Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Preview: Music of renewal and decay at the St. Louis Symphony

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This weekend (January 27-29, 2017) brings us the last of the regular St. Louis Symphony season concerts before the orchestra departs for its tour of Spain next month (the subscription season resumes at the end of February). The orchestra is saying "¡Hasta luego!" with concerts featuring a couple of familiar favorites and one piece that's getting its American premiere.

Aaron Copland, 1962
The concerts open with one of the favorites, the 1945 suite from Aaron Copland's 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring. Dating from a time in Copland's career when he was trying to write in a more popular and accessible style, the score for Appalachian Spring is direct and uncomplicated in its appeal. Which is only fitting, since the ballet scenario devised by legendary choreographer Martha Graham is equally straightforward, telling the simple story of a young couple in rural Pennsylvania starting their life together and building their home with the help of their neighbors and the local preacher.

Although the ballet was originally scored for a small ensemble of 13 players, it's Copland's later suite for full orchestra that has become the most familiar. It was last heard here in a 2010 performance that was accompanied by projected images from a children's book: Jan Greenberg's Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring.

Ballet for Martha was, in fact, the original working title for Appalachian Spring. The ballet didn't get its official title until shortly before the premiere, when Ms. Graham suggested Appalachian Spring based on lines from the Hart Crane poem "The Dance":
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge; Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends And northward reaches in that violet wedge Of Adirondacks!

So the "spring" is more a reference to the aquatic feature than to the season, although since the poem overall is about the coming of spring it would probably be fair to say that it's a reference to both.

The classic Beethoven
The other selection from the classical "top of the pops" is Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 92, last heard here in an exhilarating performance by last weekend's guest conductor, Andrey Boreyko, in 2014. First performed at a December 8, 1813, charity concert to benefit widows and orphans of soldiers killed in the Battle of Hanau-which marked the beginning of the end of Napoleon's dreams of empire-the work was greeted with wild acclaim by audiences and critics alike. The second movement Allegretto, in particular, "enchanted connoisseur and layman," according to a contemporary review in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. Welsh musicologist David Wyn Morris has called the symphony "the continuous cumulative celebration of joy."

Perhaps the most famous and most enthusiastic review, though, came from Richard Wagner. It's so effusive it's worth quoting at length:
All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone.

They just don't write pull quotes like that anymore.

The big news this weekend, though, is the first American performance of Fisher King for Trumpet and Orchestra, written in 2011 by Norwegian composer and trumpet player Rolf Wallin. The title refers to the Arthurian legend of a wounded monarch, the last in a long line of kings charged with keeping the Holy Grail, whose injuries make it impossible for him to move on his own power. In despair, he spends all his time fishing while his kingdom falls in to ruin, and only magic worked by a true king can cure him.

Rolf Wallin
Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
In the first known version of the story-Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval, the Story of the Grail from the late 12th century-the cure is worked by the knight Perceval, who would later become the model for Wagner's Parsifal. Mr. Wallin doesn't specify which version of the story he was thinking of, but in a program note on his publisher's web site he's very frank about the source of his concerto's inspiration:
In many ways, since we're dealing with the love/hate instrument of my childhood and youth, this trumpet concerto was bound to be become almost autobiographical. It is about visiting some dark places. Low places. The place inhabited by the mythical wounded Fisher King, his country degenerating into a Wasteland, a place we all have been at least once in our life. But it is even more about the hope of transforming that Wasteland into brightness and abundant, flowing energy.

Fisher King is laid out as one continuous movement running a little under a half hour, but it's divided up into three sections that roughly correspond to the traditional fast-slow-fast pattern of the classical concerto. You can read an excellent detailed description of the work in Paul Schiavo's SLSO program notes, but I'd also recommend listening to the recording this weekend's soloist, Håkan Hardenberger, made for Naxos with the Bergen Philharmonic under John Storgårds. The label has thoughtfully made it available on YouTube.

. There's an underlying sense of anxiety in this piece, with lots of thorny passages for both the soloist and the orchestra. There are moments of real beauty in the slower central section and passages of great drama elsewhere, capped with a rather abrupt ending. In the end, I found that I rather liked this somewhat enigmatic music; your mileage may vary.

The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and trumpet soloist Håkan Hardenberger on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., January 27-29. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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