Thursday, March 05, 2015

Symphony Preview: Wagner and friends with David Robertson and Christine Brewer Friday and Saturday, March 6 and 7, 2015

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This August, Union Avenue Opera will present the last installment of its four-year traversal of Richard Wagner's "Ring" operas: "Götterdämmerung" ("Twilight of the Gods"). This weekend David Robertson, soprano Christine Brewer, and the St. Louis Symphony are presenting "Brünnhilde's Immolation," the final scene of that opera. Think of it as something of a preview.

Wagner in 1871
Of course, Union Avenue will be using a reduced version of the score prepared by British composer Jonathan Dove. At Powell Hall you'll get the Full Monty (or maybe the Full Richard) with a massive orchestra that includes four (count 'em, four) Wagner tubas (instruments in the euphonium range but with smaller bells and French horn mouthpieces), eight horns, a bass trumpet and a pair of harps. You'll also be getting a highly regarded soprano with a penchant for big, powerful roles in Christine Brewer.

That's a good thing, because in the "Ring" operas Wagner writes vocal lines that are very long and closely integrated with the orchestra. "It is the avoidance of cadence or period in this manner," writes British critic John Warrack in the Norton "History of Opera", "that earns the vocal line the term unendliche Melodie [literally "endless melody"]. The demands made upon singers in articulating such lines are enormous, both of sheer stamina but also in the necessity of a close understanding of the issues involved".

To do Wagner justice, in other words, you need to be not only a powerful and technically skilled singer, you have to be a capable actor as well. Ms. Brewer's substantial operatic resume should serve her well here.

And that immolation scene is nothing if not dramatic. The stage directions in the libretto call for vassals to build a funeral pyre and place the body of the treacherously slain Siegfried on it. Brünnhilde sets the pyre aflame, jumps on her horse, and together they leap into the flames. Everything goes up in smoke, the Rhine overflows its banks, and finally Valhalla itself is incinerated. It's Armageddon on a cinematic scale, calling for all the skills a stage designer can muster.

I'm not sure how Union Avenue will manage it, but this weekend the performance will be accompanied by projections created by S. Katy Tucker. She provided some mood-setting visuals to go with an all-American program last fall, so it will be interesting to see what she does with the Wagner.

The second half of this weekend's concerts will be taken up with one very big work: the "Symphony No. 3" of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), in its final 1889 revision. Bruckner was a gushingly avid admirer of Wagner and, in fact, dedicated this symphony to him, so its placement on the program makes both musical and historical sense. Personally, I'm glad to see it simply because I don't think Bruckner's symphonies get as much attention as they deserve.

"Anton Bruckner arrives in Heaven". Bruckner is greeted by (from left to right):
Liszt, Wagner, Schubert, Schumann, Weber, Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck,
Haydn, Handel, Bach. (Silhouette drawing by Otto Böhler)
Writers of music criticism seem unable to discuss the symphonies of Anton Bruckner without invoking the imagery of the Gothic cathedral. Perhaps that's because they so strongly suggest a connection between the material and ethereal planes—great blocks of sound alternating with moments of otherworldly beauty. In Bruckner's music you can hear both great, heaven-storming power and quiet mystery. Time seems to act differently in a Bruckner symphony, with each movement incorporating so much emotional depth that it can feel both shorter and longer than the clock indicates. Amazing stuff, really.

Alas, as René Spencer Saller relates in her program notes, the audience at the premiere of the first version of Bruckner's third in 1877 (with the composer at the podium) didn't hear any of that. "Calling the concert a disaster," she writes, "is an understatement: think nightmare fuel, the stuff of suicide notes. He was set up to fail. Although he was a good chorus director, Bruckner had virtually no experience conducting a symphony orchestra, and this was a huge and demanding work. Even worse, he was leading—or attempting to lead—openly hostile musicians who seemed determined to make him a laughingstock."

Wagner's endorsement of his younger protégé probably didn't help. "It was after Wagner had espoused his cause," observed conductor and Bruckner booster F. Charles Adler in a 1938 radio broadcast, "accepting the dedication of the Third Symphony and hailing him as the greatest symphonic writer after Beethoven, that his trials really began. The critics who had praised his early efforts turned, and could find no words virulent enough to express their distaste. One went to far as to cry: 'Bruckner composes like a drunkard!' Orchestras and conductors refused his works as unplayable. Everywhere fun was poked at him and his music. To a man of Bruckner's timidity it was nearly fatal. But somehow he did survive it."

Bruckner not only survived but triumphed. The first performance of his "Symphony No. 7" in 1884 was a rousing success and the composer lived to see himself lionized worldwide. The music of the two other greatest post-Wagnerian composers—Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss—may be more popular these days, but Bruckner is nevertheless firmly established as one of the great late-19th century symphonists.

Photograph of Gabriel Fauré
by Eugène Pirou, c. 1900
The concerts will open with the "Elegie for Cello and Orchestra," Op. 24, by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). Like Bruckner, Fauré was an admirer (albeit a less ardent one) of Wagner. Unlike the older composer, Fauré was not much influenced by Wagner in his own music, opting for a more restrained style and shorter, less grandiose musical structures. "Whereas Wagner was the undisputed king of his self-invented 'universal music drama,'” writes Ms. Saller, "Fauré excelled in exquisite miniatures: chamber music, art song, piano pieces." His best-known large work—the 1890 "Requiem in D minor," Op. 48, clocks in at a modest 35 minutes or so and is characterized by a radiant and transparent sound that's miles away from Bruckner's massive sound cathedrals.

Still, the sad and wistful tone of the "Elegie" should work well as a preparation for the prolonged Wagnerian death scene that will follow it. "Fauré 's preference for light orchestral scoring," writes Dr. Beth Fleming in program notes for Symphony Silicon Valley, "is the ideal envelope for the rich, resonant tone of the 'cello, and in this beautiful work the solo voice controls the situation from the first moment to the last. Over steady chords reminiscent of a dirge, the 'cello melody leads the listener through a rapturous lament that begins dramatically and gradually becomes more quiet and resigned. The orchestra speaks alone for a time in a contrasting melody and is eventually joined by the 'cello, which takes over in a magnificent cadenza before the return of the original funereal section. Eventually the 'cello seems to sing itself into silence. The result of this tiny work is an impeccable moment of pure musical poetry."

The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with Christine Brewer, soprano, and Bjorn Ranheim, cello, on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., March 6 and 7. The concerts feature Bruckner's "Symphony No. 3" and the "Immolation Scene" from Wagner's " Götterdämmerung" ("Twilight of the Gods"). The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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