Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Symphony Preview: The beginning of the end

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"Ich bin das A und das O, der Anfang und das Ende, der Erste und der Letzte" intones the bass Voice of God in Franz Schmidt's oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln: "I am the A and the O, the beginning and the end, the first and the last."

The reference is to Creation, but it could just as easily describe the theme of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend (January 20 and 21). Because, as Eddie Silva points out in his notes, this time around it's "a program of beginnings and endings in which we find the weave of time."

Rossini in 1865
By Étienne Carjat -
The concerts begin with a beginning that is also an ending: the overture to Rossini's 1829 opera Guillaume Tell (William Tell). It was the 39th opera written by the 38-year-old composer, and also his last. Shortly after the opera's premiere, Rossini retired almost completely from composing, living (for the most part) a life of ease and indulging in his dual passions for cooking and eating ("tournedos Rossini" is but one of the many gourmet items that still bear his name). He eventually returned to composing in the final decade of his life with fourteen volumes of chamber music that he called Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age), but he never returned to the theatrical form in which he created his best-known works.

Guillaume Tell isn't often performed these days, but the overture is surely one of the most famous pieces of classical music in the Western world, and not just because its galloping finale (in the opera it's "The March of the Swiss Soldiers") became the closing theme for The Lone Ranger on radio and TV. Bits of the overture show up in cartoons, in A Clockwork Orange, in a famous Spike Jones parody, and (not coincidentally) in the final work on this weekend's program.

But before that, we have another notable beginning: the Piano Concerto in B-flat major, Op. 19, by Beethoven. It's officially his Piano Concerto No. 2 because it was the second of his five concerti to be published, but it was actually his first essay in the form, preceding the Concerto No. 1 by two years. As such, it marks the beginning of his dual careers as pianist and composer of concerti for his instrument of choice.

The Man Himself
"Both the first and second piano concerti bear Mozart's influence," writes Prof. Iulian Munteanu, "and are considered to be some of Beethoven's more 'classical' compositions." And, in fact, the influence of both composers is easy to detect, with Haydn most prominent, to my ears, in the jolly last movement. Beethoven reportedly didn't think much of this concerto, but it has proved popular with audiences nevertheless.

The soloist will be the young German pianist Till Fellner who, according to his bio in the symphony program, "plays with scrupulous musi-cianship, purity of style, and sparkling key¬board command—qualities that have earned him acclaim throughout Europe, the United States, and Japan." He has also recorded the Beethoven Second for Apex with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Sir Neville Marriner.

 After intermission comes one of the most enigmatic endings in recent musical history, the Symphony No. 15 by Shostakovich. Written while the composer was hospitalized in 1971 (he would die of lung cancer four years later), it's a mordant and cryptic work by a composer noted for his elusiveness. As Tom Service writes at The Guardian:
Every bar of the piece demands a variation on the same simple but utterly profound question: what does it all mean? What is that chirruping little tune at the start of the symphony about? Why does Shostakovich quote from Rossini's William Tell in the first movement, from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Ring cycle in its last movement? Why does the whole thing end with a coda that on the surface could be a memory of childish things, but is far more likely a musical transliteration of the hum and clatter of hospital machines, the faceless whirring and bleeping that are the grim accompaniments of disease, decline, and death in medical institutions - sounds that Shostakovich was already familiar with at this stage in his life? And why, as Shostakovich surely knew this would be his last symphony when he was writing it, does the piece scrupulously avoid any trace of the bombast and boisterousness of his earlier symphonies?

Dmitri Shostakovich
In the end, as the symphony fades out with that clicking hospital percussion and a sad little chord on glockenspiel and celesta over a string pedal point, no questions are answered and it's not clear whether the music is grinning or grimacing.

Mr. Service's article is worth reading ahead of time, as are Mr. Silva's notes, but if you really want to prepare yourself for the remarkable and often unsettling experience of this music, your best bet is to watch the video of Valery Gergiev's remarkable 2013 Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra performance at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Because if words were really adequate to describe this piece, we wouldn't need the music.

The Essentials: Andrey Boreyko conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and piano soloist Till Fellner on Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., January 20 and 21 in the overture to Rossini's William Tell, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. Visit the SLSO web site for details.

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