Thursday, January 15, 2015

Symphony Preview: Mostly Mozart with the St. Louis Symphony, January 17 and 18. 2015

Mozart when he was cool
Have you ever wondered who comes up with those descriptive little subtitles that accompany so many notable compositions?  I'm talking about Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, Mendelssohn's "Scotch" Symphony or the "Gypsy" rondo movement from Haydn's "Piano Trio No. 39"?  The answer varies, but the one thing you can count on is that it probably wasn't the composer.

Take, for example, Mozart's "Symphony No. 41," which closes this weekend's St. Louis Symphony Concerts.  It's known as the "Jupiter" symphony, but Mozart didn't call it that.  In his book "Mozart, Haydn and Early Beethoven 1781-1802" American musicologist Daniel Heartz posits that impresario Johann Peter Salomon (famous for bringing Haydn to London in the 1790s) first applied the nickname in a piano arrangement of the symphony, but nobody really knows for sure.

It's a fitting name, though.  The music has a kind of Olympian power and grandeur, along with a degree of structural clarity that makes it possibly the ideal Classical symphony.  It's music brimming with vitality and optimism.  And yet it dates from the summer of 1788—a time in Mozart's life when, as Daniel Durchholz relates in his program notes, the composer's non-musical world was falling apart: "He still had to teach; his wife was ill; one of their children, a daughter, had recently died; Viennese society, which once had celebrated him, had tired of his work and his grating personality; and he was forever in dire straits financially."

By contrast, the other big Mozart piece on the program, the "Piano Concerto No. 17" in G major (K. 453) was written when Mozart was still the toast of Vienna.  In the spring 1784 Mozart was in demand everywhere, he had just married Constanze Weber, and it looked like he was going to make a go of working as a freelance compose and pianist.  From the very beginning, there's an air of graceful cheerfulness about this music that makes it hard to resist. 

Granted, we can't listen to it today the way Viennese audiences would have back then.  They would have found some of the composer's key changes and his prominent use of winds to be surprising; ditto the dramatic pauses in the second movement.  Today we just have to admire the artistry.

Speaking of artistry, the piano soloist for the Mozart will be Richard Goode, whose program bio describes him as "one of today’s leading interpreters of Classical and Romantic music."  His extensive concert schedule this year will include appearances with the Boston Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as recitals at Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and Wigmore Hall in London.  Mr. Goode is also well represented on disc, with many recordings on the Nonesuch label (for which the SLSO has also recorded).

Keeping company with the Mozart works are two pieces by 20th century composers: Witold Lutoslawski's "Dance Preludes" from 1955 and Sir Michael Tippett's "Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli" from 1953.

The former is a modest ten minute suite scored for clarinet and small orchestra that soloist Scott Andrews (SLSO Principal Clarinet) describes in the program notes as "very fun, rhythmic, based on the Polish folk tradition, but without taking direct quotations from folk music." "I was very excited to hear that I’d be doing this with David Robertson this season," he continues. "He has a nice touch with the rhythmic repertoire. I’ve done it a number of times with piano in recital, but I’m looking forward to explore again the orchestral textures. It really changes the piece.”  Originally scored for clarinet and piano, the suite was later orchestrated by Lutoslawski and became one of more popular works.

"Tippett old age" by Source.
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
The Tippet is a more substantial piece.  Scored for two string orchestras along with two solo violins and a solo cello, it takes an excerpt from the "Concerto grosso, op. 6, no. 2" by Arcangelo Corelli (published in 1741) and uses it as the foundation for an elaborate structure consisting of seven variations, a fugue, and a blissful finale.  "Its radiant climax and the quiet Pastorale that follows are among Tippett’s most inspired pages," writes David Matthews in "Michael Tippet, an Introductory Study."  Tippet himself said the music "passes to and from between the dark and the light"—a contrast Tippet would, according to Mr. Durchholz, "strive to reconcile in nearly all of his life’s work."

The soloists for the Tippet will be violinists Shawn Weil and Kristin Ahlstrom along with cellist David Kim.  Mr. Weil is heavily involved with the orchestra's Education and Community programs and is also a member of the jazz/rock crossover ensemble The 442s, which has played for St. Louis jazz singer Erin Bode.  Ms. Ahlstrom is Associate Principal Second Violin with the SLSO, has active solo and chamber music careers, and is married to SLSO keyboardist Peter Henderson.  Mr. Kim, who has been Assistant Principal Cello since 2004, is also very active outside of the SLSO, including extensive work with the Community Music School of Webster University.  They and the symphony strings will get quite a workout with this piece, which features virtuoso writing for both soloists and the ensemble.

The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra along with pianist Richard Goode Saturday at 8 p.m. (also broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio), and Sunday at 3 p.m., January 17 and 18.  The program features Lutoslawski's "Dance Preludes," Michael Tippet's "Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli" and Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 17" and "Symphony No. 41" ("Jupiter).   The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.  For more information:

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