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|
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|
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.
Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
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.