Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Symphony Preview, February 27 and 28, 2016: Incident report

The phrase "incidental music" seems to imply something of secondary importance. But in reality, music written to accompany a non-musical play is often essential and not infrequently outlives the play for which it was written. Productions of Ibsen's "Peer Gynt," for example, are vanishingly rare, but Grieg's incidental music has become justly famous.

Gabriel Fauré in 1895
Which brings us to the first set of pieces on the St. Louis Symphony's all-Shakespeare program this weekend. The second of four regular season concerts dedicated to the work of the Bard of Avon, this one opens with the SLSO premiere of music written by Gabriel Fauré 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 and quickly dropped from sight. Fauré's music has fared little better.

And that's a shame, because there is some very appealing stuff here. The "Entr'acte" that accompanies the entrance of Portia's suitors, for example, has real nobility, as does the "Epithalame" wedding night music, although in the latter piece it’s the kind of gracious nobility that you hear in (for example) the middle section of Holst's "Jupiter" movement from "The Planets." The soaring violin line in the "Nocturne" that accompanies a moonlit love scene in Portia's garden is, in the words of Jean-Michel Nectoux (in "Gabriel Fauré: A Musical Life"), "one of Fauré's most moving inspirations." And the concluding "Final" (marked "allegretto vivo") brings everything to a cheerful conclusion with a reunion of all the lovers—which tells you how far Haraucourt had deviated from Shakespeare.

Fauré's music may have languished in obscurity at least in part because of the poor performances it got at the Odéon. "Shylock," writes Mr. Nectoux, "received its first performance at the Odéon on 17 December 1889 and was played fifty-six times altogether. The critics praised the beauty of the décor, directly inspired by the palaces of Venice, but for the most part passed over Fauré's music in silence. He conducted the orchestra himself, but had his forebodings: 'For the first three performances,’ he wrote to Elisabeth Greffulhe, 'I'll have a reasonable little theatre orchestra. But from the fourth night onwards the Odéon's economic cutbacks begin to take effect: several of the good players are being dropped and instead they're hiring all the useless, feeble, and superannuated hacks they can scrape together from the Luxembourg quarter. I can see there's a bumpy ride ahead!'"

I think we can safely say that there will be no such issues this weekend.

Taking up the rest of the concert will be the complete incidental music Mendelssohn composed for Shakespeare's comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream." In this case, both the play and some of the music written for it have retained their popularity over the centuries, with Mendelssohn's "Overture," "Scherzo," "Nocturne," and (of course!) the "Wedding March" firmly ensconced in classical music's roster of Greatest Hits.

Portrait of Mendelssohn by
James Warren Childe
(1778–1862), 1839
"One of the major miracles of Mendelssohn's life," wrote British broadcaster and music critic John Amis for the English Decca recording of the complete "Dream" music in 1969 (issued here in the states on the London lablel), "was his composition at the age of seventeen of the Overture...one of the minor miracles of his life was that he was able to pick up the threads sixteen years later to write the rest of the incidental music... The Overture, opus 21, was composed in 1826 out of sheer enthusiasm, with no particular performance in mind; the Incidental music, opus 61, was commissioned by King Frederick William IV for a production of the play at Potsdam in 1843."

It helps that, at 17, Mendelssohn was already such an accomplished composer that there’s little audible difference between the Overture and the rest of the music.

When hearing a work as familiar as the "Overture," it’s easy to become complacent and lose track of what a very well-crafted piece of music it is. As Paul Schiavo reminds us in his program notes, the "Overture" presents us with a nearly perfect distillation of the major elements of Shakespeare’s play. Within less than twelve minutes Puck and company scamper through the twilight, the four mismatched lovers swoon, the Duke rides to the hunt, Peter Quince and the Mechanicals dance, and the magically altered Bottom brays. The "Scherzo" and "Nocturne" are also vividly evocative of, respectively, the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Act II (which introduces Puck and the other fairies) and the enchanted sleep of the lovers in Act IV.

Hearing all fourteen of the pieces Mendelssohn wrote for the play, though, gives you a real appreciation of just how closely the music and text are integrated. If you're familiar with the script, you can easily visualize the scenes as you hear the score. And even if you're not, Mr. Schiavo has provided a detailed description of how it all fits together. Or you can read the whole thing on line.

One of my favorite bits is the setting for two sopranos and four-part women's chorus of the song "You spotted snakes," which the fairies sing to lull the queen Titania to sleep in Act II, scene 2:
You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.
Philomel, with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm,
Nor spell nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So, good night, with lullaby.
Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
Philomel, with melody, & c.
The theme for "Philomel with melody..." is, as Mr. Amis noted, "surely one of the most captivating tunes ever written." Captivating tunes abound here, in fact. If you've never heard the complete score, I think you'll find this a happy journey of discovery.

The Essentials: Hans Graf conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus along with soloists Laurel Dantas, soprano; Debby Lennon, mezzo-soprano; DeWayne Trainer, tenor; and actress Maureen Thomas Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. February 27 and 28. The program is part of the Symphony's four-week Shakespeare Festival. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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