Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Getting with the program

Who: Pianist Kirill Gerstein and The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson
What: Music of Richard Strauss, Hindemith, and Thomas Adès
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: November 30 – December 2, 2012

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As anyone who has ever taken a “music depreciation” course will recall, “program music” is the label applied (sometimes dismissively) to any composition either inspired by or intended to depict something non-musical. That usually means the dramatic, literary, or visual arts, although history, nature, and even architecture figure prominently as well.

The weekend of November 30, 2012, the symphony offered an ambitious quartet of works that all qualify as “program music” but haven’t much in common otherwise—which just shows you how little that label really means. Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, for example, takes its inspiration from a poem by Lenau while his Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks harkens back to German folklore. Paul Hindemith’s Symphonie Mathis der Maler, written under the lengthening shadow of fascism, draws on the life and work of 16th century painter Matthias Grünewald who, like Hindemith, found himself caught up in violent political strife. And British composer Thomas Adès’s In Seven Days, written in 2008 and making its local debut, turns the seven mythical days of creation into a seven-movement virtuoso piece for piano and orchestra.

In Seven Days is the new kid on the block, so let’s spend a bit of time with it first.

In Seven Days is, essentially, a series of variations on a brief motif tossed around by skittering strings in the opening “Chaos—Light—Dark” section. As the piece progresses that little motif becomes the basis for an increasingly elaborate musical structure that reaches its peak in the fugue of the fifth and sixth movements (“Creatures of the Sea and Sky—Creatures of the Land”) which, as Mr. Robertson noted in his pre-performance comments, depicts the “amazing joy and wonder” of the newly minted animals in their home. In the final section, “Contemplation,” the main theme shows up in its original form and the music winds down into a silence that says, “to be continued”. Because creation isn’t an event, it’s a process.

Mr. Robertson noted that In Seven Days depicts “Genesis in its sophistication and childlike wonder,” but to my ears it worked just as well as a musical depiction of real-world creation, with complexity arising from very simple organisms. So maybe there’s ambiguity there and, so, just a bit more Art.

The piano is as much a part of the orchestra as it is a solo instrument here, although the writing is often very flashy and demanding. There is, for example, a particularly striking section in the fourth movement, “Stars—Sun—Moon,” where sparkling cascades of sound at the very top of the instrument’s register segue into brass fanfares, and another in the opening “Chaos” movement when the soloist bursts out of a cluster of bass notes into a duet with the congas. Mr. Gerstein, reading from an iPad rather than a printed score (first time I’ve seen that outside of a Parisian piano bar), navigated his way through this treacherous terrain with ease, as did the orchestra. This is my first exposure to In Seven Days, so while Mr. Gerstein's technique was impressive, I can’t say much about his interpretation. I will say that it sounded impressive and he appeared wholly caught up in the music.

It should be noted, by the way, that Mr. Adès’s work was apparently conceived as a multi-media piece. The original title was In Seven Days (Concerto for Piano With Moving Image), with projected video by artist Tal Rosner. More recent performances have apparently dropped the images but if the brief excerpts on YouTube are any indication, they add considerably to the experience. Without them, there were times when the music felt a bit repetitious.

Hindemith’s Symphonie Mathis der Maler isn’t a new work, but it does rather lie somewhat outside the core repertory of contemporary orchestras. It was last heard locally over fourteen years ago under Hans Graf. Hindemith intended it as a kind of preview for his opera Matis der Maler (Matthias the Painter), which he was working on at the time. The Symphonie was a popular success when Wilhelm Furtwängler premiered it in 1934, but Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels saw the anti-authoritarian subtext of both the Symphonie and the developing opera as suspiciously leftist and banned the composer’s “degenerate” music—starting a process the eventually led to Hindemith’s departure to Switzerland (where the opera finally had its first performance) and finally, his emigration to the United States.

Each of the symphony’s three movements refers to a panel of Matthias Grünewald’s “Isenheim Altarpiece”: “Angelic Concert,” “Entombment,” and “Temptation of St. Anthony”. Together, they constitute a striking blend of post-Romantic orchestral color and the neoclassical counterpoint that characterizes so much of Hindemith’s music. Mr. Robertson’s performance brought out all those orchestral details and did full justice to the work’s dramatic origins (the opening of the final movement, for example, was most striking) without sacrificing any of its clarity.

The two Strauss tone poems that opened the first and second halves of the concert were more familiar stuff. Till Eulenspiegel was last heard here in a nifty reading by JoAnn Falletta in March of 2009 and Don Juan was last performed by the symphony under Ward Stare just a month earlier. They are, of course, brilliantly showy works from a young composer who was just beginning to make his mark. Mr. Robertson’s interpretations favored bold strokes and strong contrasts. His Don Juan had swashbuckling flair, languorous romance (clearly, to quote a 1951 Dominoes lyric, a “sixty minute man”), and a poignant demise, while his Till Eulenspiegel played pranks that were not just merry but somewhat manic as well. The orchestral playing was first rate, with impressive solos from (among others) Diana Haskell on clarinet, Cally Banham on English horn, Roger Kaza on horn (the famous opening of Till Eulenspiegel), and concertmaster David Halen.

Next on the calendar: A series of holiday concerts begins with Christopher Warren-Green conducting Handel’s Messiah December 7 through 9. For ticket information:

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