Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Symphony Preview, January 22, 2016: Love is in the air

"The Bartered Bride as performed at Zoppsot" by Unknown
Taken from: Rous, Samuel Holland (1919).
"Bartered Bride Prodana Nevesta". Retrieved 2009-06-17.
Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia
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It's another two-for-one sale at Powell Hall this Friday and Saturday as David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony present "Music You Know: Romantic Favorites" on Friday night, and major works by John Adams and Mahler Friday morning and Saturday night. I'll talk about the second program in another article.

The Friday night favorites concert opens with the lively and colorful overture to Smetana's 1865 comic opera "The Bartered Bride." It was his biggest stage hit in his native Bohemia but hasn't gotten much traction elsewhere. Operabase.com places it number 3 in its list of most-performed operas in the Czech Republic, but it doesn't even make their top fifty world-wide. The overture is another story, often showing up on concert programs and in recordings, often in conjunction with the popular "Dance of the Comedians". You can even hear the latter in the 1994 Road Runner cartoon "Chariots of Fur."

Next is a suite from the incidental music Gabriel Fauré wrote for a 1900 production of Maeterlinck’s elusive and once-popular drama "Pelléas and Mélisande". The story of doomed and forbidden love inspired multiple composers, including Debussy, who fashioned a weirdly compelling opera from it. Fauré's suite nicely captures the oddly ethereal and unsettled nature of the play.

Bob Becker
Bringing us up to intermission is the 1987 "Girlfriends Medley" for xylophone and strings by Bob Becker, a member of the innovative percussion ensemble Nexus (a ragtime LP by whom I still treasure). "As a composer," says Wikipedia, "Becker employs a multicultural approach by mixing the style of western military drumming with North Indian Hindustani idioms, such as raga scale patterns and tabla drumming." You won't hear any of that in this charming short piece, though, which rings changes on some ragtime and Great American Songbook standards.

The second half kicks off with the familiar "Wedding March" from the incidental music Mendelssohn wrote for a production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1843. The orchestra will be performing all of Mendelssohn's score later this season (an uncommon occurrence on concert stages), with actress Maureen Thomas reading bits of the play, so think of this as a preview.

The next piece is a preview of sorts as well; it's the "Adagietto" for harp and strings from the work that takes up most of the other concert program this weekend, Mahler's "Symphony No. 5." There's no evidence that Mahler ever intended this haunting, sweetly sad little gem to be played independently (although that was already being done as early as 1909, four years after the symphony was first published), but it has proved so popular that conductors and audiences alike seem to find it irresistible all on its own.

Three-Cornered Hat at the Alhambra Theatre,
Cape Town, in 1966
Things come to a vibrant finish with the second of two suites from Manuel de Falla's ballet "El sombrero de tres picos" ("The Three-Cornered Hat"), which had its premiere in 1919 in London with choreography by Léonide Massine and sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso. The suite concludes with the ballet's final "jota," in which the opera's comic villain gets tossed up and down on a blanket by frolicking party guests to the hilarity of all. Try it at your next party, but don't say I gave you the idea.

The essentials: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson presents "Music You Know: Romantic Favorites" Friday at 8 p.m., January 22. The performance takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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