Monday, February 29, 2016

Concert Review: Dreamy Shakespearean music with Hans Graf and the St. Louis Symphony February 27 and 28, 2016

Hans Graf
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We call it a soundtrack now, but back before movies and recorded sound the music that accompanied a dramatic presentation was performed by live musicians and was known as "incidental music." This weekend, as part of its ongoing Shakespeare Festival, the St. Louis Symphony and guest conductor Hans Graf gave us sterling performances of a couple of excellent examples from the mid-nineteenth century.

[Find out more about the music with my Symphony Preview.]

The concerts opened with a brief (six-movement) suite from the score Gabriel Fauré wrote in 1889 for an Odéon Theatre production of "Shylock," a verse adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" by the playwright and poet Edmond Haraucourt. The play, which (its title notwithstanding) emphasized the romantic subplot over Shylock's tragedy, quickly dropped from sight. Fauré's music has fared little better and, in fact, this weekend marked its first appearance on the Powell Hall stage.

DeWayne Trainer
It's engaging music, though, painted with the sonic equivalent of pastels and shot through with some lovely instrumental details. Concertmaster David Halen, for example, had elegant solos in the second movement "Entr'acte" and the fifth movement "Nocturne," which accompanies a moonlit love scene in Portia's garden. The winds and brasses also acquitted themselves well in the "Entr'acte" with the noble music that accompanies the entrance of Portia's suitors, and harpists Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout helped set the dreamy atmosphere in the opening "Chanson".

That "Chanson" was the first of two languorous love songs Fauré wrote for the play, and tenor DeWayne Trainer delivered them with great feeling, along with a real sense of what program annotator Paul Schiavo calls Fauré's "quiet rapture." Mr. Graf conducted with a sure hand, bringing out all the delicate shades of this shimmering score.

Maureen Thomas
The main event this weekend, though, was the complete incidental music that Mendelssohn wrote for an 1843 production of Shakespeare's comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The "Overture," "Scherzo," "Nocturne," and (especially) the "Wedding March" are well known, of course, but the rest of the hour or so of music Mendelssohn wrote is rarely heard, probably because it's so closely integrated with the text. Out of that context, some of the brief music cues can sound like disconnected snippets.

Maestro Graf's solution to that problem was to collaborate with playwright John Murrell and Canadian actress Maureen Thomas to create a kind of mini-version of the play in which Ms. Thomas plays all ten of the principal roles, skillfully switching between characters with small but clearly delineated changes in voice, body language, and even accent. Ms. Thomas appeared with the symphony this weekend, turning in a bravura performance that made for a very entertaining evening. The use of special blue lighting and a darkened stage for the "fairy land" sequences were also very effective.

Debby Lennon
Mendelssohn included music for two of the songs in Shakespeare's text: "You spotted snakes," which the fairies sing as a lullaby for their queen Titania in Act II, and "Through the house give gathering light," based on short speeches by Titania and Oberon in the final act. They're irresistibly melodic and were impeccably sung by the women of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and soloists Laurel Dantas and Debby Lennon. Although both women are sopranos, Ms. Lennon's voice has a rich lower register, which made for a nice contrast with Ms. Dantas's lighter sound. The singers all skipped on and off the stage for their scenes just like the fairies they portrayed, producing some nice chuckles from the audience.

Mr. Graf found lots of interesting moments and elegantly shaped phrases in this music, especially in the coda of the "Overture," and his "Scherzo" was noticeably fleet-footed. He took it at a tempo that might have been risky with a less capable orchestra, but there were no such concerns here. This was, overall, a very coherent and dramatically effective reading.

Laurel Dantas
Mendelssohn's transparent orchestration gives individual members of the band many opportunities to take the spotlight. A couple that stood out for me were provided by Roger Kaza's horns in the "Nocturne" and the duo of Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews and Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo in the droll "Funeral March" that accompanies Bottom's absurdly overacted play-within-a-play death scene.

The St. Louis Symphony's Shakespeare-themed concerts continue next weekend as Gilbert Varga conducts the orchestra in selections from Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet" and Tchaikovsky's rarely heard "Hamlet" overture. The program includes Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 2 with Denis Kozhukhin as the soloist. Performances are Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., March 5 and 6; visit the SLSO web site for details.

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