploiting the augmented percussion section in Turn the Key; the joy of André Watts's fluid virtuosity in the Grieg Piano Concerto; the joy Dvorak felt in the Bohemian countryside, infusing every bar of his Eighth Symphony; and the joy conductor Gilbert Varga clearly took in leading the orchestra's world-class musicians through all of it. It would take an equally world-class grouch to walk away from the final bars of Varga's Dvorak without a smile.

The evening began with something you don't see every day (as they used to say on Rocky and Bullwinkle): audience participation. The irregular rhythmic motif that forms the basis for Steven Mackey's Turn the Key is first heard clapped out by a pair of percussionists in the audience. With their encouragement, more and more of the audience join in until, with a loud dissonant chord, the orchestra announces that the professionals have taken over. It's an amusing bit of theatre and, let's face it, any time you can get the listeners clapping before the show starts, you're ahead of the game.

Originally composed for the opening of the Knight Concert Hall in Miami in 2006, Turn the Key struck me as long on orchestral flash and short on content. For me, the work's principal attraction was the creative use of just about every item in the percussion battery's arsenal, including exotic items like the lion's roar and agogo bells. This is the sort of piece that hi-fi enthusiasts once used to show off their systems many years ago (back when there were turntables, cartridges, and other Ancient Mayan sound reproduction devices), with great dynamic contrasts, interesting instrumental combinations, and playful stereo effects. It's fun, but I felt it wore out its welcome before the 11 minutes were up.

For many people, I expect, the big attraction in this concert series was the appearance of the great André Watts in Grieg's venerable Piano Concerto. That's understandable enough – Mr. Watts is unquestionably one of the Baby Boom generation's great pianists – but I would have preferred to hear him in something a little less well worn. One of Mr. Watts's early triumphs like the Saint-Saëns second or Liszt first, for example, would have been welcome.

That said, he and Mr. Varga gave an expressive performance that was rich in orchestral detail. Tempi were a bit on the slow side for my taste, which tended to emphasize the episodic nature of Grieg's writing, but on the whole it was a solid reading with a good balance between soloist and orchestra.

The real treat, though, was the Dvorak Symphony No. 8. Written at a time of great happiness in the composer's life, the symphony overflows with good humor. Dvorak composed it at his newly acquired country home and filled it with celebrations of rustic life. There are twittering birds, cheerful village bands, wandering violinists, and even, at one point, a section that has always made me think of a sudden thunderstorm. This is the joy of living, wrapped up in the Czech master's characteristically infectious melodies and dance-inspired rhythms.

The performance was simply one of the best I've heard, and that includes the classic Szell and Kertesz recordings. Conducting without a score, Mr. Varga worked the podium with the cheerfully physical intensity of someone who truly loves both his music and his musicians. His was an interpretation characterized by a wide dynamic range, well-chosen tempi, and passionate intensity.

The players responded with flawless performances. The Dvorak abounds with lovely solo passages for the winds and the orchestra's flutes, piccolo, and single and double reeds more than did them justice. Indeed, everyone seemed in tune with Mr. Varga's joy – there's that word again – in presenting this classic gem of musical optimism. A splendid time, I think, was had by all.

Friday, October 08, 2010

St. Louis Symphony Update, 8 October 2010

This weekend at the St. Louis Symphony: a fun new piece with audience participation by rock guitarist-turned-composer Steven Mackey, a respectable Grieg Piano Concerto with Andre Watts (one of the finest pianists of my generation), and a truly great Dvorak 8th. Gilbert Varga conducts and the orchestra seems to love him, with good reason. Full review to follow some time Saturday. Concert  information at

Monday, October 04, 2010

The American Way

Photo © 2009 Hilary Scott

Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
What: Rhapsody in Blue
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: October 1 and 3, 2010

When was the last time you left a St. Louis Symphony concert thinking, “Well, that was fun?” I'm not talking about an outdoor “pops” or special holiday event, but a regular series concert. If you're like me you might have used words like exciting, stimulating, moving, challenging or even that old saw “interesting” – but “fun”? And yet this weekend and Powell Hall fun was definitely being served up in heaping helpings, courtesy of conductor David Robertson, pianist Orli Shaham, and a couple of deceased wise guys named George and Charles.

I refer, of course, to George Gershwin and Charles Ives. They were both in their late 20s when they wrote the works showcased in the concert—Rhapsody in Blue and the Symphony No. 2, respectively. Both were clearly showing off and thumbing their talented noses at the musical establishment when they did so while still paying homage to the traditions represented by that establishment.

The Rhapsody was the first of what would be an increasingly impressive series of Gershwin works to fuse classical discipline with jazzy freedom. Listening to the swagger and panache of the piano part—some of which not yet fully written out when Gershwin first performed the work with Paul Whiteman's band at Aeolian Hall—it's impossible not to picture the composer's jaunty smile (and ever-present cigar) as he effortlessly throws off a riff or run.

This is keyboard work that's visual as well as aural, and Ms. Shaham did it up in fine style, even if she was sometimes swamped by the orchestra. Balance is one of the many reasons I prefer the original jazz band arrangement of the Rhapsody to Ferde Grofé's 1937 full-orchestra version. I understand why most classical orchestras use that one as it was the only one available until around 1971 and most musicians probably know it well, but it would nice now and then to get back to basics and hear something like what New Yorkers heard at the legendary “Experiment in Modern Music”.

In any case, the Sunday afternoon audience loved what they heard—so much so that Mr. Robertson and Ms. Shaham followed up with a substantial encore: a somewhat truncated version of Gershwin's 1934 Variations on “I Got Rhythm”. The performance sounded a bit slapdash to me, but the piece doesn't get programmed all that often so I can't complain.

Like Gershwin, Charles Ives was a man often at odds with the guardians of the classic forms in which he worked. Yes, he wrote symphonies, sonatas and string quartets, but his approach to them was radical and visionary, anticipating experiments in harmony and rhythm that would not find their way into the compositional mainstream for many years. Most of his music went unperformed during his life and much of it still presents major hurdles for both listeners and performers alike.

Originally composed in 1901 and finally orchestrated in 1907, the Symphony No. 2 is conservative by Ives standards. Indeed, compared to the hallucinatory glory of the Fourth Symphony from only a few years later, it's almost stodgy. Still, it's a work of ingenuity, droll humor and sometimes-transcendental beauty that offers substantial challenges to both the conductor and the players. Mr. Robertson and the musicians under his baton were more than equal to them, however, turning in a disciplined and luminous performance. Yes, there were balance problems once again, with the brasses in particular tending to be a bit too dominant. But if you think about it, that's really rather Ivesian in its way.

The concert opened with a fine reading of the concert suite from Aaron Copland's 1943 ballet Appalachian Spring. Mr. Robertson threw himself into this performance, conducting with his whole body and getting polished performances in return. The orchestra was accompanied by projected images from, of all things, a children's book: Jan Greenberg's Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. Beautifully capturing dancers in Graham's big, dramatic poses, Brian Floca's watercolors gave audience members who might not be familiar with the ballet a good feel for the work's narrative flow and a sense of what it must have been like to see this work when it was newly minted without drawing focus from the music.

The concert closed with a thoroughly appropriate encore, given Charles Ives' love of marching bands: a rousing, “kick out the jams” rendition of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever". Would you call it pandering? Maybe, if you were inclined to be a curmudgeon. Personally, I couldn't manage it; I was having far too much fun.

Next at Powell Hall: Grieg's Piano Concerto (with André Watts), Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 and Steven Mackey's Turn the Key, originally composed for the opening of the Knight Concert Hall in Miami in 2006. Gilbert Varga conducts. For more information, you may call 314-534-1700 or visit