Thursday, November 20, 2014

Symphony Preview: Sounds of joy and despair at Powell Hall Saturday and Sunday, November 22 and 23

There are only two pieces on the program this Saturday and Sunday at the symphony, and even though they were written less than 60 years apart, the contrast between them is so stark that they might as well be from different worlds.

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Schumann in 1850
The concerts open with Robert Schumann's "Cello Concerto in A minor," op. 129. It dates from 1850, which SLSO program annotator Paul Schiavo describes as "a watershed year" for the composer. "His 40th birthday was celebrated with a concert organized by his admirers," writes Mr. Schiavo, "and after what seemed an interminable series of delays his only opera, Genoveva, was finally produced in Leipzig. At about the same time, the composer accepted the directorship of the municipal orchestra and chorus in Düsseldorf and in September moved with his family to that city on the Rhine. The Duüsseldorf appointment represented a significant professional advance for Schumann, and he was cheered at the prospect of finally gaining some measure of the recognition which had thus far eluded him."

Schumann's joy would be short lived—he would try to commit suicide three and a half years later by throwing himself into the Rhine—but for time being the composer was on top of the world, resulting in music that was, in the words of the late British musicologist Eric Sams, "as secure and buoyant as the Rhine itself, with hardly a hint of the dark chill depths to come."

That said, the concerto wasn't all that well received, despite the skill evident in its composition. As with the earlier piano concerto, Schumann disdained the kind of flashy virtuoso writing that typified concertos in the mid-19th century (Liszt and company were very much in fashion). Worse yet, he disapproved of the applause between movements (which was commonplace at the time), so the three sections of the concerto follow each other without pause. Schumann didn't even call it a concerto originally; the autograph score describes it as a Konzertstück (concert piece) rather than Konzert (concerto). Clara Schumann loved the work, but the composer himself seems to have had doubts, not even sending to his publishers until 1854. It wasn't performed publicly until 1860, almost four years after the composer's death.

The lack of obvious fireworks in the cello part doesn't mean that this piece is easy to perform, though. Quite the opposite: it requires for a combination of technical facility and artistic sensitivity that asks a lot from the soloist. As cellist Jan Vogler noted in a 2012 interview, although he had already performed the concerto over 60 times, he was just getting "to the point where he can see the light."

The soloist this weekend, Principal Cello Daniel Lee, certainly looks like the right man for the job. As I wrote in my April 2012 review of his performance of the Dvorak concerto (which, like the Schumann, requires nimble hands and a warm heart), Mr. Lee combines technical proficiency with an emotional openness that allows him to be completely within the moment at every point in the music.

Mahler in 1907
Photo: Moritz Nähr
If Schumann's concerto comes from a high point in his life, Mahler's "Das Lied on der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth") comes from a low point in his. When Mahler bean work on the piece in the summer of 1907, his eldest daughter has just died of scarlet fever at the age of four and the composer himself had just been diagnosed with the heart condition that would lead to his demise four years later. Suddenly death—which had always been a theme in Mahler's music—became very personal.

Scored for large orchestra and two singers (typically tenor and mezzo-soprano, although Mahler allows for the substitution of a baritone in the second, fourth, and sixth songs), "Das Lied" is essentially a vocal symphony that takes its texts from Hans Bethge's "The Chinese Flute," a German-language re-write of English, French and German translations of some ancient Chinese poems. Further edited and re-written by Mahler, the lyrics contemplate a variety of aspects of life and death. "Every mood," writes Tony Duggan at "from cynical and drunken hedonism to serene and Zen-like stasis gets covered in the course of the hour this work takes. At the end, the message is that, since the beauties and mysteries of the earth renew themselves year after year, our own passing should not be feared but accepted calmly and without rancour. The earth, the world and nature goes on without us."

Too true. In particular, the last movement—"Das Abschied" ("The Farewell")—is possibly one of the most emotionally powerful things you will ever encounter in a concert hall. In it, the narrator's farewell to a friend becomes a farewell to life itself: "Die liebe Erde allüberall Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen! Ewig... ewig..." ("Everywhere the good earth blossoms in spring and turns green once again! Everywhere and forever, distant spaces shine their blue light! Forever...forever..."). "The music of this closing movement," writes Mr. Schiavo " turns heartbroken and serene, and this remarkable dualism persists even in the unresolved sixth—the most gentle of dissonances—which colors its final chord."

This weekend's soloists, Susan Graham and Paul Graves, have impressive but very different resumes. Ms. Graham's is heavily tilted towards opera while Mr. Graves appears to have substantial oratorio and concert experience. That should make for a nice balance in a work that straddles the concert and opera stages. Although he never wrote an opera, Mahler was a composer with an infallible sense for the dramatic.

The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra along with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, tenor Paul Groves, and cellist Daniel Lee in Schumann's "Cello Concerto" and Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., November 22 and 23. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis public radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via the station web site.

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