Thursday, October 22, 2015

Symphony Preview: Beethoven's movie music and more October 23 and 24

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One of the things all three composers in last weekend's all-American St. Louis Symphony concerts had in common was that they had all written music for movies. In that respect, they were following a time-honored tradition that goes back centuries.

That's because film music is really just another form of what musicology types call "incidental music"—music written to accompany and provide extra punch for comedy and drama. And composers have been doing that since the days of ancient Greece.

"Beethoven Letronne" by Blasius Höfel
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Common
This weekend's SLSO concerts open with a famous example: the overture that Beethoven wrote for Goethe's 1787 political drama "Egmont." Set in 16th century Spain when that nation was occupied by the Dutch, the play is the story of the Count of Egmont, a real-life Dutch nobleman who pleaded with his fellow occupiers to treat the Spanish with some respect and got executed for his efforts. A staunch Republican and champion of human freedom, Beethoven was irresistibly drawn to the story—an attraction that was only increased by the political situation surrounding him when he wrote his "Egmont" score in 1809 in Vienna.

Back then Vienna was not so much the fabled "City of Dreams" as a metropolis of nightmares. The French laid siege to it with shelling so fierce that at one point the composer took refuge in his brother's house and covered his head with pillows to escape the din. "[L]ife around me", he wrote, "is wild and disturbing, nothing but drums, cannons, soldiers, misery of every sort." The royal family—including Beethoven's friend and patron Archduke Rudolf—fled, along with many of the notable families with whom the composer had become close.

Left alone and, once the French occupation began, in difficult financial circumstances due to rapid inflation, Beethoven had little else to do but compose. The "Piano Concerto No. 5" ("Emperor") is probably the most famous work to emerge from this difficult period, although the Op. 81a piano sonata ("Les Adieux") is probably a close second.

Beethoven wrote a total of nine pieces to accompany the play, including "Die Trommel gerühret" (roughly "the drum is playing"), a particularly effective dramatic song for soprano and orchestra. These days the powerful Overture is the only one of the nine performed on a regular basis, possibly because it sums up the action of the play so neatly. Opening with stark, imposing chords by the full orchestra, it gradually moves, over the course of around nine minutes, to a triumphant finale. "The overture's conclusion", writes René Spencer Saller in her program notes, "foretells a freedom that only Beethoven—the stubborn dreamer, the Enlightenment's eternal child—could imagine. Mired in misery, he still believed in joy."

Schumann in 1850
Up next is Robert Schumann's "Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54," which was first performed in 1845 with Schumann's wife Clara (a gifted composer and pianist in her own right) as the soloist. Schumann had made several attempts at a large-scale work for piano and orchestra at various points in his life. As the early 20th-century poet and music critic Pitts Sanborn noted (in "Great Orchestral Music", Collier, 1962), Schumann "began to write a piano concerto at the age of seventeen before he was conversant with musical form... As early as 1839 there is apparently a reference to the A minor concerto in a letter sent by Schumann from Vienna to his betrothed, Clara Wieck: 'My concerto is a compromise among a symphony, a concerto and a huge sonata. I see I cannot write a concerto for the virtuosos: I must plan something else.'"

When Schumann's "something else" finally materialized it was, in fact, far removed from the sort of virtuoso showpiece that he and his fellow contributors to the "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik" disdained. The piano is not set apart from the orchestra the way it is in the concerti of many of Schumann's contemporaries. From the very beginning, in which the soloist trades phrases with the winds, the piano is an integral part of the orchestra—a role it occupies until the very end. As Clara Schumann observed in her diary, "the piano is interwoven with the orchestra in the most delicate way—one can't imagine the one without the other."

"The opening allegro", write Brockway and Weinstock in "Men of Music," "is unstintedly opulent in melody, and rises to moments of sheer rhapsody. Its cadenza, far from interrupting the mood of the whole movement, sustains it—which makes it a rarity among piano cadenzas. The intermezzo is more restrained and contemplative, and the marvelously varied rhythms of the finale mount and mingle in a paean of unrestrained joy. These elements combine to produce, in the A minor Concerto, the sovereign gesture of musical romanticism."

From the beginning, audiences and critics mostly agreed. "When the Concerto was performed in Leipzig," report Brockway and Weinstock, "the Gewandhaus patrons (then the most enlightened on the continent) were already thoroughly acquainted with Schumann's ideas, but it took this definitive expression of them to evoke the Leipzigers' unqualified enthusiasm." The reception was also very positive when Clara performed the Concerto in London shortly before Schumann's death in 1856. Even the critic J. W. Davidson, who regarded the Concerto itself as "a labored and ambitious work," had to admit that "the praiseworthy efforts of the gifted lady make her husband's curious rhapsody pass for music."

These days the A minor Concerto is part of the standard repertory. The SLSO first performed it in 1913, with Marion Bauer at the keyboard, and most recently in November of 2011. Eric Le Sage was the soloist for that one (Stèphane Denève was at the podium), turning in (as I wrote in my review) a performance of chamber music-style intimacy along with the kind of close, cooperative give and take that goes with it. This time around the soloist is the young German pianist Lars Vogt, whose wide-ranging repertoire includes not only Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, but also Rachmaninoff and even Witold Lutoslawski.

Remarkably for a concert pianist, he is also making his mark as a conductor and, in fact, will take over as Music Director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle, U.K., for their 2015-2016 season. It will be interesting to see how all that plays out on stage with guest conductor John Storgårds.

Carl Nielsen in 1910
The concerts conclude with the "Symphony No. 3, Op. 27," (the "Sinfonia espansiva") written in 1910-1911 by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. I've been a sucker for Nielsen's music ever since I first encountered his fiercely anti-war "Symphony No. 5" in Leonard Bernstein's remarkable 1963 recording. His symphonies have always been favorites of mine, along with his concerti, programmatic pieces like the remarkable "Helios Overture," and the quirky incidental music he wrote for Adam Oehlenschläger's "dramatic fairy tale" "Aladdin" in 1919.

Like G. B. Shaw, Nielsen believed in a kind of pantheistic "life force" that pervaded all of nature. It shows up in his fourth and fifth symphonies (both written in the shadow of World War I, when the "life force" no doubt appeared to be in danger of extinction) and pervades the third. Quoted in Hugh Ottaway's chapter on Nielsen in "The Symphony" (Penguin Books, 1967), Robert Simpson observes that "espansiva means the outward growth of the mind's scope and the expansion of life that comes with it."

"Here, in fact," continues Mr. Ottaway, "is the key to Nielsen's personality, and for those who like to strike directly at the root of the matter, the Espansiva makes an excellent introduction to his art. It is precisely in the generous, outward-looking aspect, and in the optimism springing from it, that Nielsen stands apart from so many of his contemporaries." "From the white-hot, orchestral hammer blows of its opening to its triumphant and open-hearted conclusion," wrote James Goodfriend in his notes for Bernstein's recording of the "Espansiva" with the Royal Danish Orchestra, "the 'Sinfonia Espansiva' proclaims itself the work of a great composer, one of the twentieth century's most irresistible symphonists at his best."

The symphony is remarkable in another way as well: the second movement includes wordless vocals for a soprano and baritone. They add an otherworldly quality to the Andante pastorale second movement. This weekend, that otherworldliness will be supplied by Kate Reimann and Jeffry Heyl, both of whom are familiar figures on the local opera and concert stage. Kate comes from a musical family, by the way; her mom Charlene is a respectable jazz singer in her own right and a frequent guest at the open mic night that I host for The Cabaret Project at the Tavern of Fine Arts.

The essentials: John Storgårds conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist Lars Vogt, soprano Kate Reimann, and bass-baritone Jeffrey Heyl on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., October 23 and 24. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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