Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Symphony Notes: Berlioz takes a trip with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra October 17 and 19 / Steve J. Sherman
It's a double-header this weekend at the St. Louis Symphony, with the regular season program on Friday and Sunday conducted by Leonard Slatkin and a special superstar "Red Velvet Ball" concert with David Robertson on the podium on Saturday. Let's start with the former.

Former Music Director Leonard Slatkin, who led the St. Louis Symphony during what was possibly its period of highest international visibility, has made a number of return visits to Powell Hall since his tenure here ended—most recently this past April. That was certainly a triumph, so I think we can expect good things when he conducts the orchestra and soloist David Halen Friday and Sunday.

The concerts will open with "Einstein's Dream," a 2004 work by Mr. Slatkin's wife Cindy McTee and apparently a late substitution for the originally-scheduled opener, Slatkin's own "Endgames" (which will have its world premiere with the Detroit Symphony in November). "Albert Einstein," writes the composer in her program notes, "gave much thought to issues of space and time, and he dreamt of finding a theory of everything, or a broad, mathematical structure that would fully explain and link together all known phenomena. My piece celebrates this dream." Running around 14 minutes, the seven sections of "Einstein's Dream" have titles like "Warps and Curves in the Fabric of Space and Time" and "Pondering the Behavior of Light."

Cindy McTee
The last McTee piece the symphony presented was "Double Play, " which I found to be great fun when I encountered it last January. If a similar playful spirit is at work in this one, it should be well worth hearing. Violin soloist for the work will be Second Associate Concertmaster Celeste Golden Boyer, who was so impressive three years ago in the Saint-Saëns "Introduction and Rondo capriccioso"

The first half of the concert closes with another work for violin and orchestra, Max Bruch's 1866 "Violin Concerto No. 1." It was his most popular work—which was a pity, as he didn't make a dime from it. As Renee Spencer Saller writes in the program notes, Bruch "sold the publishing rights to his first violin concerto for a pittance in a one-off deal that didn’t allow him a share of future royalties. Even worse, his subsequent compositions were nowhere near as popular." Bruch wrote many other worthy pieces (I've always been fond of his 1880 "Scottish Fantasy" myself), but none of them matched the phenomenal popularity of this first concerto.

Max Bruch
You'll understand why when you hear it. Bruch was a bit of a musical conservative, affiliated with Brahms and the German Romantic tradition rather than with Liszt, Wagner, and the whole "New Music" crowd, who held Brahms and company in such contempt. That means he wasn't afraid to write beautiful melodies or to play the virtuoso card in this concerto. As an anonymous annotator writes at the web site for the British classical music station, Classic FM, "[t]he dazzling, virtuosic passages, particularly in the glorious finale, really do make the violin sing as it soars again and again, almost from within the orchestra, to ever loftier heights. The second movement, meanwhile, is pure romance: beautiful, heart-breaking themes, woven delicately within soulful orchestral accompaniment." Symphony Concertmaster David Halen will be doing the solo honors.

In case you think drugs began to influence music in the 1960s, let me draw your attention to the piece that closes this weekend's concerts: Hector Berlioz's 1830 "Symphonie fantastique," Op. 14. Leonard Bernstein once famously described it as "the first psychedelic symphony in history, the first musical description ever made of a trip, written one hundred thirty odd years before the Beatles," and he wasn't really exaggerating that much.

Subtitled "An Episode in the Life of an Artist," the work tells, in dramatic and musically explicit terms, the story of a "young vibrant musician" who becomes sexually obsessed with an "ideal" woman. He dreams of her in the first movement; unsuccessfully pursues her at a ball in the second; and flees to the country to escape his longing in the third. In the fourth movement "March of the Scaffold" (often performed by itself) he overdoses on opium (the LSD of the early 19th century) and dreams he is being beheaded for her murder. The work ends with the hallucinatory "Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath," in which the protagonist envisions himself at an infernal dance, presided over by the object of his affection, now transformed into a demon.

Berlioz in 1832
Painting by Émile Signol
The idea for the "Symphonie" came from Berlioz’s own obsession with the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, whom he wooed for years and finally won after convincing her to attend a performance of the piece. The composer never tried to kill her, but he did threaten to kill himself with an opium overdose if she didn’t marry him—which she did. The marriage did not end well, but that’s another story.

Unlike the marriage, the music lasted, although it was fiercely controversial. Parisians had just gotten used to the idea of Beethoven when along came this wildly dramatic bit of excess scored for a massive orchestra and accompanied by a narrative that was, to say the least, lurid. Younger composers like Liszt and Saint-Saëns loved it but traditionalists like Mendelssohn were appalled. Even today, a good performance is still a pretty wild ride.

The essentials: Conductor laureate Leonard Slatkin conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and soloist David Halen, violin, in Bruch's "Violin Concerto No. 1," Berlioz's "Symphonie Fastastique," and "Einstein's Dream" by Cindy McTee Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., October 17 and 19. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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