Thursday, April 30, 2020

Symphony Notes, Part 2: Taking flight

In my previous edition of "Symphony Notes," I talked about the music that was to have been part of Didi Balle's "Maurice Ravel: A Musical Journey", originally slotted for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) program on Friday, May 1. This time around, I'm going to look at what was originally planned for the concerts on Saturday and Sunday, May 2 and 3.

Lera Auerbach
Conducted by Music Director Stéphane Denève, the program would have consisted of "Icarus" by Lera Auerbach, a contemporary (b. 1973) Russian-born composer who now lives in the USA, followed by Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (discussed briefly in my last post), and Shostakovich's overwhelming Symphony No. 10. You can hear the last two pieces on the SLSO's Spotify playlist.

At first hearing, all three works seem very dissimilar. But are they, really?

"The desire to go beyond the boundaries into the ecstatic visionary realm of soaring flight is essentially human," writes Ms. Auerbach in program notes for the Boston Symphony. "In some ways this desire to transcend the everyday-ness is what it means to be human." It's not much of a stretch to see that as the common thread that brings together these three very different works.

"The title Icarus was given to this work after it was written," Auerbach continues. "All my music is abstract, but by giving evocative titles I invite the listener to feel free to imagine, to access his own memories, associations. Icarus is what came to my mind, listening to this work at that time." It came to mind, as well, as I watched the Mark Wigglesworth and National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain perform it on YouTube in a recording made during the Young Euro Festival last year. A tragic figure from Greek mythology whose desire to fly took him just a little too close to the sun, Icarus is not hard to discern in this vividly dramatic piece, which rises to great dramatic heights, only to finally succumb and fall to earth in a great crash of percussion. The quietly elegiac section that concludes the work ends with the soft, eerie sound of a percussionist rubbing her moistened finger along the rim of a partially filled wine glass--a primitive version of Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica.

The recording by John Fiore and the Düsseldorf Symphony (also on YouTube) is more polished and includes the optional theremin for that extra touch of otherworldliness, but there's an urgency to that live performance that makes it hard to beat.

In lieu of a more detailed description of the piece, you can read Alex Burns's thorough analysis on his Classicalexburns blog or just give it a listen for yourself. One thing you'll likely note is "Icarus" sounds like two pieces--one around three minutes long and one around nine--that have been stitched together. That's because it is, as Mr. Burns points out, the final two movements of Auerbach's 2007 Symphony No. 1 ("Chimera") played back to back. In that respect, Ms. Auerbach is only one of many noted composers (including Bach and Rossini) who have repurposed their own work over the centuries. Think of it as aural recycling.

Maurice Ravel birthday party, New York City, March 8, 1928
L-R: Oscar Fried, conductor; Eva Gauthier, singer;
Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco, composer-conductor;
and composer George Gershwin
Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand is also about transcendence--not for the composer but for the pianist for whom it was written in 1929-1930. That pianist was Paul Wittgenstein (the older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), who was just at the beginning of what looked like a successful career when World War I broke out. Called up for military service, Wittgenstein was shot in the right elbow during the Battle of Galicia, a major confrontation between Austria-Hungary and Russia. He was captured by the Russians and sent to a POW camp in Siberia where the injury to his arm proved to be so severe that amputation was necessary.

For the vast majority of pianists, that would be a career-ending event, but Wittgenstein was determined to not only resume a normal life but to continue his career as a pianist. The camp had no piano, so, as Dakota White relates at the World War I Centennial web site, Wittgenstein drew the outline of a keyboard on a wooden crate and used it to practice during his confinement. After the war, he was able to use his family's wealth and social connections to commission works for the left hand from leading composers of the day, including Richard Strauss, Erich Korngold, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten--and Maurice Ravel.

Wittgenstein gave the work its premiere on January 5th, 1932, with Robert Heger conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and recorded it in 1937 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bruno Walter. You can hear that performance on YouTube as well as on Amazon Prime. The recording on the SLSO play list has Krystian Zimmerman as the soloist with Pierre Boulez conducting the London Symphony, but the Wittgenstein performance is still worth hearing, despite the dated mono sound.

There's a nocturnal feel to the concerto. It's a remarkable piece, with a dark bitonal introduction featuring the contrabassoon (how often does that get a solo?), flashy cadenzas for the soloist, and a central march/scherzo with strong jazz and American pop music echoes. It's as though the composer is inviting us to a dance in the graveyard--a celebration of renewed life in the shadow of the massive death of the "war to end all wars." Ravel served as an ambulance driver in the cataclysm, and I think the horrors he saw influenced many of his post-war works, including this one.

Shostakovich in 1945
A different set of horrors serves as the background for the Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 by Shostakovich. It was first performed by the Leningrad Symphony under Yevgeny Mravinsky in December, 1953, but its genesis began years earlier under the tyrannical reign of Stalin and his cultural spokesman Andrei Zhdanov. In 1948, Shostakovich was denounced for the sin of "formalism"--an amorphous charge that apparently translated as "Stalin didn't understand it"--and so forced to keep his most intimate musical thoughts to himself. Instead he produced film scores and safely banal works like the oratorio "Song of the Forests". It wasn't until after Stalin's death in March 1953 that Shostakovich felt it safe to commit pen to paper.

Reflecting as it does the grim reality of life under Stalin, the Symphony No. 10 isn't easy to love. An often somber and deeply felt reflection on the grim oppression of those years, the 10th is, even by Shostakovich standards, a work of extremes. Moments of crystalline delicacy alternate with vast outpourings of orchestral sound. Deceptively simple-sounding melodic material is spun out in increasingly complex ways throughout the work--a technique known as "metamorphosis" or "thematic transformation," defined by Grove Music Online as "the process of modifying a theme so that in a new context it is different but yet manifestly made of the same elements."

You can hear that most prominently in the long Moderato first movement in which the seminal theme is played softly in the low strings. Over the ensuing 25 minutes or so it rises to a series of progressively more intense climaxes "succeeding one another," as Richard Freed writes in his notes for the SLSO's 1987 recording, "with a Sophoclean sense of inevitability." At times the volume level achieve rock concert intensity--something to bear in mind if you live in an apartment or listen with headphone.

The short Allegro second movement, with its relentless manic energy, was described by the composer as "a musical portrait of Stalin," according to Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov's 1979 "Testimony" (the book's credibility has been questioned, but that quote sounds plausible). The Allegretto third movement is a dance of death, ending with a plaintive statement of the main theme on solo violin.

The Andante; Allegro final movement begins softly, much as the first movement did, but about a third of the way through the mood changes abruptly with a perky theme in the woodwinds. The clouds begin to lift, the sun slowly appears, and the work ends in a glow of hopeful triumph.

The symphony is, in short, a portrait of life in the dark shadow of a frenzied autocrat, ending with a hope for better times after the shadow has passed.

It's a shame we won't get to hear Maestro Denève's take on this piece. The last time the SLSO played it, under David Robertson, the results were stunning. Still, the SLSO has picked a fine performance by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for you on Spotify, and there's a YouTube video with a synchronized display of the score performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under Kirill Kondrashin if you want to dig deeper into the music. You can't go wrong either way.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Symphony Notes, Part 1: The play's the thing

I'm writing this week's edition of "Symphony Notes" in two parts because, first of all, there were two different St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) programs originally scheduled for May 1-3, and second, because the first of the two planned concerts was unusual, if not unique.

Maurice Ravel in 1925
That first concert, originally scheduled for Friday May 1st only, was "Maurice Ravel: A Musical Journey". The SLSO described it as "a symphonic play, in collaboration with playwright Didi Balle. The program traces the life of the French composer and pianist through his music, performed by the SLSO and featuring the Jean-Paul and Isabelle Montupet Artist-in-Residence Jean-Yves Thibaudet."

In a 2019 interview with me, SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève described the piece as "informative" with "a great sense of drama":
So it's really a very good balance. And I'm really very proud of this project because it's a multimedia project with projections, actors, and soloists. So you have a journey into themes connected with Ravel's music and it's very unique as an art form. It's not a concert and it's not a play, it's something in-between. I think it will be fun to bring that here.

The audience will hear a lot of Ravel's music. There will be an actor on stage [Scott Lowell] who actually looks quite a lot like Ravel. They can expect to learn a lot about the context and really enjoy it because it's full of emotion. It's all about the great mystery of the relationship between the work of a man and the man himself. It's always interesting to see the reality of the human being behind so many masterworks. Sometimes, since we play so many pieces from the past, we forget this link, which I think is fascinating.
Scott Lowell
Photo: Joanna DeGeneres
"Maurice Ravel: A Musical Journey" is so new that there are, as far as I can tell, no audio or video recordings of it available. What we do have is a Spotify playlist created by the SLSO that at least gives you an idea of which Ravel works would have been on the program. For the most part, it reads like a "Ravel's greatest hits" list, albeit without "Bolero."

Which some of you will possibly see as a big plus.

But seriously, folks: the list includes the second of the two suites from Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloé" ballet, a suite from his 1911 ballet "Ma mère l'Oye" ("Mother Goose"), the Piano Concerto for Left Hand (written in 1929-1930 for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right hand in the war), and the 1910 orchestral version of his 1899 solo piano piece "Pavane pour une infante défunte."

You'll often see that last one translated as "Pavane for a Dead Princess," implying something funereal, but Ravel actually described it as "an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court." Just an evocation of the past, not a dirge.

It is, in any case, a wonderful collection of stuff and worth a listen even without the play. There is also, oddly, a somewhat different playlist for this same play posted to YouTube in 2019. I'm assuming the SLSO's is a more accurate reflection of what we would have heard on the 4th.

Playwright Balle, I should note, has written several other works of what she calls "classical music theatre," including "The Spirits of St. Louis." Her web site describes this as "A Symphonic Horror for Halloween" and says it was commissioned and performed by the SLSO under Marin Alsop, although some time with Professor Google failed to turn up any mention of an actual performance.

Pour a glass or two of a French wine (from the Basque region if you can, since that's where Ravel was born) and enjoy the music. One can rarely go wrong with Ravel.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Symphony Notes: As Cole Porter wrote, 'why don't we try staying home?'

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's (SLSO) season may have been cut short by the COVID-19 crisis, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy some of the music scheduled for the next several weeks at home.

The concerts originally scheduled for this weekend (April 24-26) would have featured works that were inspired by folk and popular music from their respective composers' home countries. The program would have consisted of the "Romanian Rhapsody No. 2 by George Enescu, the Violin Concerto in D by contemporary American composer William Bolcom, and Dvořák's popular Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 94, subtitled "From the New World." That gives us music from Romania, The USA, and the USA as experienced by one of the Czech Republic's most famous composers.

George Enescu in 1930
By E. Joaillier, Paris (photographer)
Bibliothèque nationale de France,
Public Domain, Link
If you don't have recordings of all of those pieces readily at hand, fear not; the SLSO has put together a free Spotify playlist of the complete concert that will enable you to recreate the experience right at home, albeit with different performers. It's the ideal listening companion to this article.

Your home concert opens with the "Romanian Rhapsody No. 2." Composed in 1901 and first performed as a set in 1903, Enescu's two Romanian Rhapsodies are probably his best-known works outside of his native land. He was a prolific composer, though, who produced five symphonies, a number of orchestral works, one opera, and a large volume of chamber music. In Romania, in fact, he's so highly regarded that the airport of the city of Bacău was recently renamed the George Enescu International Airport. In Bucharest, there's an Enescu Museum in the Cantacuzino Palace and an annual George Enescu Music Festival presented by the Symphony Orchestra of Bucharest.

The first and second rhapsodies both draw heavily on Romanian folk tunes despite their sharply contrasting moods. The First Rhapsody is the more popular of the two with its faster tempo and lively dances and slam-bang finish. The Second Rhapsody is lyrical, emphasizing song rather than dance.

Based largely on the 19th-century ballad "Pe o stîncă neagră, într-un vechi castel" ("On a dark rock, in an old castle"), the work begins with a soft, warm declaration of the tune in the strings that gradually builds to a full-throated declaration by the orchestra. A minor-key solo on the English horn leads to a more reflective moment or two before building to another grand orchestral declaration. The dance tune, "Sîrba lui Pompieru" ("Sîrba of the Fireman") makes a brief appearance, but it's played by only a handful of strings, as though the party were taking place in another room, or just in one's memory. A brief recollection of the big dance theme from the first rhapsody follows before everything fades out with a last little flute solo marked "très long, extrêment lent" ("very long, extremely slow").

Why are the dynamic marking in French? Probably because both the First and Second Rhapsodies, drenched though they are in Romanian song and dance, were actually composed in Paris, where Enescu would eventually move after World War II and the Soviet occupation of Romania. The first performance of both works, though, took place in Bucharest with the composer at the podium.

William Bolcom
Photo: Katryn Conlin
Up next on your playlist is the Bolcom Violin Concerto. It counts, I suppose, as "new music," although considering that it was written back in 1983,"new" is only relative. It is, in any case, great fun--a thoroughly enjoyable tribute to American popular music in the first few decades of the 20th century.

The concerto was written expressly for noted virtuoso Sergiu Luca, (born in Bucharest, which gives us a tenuous link back to Enescu) who was at the time "reveling in his newly-acquired jazz technique," according to Derek Bremel the Music Director of the American Composers Orchestra:
Inspired by the playing of the great jazz violinist Joe Venuti (a contemporary of Gershwin with whom Bolcom once jammed), the work is a true hybrid, combining bluesy lyricism with pulsating rhythms and more than a hint of crunchy chromaticism and polytonal clusters. Bolcom is a master orchestrator; just listen to the way he contrasts the colors of winds and strings in the gorgeously lush and moody second movement.
William Bolcom, for those of you who unfamiliar with the name, is an impressively eclectic composer and performer whose work often bridges (and even completely obliterates) the line between "popular" and "classical" music. His operas and concert works have been performed all over the world, but he has also written cabaret songs and piano rags. With his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, he has recorded many wonderful discs of American popular songs, ranging from Vaudeville-era tunes to the songs of rock and roll pioneers Leiber and Stoller.

It's no surprise, then, that Bolcom's violin concerto is strongly colored by the sounds of ragtime and the kind of "hot jazz" that was pioneered by Venuti, whose career flourished in the 1920s and '30. You can hear that almost immediately in the syncopated, ragtime-style melody on the solo violin that opens the first movement. That shortly gives way to a shorter and more agitated theme that eventually explodes into an angry orchestral outburst. A short virtuoso cadenza for the soloist leads to a kind of drunken waltz melody that returns us, in the final measures, to that original ragtime dance.

The second movement has its anguished moments as well, beginning with a dissonant lament in the winds, but for the most part it's dominated by a tender theme that feels like it wants to turn into a romantic 1940s ballad but never quite makes the transition. Another brief cadenza leads without pause to the lively finale where, as Mr. Bremel notes, the solo line "includes many of Venuti's signature inflections--including sliding sixths and alternating left- and right-hand pizzicato (string plucking)." There are definitely toe-tapping moments here and times when you'll be tempted to hum along with the soloist--which is not something I often find myself saying about newer music.

David Halen would have been the soloist this weekend and it's a pity we won't get to hear him play the piece, but you can at least take solace in the fact that the soloist in the SLSO's Spotify playlist is none other that Sergiu Luca himself, backed up by Mr. Bremel's American Composers Orchestra under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies. And if you don't do Spotify, you can watch a video of a performance by Benjamin Schmid with the Spanish Radio and Television Orchestra, conducted by Carlos Kalmar, courtesy of classical radio station WQXR.

William Bolcom has local connection, by the way. His "Session I" and Symphony No. 4 were recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the SLSO back in 1988. The symphony was commissioned by Slatkin and the SLSO, whose performance of it on March 13th, 1987, was the world premiere.

Dvořák with his friends and family in New York
By Photographer's original name unknown -,
Public Domain, Link
The Dvořák Ninth closes our virtual visit to Powell Hall. The Czech master wrote it during a visit to America in the early 1890s, and while he never explicitly quotes any American folk material, there's still something about this music that strongly suggests America. From the flute theme in the first movement that seems to echo "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," to the second movement Largo that has (at least for me) always evoked the majestic solitude of the plains (Dvořák said he wrote it after reading Longfellow's "Hiawatha"), to the "bluesy" flatted seventh chords of the finale, Dvořák's "New World" symphony just shouts "USA"--even if it does so with a strong Czech accent.

Some critics have complained of the symphony's structural weaknesses and its episodic nature, but even they have had to confess that it's never anything less than tremendously appealing. It's one of the first "classical" works I ever encountered (in a memorable recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic), and I've never lost my affection for it.

The SLSO last performed it in 2014 in what I called a "world class" interpretation by David Robertson. The performance the SLSO has curated for you on Spotify--by the Berlin Philharmonic under Rafael Kubelik--is also a fine piece of work. Those of you with Amazon Prime can hear it for free there as well as part of a complete set of Dvořák symphonies.

The regular SLSO season is scheduled to resume in September. Until then, you can still stay in touch with them at the SLSO Stories web site where, among other things, you can see and hear SLSO musicians performing for you from their homes.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Symphony Notes: The War Prayer

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's (SLSO) season may have been cut short by the COVID-19 crisis, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy some of the music scheduled for the next several weeks at home, at least on recordings.

This coming weekend the concerts would have included two works that owe their genesis to World War II: Vaughn Williams's "Dona Nobis Pacem" from 1936 and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, Op. 100 from 1945. The concerts would have opened, though, with a newer work that seems to have little connection with the other two: Arvo Pärt's 1977 "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten" for string orchestra and chime (a.k.a. tubular bell).

Arvo Pärt
By Woesinger - Arvo Part,
CC BY-SA 2.0, Link
Composed to honor the death the previous year of the British composer, whom Pärt greatly admired for "the unusual purity of his music," the work is, like much of the contemporary Estonian composer's music, a massively complex sonic structure that still sounds very simple.

Using only the pitches of the A minor scale, the "Cantus" begins with three solo strikes of the chime, after which the strings enter softly while the chime continues to sound. The music moves slowly to an ecstatic climax on an A minor chord that abruptly stops, leaving only the fading overtones of the chime.

It's a work of mesmerizing intensity, in which time seems to both stand still and move more quickly than expected--a characteristic it shares with the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. It's simultaneously despairing and hopeful--both a dirge and a celebration.

Hear it here: Multiple recordings, both audio and video are available at YouTube including a rather good one by the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic under the baton of Kristjan Järvi, the Estonian-born son of the noted conductor Neeme Järvi. Amazon Prime subscribers can stream recordings by the Staatsorchester Stuttgart and the English Chamber Orchestra. Although they are both celebrated composers, Britten and Vaughn Williams don't have that much in common. Britten, in fact, once said that Vaughn Williams's music "repulses me." But both composers wrote powerful anti-war music.

Britten composed his powerful "War Requiem" for the consecration of the Coventry Cathedral in 1962 whereas Vaughn Williams wrote his "Dona Nobis Pacem" in 1936 on a commission from the Huddersfield Choral Society for a centenary concert. Britten was looking back on the devastation of World War II, while Vaughn Williams was writing from the perspective of someone who had served in the Army Medical Corps in World War I and was disturbed at the signs of gathering war clouds again. Neither work has been performed in St. Louis recently to the best of my knowledge, although there was a stunning performance of the "War Requiem" in 2013 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. And the composer's own 1963 world premiere recording is available for free on Amazon Prime.

Indeed, as Carol Talbeck writes in program notes for the San Francisco Choral Society, Vaughan Williams's work "anticipated by 25 years Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem,' with its dramatic settings of Latin liturgical text and poetry and its emphasis on reconciliation." So maybe that's the real link that takes us from Pärt's "Cantus" to "Dona Nobis Pacem."

Ralph Vaughan Williams
in 1922
"Dona Nobis Pacem," in any case, would have been a fine showpiece for the SLSO Chorus, with complex, overlapping vocal lines and a wide emotional range. Running just under 40 minutes, this moving cantata combines three poems by Walt Whitman with bits and pieces of the Roman Catholic Mass, a late 19th century political speech, and quotes from the Bible (the Book of Jeremiah, most prominently) into a condemnation of the last war, a warning about the next, and a prayer for peace. It's not heard that often, so I'll be going into a bit more detail about it than I would for a more well-known work.

Consisting of six movements played without pause, "Dona Nobis Pacem" opens with a solo soprano singing "Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem" ("Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace") from the final section of the Roman Catholic mass. The movement is in three-quarter time, but Britten's melodic lines break up the rhythmic pulse in ways that make that hard to hear and give the music a sense of aimless yearning. The chorus joins in, and soon the music becomes anguished before giving way to the angry, martial second movement.

Based on "Beat, beat, drums" by American poet Walt Whitman, the text is a chillingly impersonal portrayal of the way war shatters and poisons every area of human endeavor:
Beat! beat! drums! -- blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows -- through the doors -- burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
The complete text is available online but you get the idea: nobody is safe, not even the dead:
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums -- so loud you bugles blow.
The next two movements are also based on Whitman poems. "Reconciliation" is a quiet meditation on war's aftermath, featuring a baritone soloist. Unlike the previous movement, the viewpoint here is intensely personal, as the final lines make clear:
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin -- I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
A funeral march announces the "Dirge for 2 Veterans," sung by the full chorus:
The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finished Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking
Down a new-made double grave.
Given the way "Reconciliation" ends, you might assume the two veterans are the enemies in the previous movement. But you'd be wrong:
For the son is brought with the father, In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell, Two veterans, son and father, dropped together, And the double grave awaits them.
For Vaughan Williams, this was clearly a warning that the world was heading for yet another conflagration in which the sons of those who fell in the last war would fall in the next. He was, of course, quite correct. Indeed, now that we live in a Permanent Warfare State, he is still correct.

The death march continues in the fifth movement, which begins with an anti-Crimean war speech by leftist British statesman John Bright (1811-1889):
The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one as of old..... to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two side-posts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on.
The cry for peace, "Dona nobis pacem," rises again loudly and urgently in the chorus and soprano solo, but it quickly dies out as the chorus sings the dire words of Jeremiah 8:15-22:
We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!
The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan; the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones; for they are come, and have devoured the land..... and those that dwell therein.....
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved....
Is there no balm in Gilead?; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?
Finally, a shift to D-flat major and an uplifting brass chorale announces the final movement, beginning with far more hopeful words from the Book of Daniel: "O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong." This leads, in turn, to an exultant invocation from various Biblical sources of a world in which "Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

The music becomes increasingly jubilant as the higher orchestral voices become more prominent, joined by bells and cymbals in the percussion section. Even the organ joins in for some added weight. It all swells to a final, joyous hope for "Good will towards men" from full chorus and orchestra. A quieter coda follows as the chorus and solo soprano repeat the plea "dona nobis pacem" a cappella. It all ends with the final "pacem" sung by soprano alone, pianississimo, with a diminuendo sign and the word 'niente,' the musical equivalent of "fade to black."

It's a more hopeful vision than the one Vaughan Williams had offered in his Symphony No. 4 in 1931 (which got a splendid reading by the SLSO in 2018) but, sadly, it was less realistic.

Hear it here: There are, of course, many recordings on YouTube, including one by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Richard Hickox that includes a synchronized display of the score. Amazon Prime members can stream a fine complete performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Bryden Thompson. Prime also offers a recording by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and The Bach Choir with David Hill but, for reasons known only to Amazon, that version requires you to pay extra to include the "Dirge for 2 Veterans" movement.

Sergei Prokofiev
See Commons:Licensing
for more information.,
Public Domain, Link
A more upbeat vision of wartime is offered from the work that would have concluded the evening, Prokofiev's 1944 Symphony No. 5. Last heard here in September 2014 with David Robertson on the podium, it's one of the composer's more popular works.

Composed at the artists' colony of Ivanovo east of Moscow just as the war with Germany was turning in Russia's favor, the symphony was described by Prokofiev as "a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit," and while there is certainly an air of triumph, especially in the majestic opening theme, it has always seemed to me that the war was never far from the composer's mind. You can hear it in (among other places) the militant percussion of the first movement and the anguished climax of the third.

The aura of triumph is also leavened by Prokofiev's characteristic irony. The composer of the "Sarcasms" for piano always seems to have a raised eyebrow or cynical smile behind his most demonstrative music. In the 5th symphony sarcasm takes various forms, including caustic comments from the brass and percussion and the deliberate interruption of the boisterous Allegro giocoso finale by a short, dissonant passage for string quartet and trumpet.

Still, the premiere on January 13th, 1945, was a huge success. Prokofiev himself conducted the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The performance was preceded by a ceremonial barrage of cannon fire to celebrate Russia's advance into Germany, which no doubt helped set the victorious mood. "There was something very significant in this," recalled the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who was present at the performance, "something symbolic. It was as if all of us -- including Prokofiev -- had reached some kind of shared turning point."

And, in fact, they had. Russia's crossing of the Vistula River into Germany was a major turning point in the war on the Eastern Front, which had been a long and bitter business. Of course, it was also a victory for Stalin, but that's another story with a less happy outcome.

Hear it here: YouTube includes a 2013 London Proms performance by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and a 2015 live recording by the Mariinski Theatre Orchestra under the formidable Valery Gergiev. The synchronized score recording is by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra from the mid-1960s.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Virtually Yours: The St. Louis Theater Circle Awards take to the Internet

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we do a lot of things in this country, especially in the performing arts. That's certainly true of the St. Louis Theater Circle, the organization of local theatre critics, of which I am a member.

This year, for the first time since we founded the organization in 2012, we've been obliged to cancel our annual awards ceremony--which has become known as the "St. Louis theatre prom" because of how gussied up all of us get for it--and move it to where so much our activity has gone these days: the Internet.

The St. Louis Theater Circle in 2017
This year the Circle's gala event, originally scheduled for March 30, 2020 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, was turned into a Facebook-based webcast by HEC Media. Normally a full evening event with food, drink, and live entertainment, the ceremony this year was short and to the point, running just over 30 minutes. It aired "live" on Tuesday, April 7th, and can still be seen at the Facebook link above.

Awards were given in 31 categories covering comedies, dramas and musicals, as well as two categories for opera. In addition, Ken and Nancy Kranzberg received a special award for their philanthropic contributions to the arts and theater in the St. Louis area, including many developments in Grand Center.

As a volunteer staffer at KDHX, I was happy to see that. The Kranzbergs have been very good to us; we would not be in Grand Center ourselves right now without their help.

New Jewish Theatre led the way with six awards while Max and Louie Productions' performance of Indecent copped five. Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis for its production of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur got four, with the rest distributed among other local companies large and small. Altogether, a total of 21 productions and 14 companies were recognized. This year there were also nominees from two companies, Black Mirror Theatre and The Q Collective, which were represented for the first time. Each company received an award for outstanding achievement.

Here's the complete list of honorees. Personally, I was happy to see Union Avenue Opera's La Bohème get the nod; it was a fine production, one of the best I have seen.

Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy
Kelley Weber, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy
Patrick Blindauer, Love's Labors Lost, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy (tie)
Katie Kleiger, Pride and Prejudice, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Maggie Wininger, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Actor in a Comedy
Will Bonfiglio, Fully Committed, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Director of a Comedy
Kari Ely, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Production of a Comedy
Brighton Beach Memoirs, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama
Indecent, Max and Louie Productions

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama
Carly Uding, Translations, Black Mirror Theatre

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama
J. Samuel Davis, District Merchants, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Actress in a Drama
Donna Weinsting, Salt, Root and Roe, Upstream Theater

Outstanding Actor in a Drama
Gary Wayne Barker, District Merchants, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Director of a Drama
Joanne Gordon, Indecent, Max and Louie Productions

Outstanding Production of a Drama
Indecent, Max and Louie Productions

Outstanding Set Design in a Play
Margery and Peter Spack, Brighton Beach Memoirs, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Costume Design in a Play
Felia Davenport, District Merchants, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Play
Patrick Huber, Indecent, Max and Louie Productions

Outstanding Sound Design Phillip Evans, Indecent, Max and Louie Productions

Outstanding Set Design in a Musical
Mary Engelbreit and Paige Hathaway, Matilda, The Muny

Outstanding Costume Design in a Musical
Sarah Porter, La Cage aux Folles, New Line Theatre

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Musical
Sean M. Savoie, Man of La Mancha, Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Musical Director
Charles Creath, Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, The Black Rep

Outstanding Choreographer
Dexandro Montalvo, Such Sweet Thunder, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis, Nine Network of Public Media

Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical
Matilda, The Muny

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical
Taylor Louderman, Kinky Boots, The Muny

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical
Tielere Cheatem, La Cage aux Folles, New Line Theatre

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Kendra Kassebaum, Guys and Dolls, The Muny

Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Luke Steingruby, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Q Collective

Outstanding Director of a Musical
Michael Hamilton, Man of La Mancha, Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Production of a Musical
Such Sweet Thunder, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis, Nine Network of Public Media

Outstanding New Play
Nonsense and Beauty, by Scott C. Sickles, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Achievement in Opera (tie) Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Roland Wood, Rigoletto, Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Production of an Opera La Bohème, Union Avenue Opera

Special Award
Ken and Nancy Kranzberg

Members of the St. Louis Theater Circle include Steve Allen,; Mark Bretz, Ladue News; Bob Cohn, St. Louis Jewish Light; Tina Farmer, KDHX; Michelle Kenyon,; Gerry Kowarsky, Two on the Aisle (HEC Media); Chuck Lavazzi, KDHX and Stage Left; Sarah Bryan Miller, St.Louis Post-Dispatch; Judith Newmark,; Ann Lemons Pollack, stlouiseats.typepadcom; Tanya Seale,; Lynn Venhaus,; Bob Wilcox, Two on the Aisle (HEC Media); and Calvin Wilson, St.Louis Post-Dispatch. Eleanor Mullin, local actress and arts supporter, is the group's administrator.

For more information, contact stltheatercircle at or 'like' The St. Louis Theater Circle on Facebook.

[Thanks to TC Executive Board member Mark Bretz for much of the information in this article.]

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Recalled to life

Well, here it is Easter week. Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, the day Christians celebrate Jesus's entry into Jerusalem only a few days before his crucifixion. I expect that means many of you classical music fans out there might be listening to some works often associated with the season.

If so, you have plenty of options, ranging from reverential pieces like Bach's "Easter Oratorio" (BWV 249) to Haydn's "The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross" or even to Rachmaninoff's titanic "All-Night Vigil," Op. 37. Or you can go the more celebratory route with Rimski-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Festival Overture."

Patti Smith's Easter
By Source, Fair use, Link
There are numerous settings of "Stabat mater", the 13th-century hymn that describes Mary's suffering during the crucifixion, from Josquin des Prez in the mid-15th century to James MacMillan (whose music will be included in the 2020-2021 St. Louis Symphony Orchestra schedule). And, of course, Patti Smith's "Easter".

OK, just kidding about that last one, although "Because the Night" should really be on everyone's Top 10.

My top choice for the season, though, is Mahler's Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection"), the 1895 premiere of which launched the composer's career.
According to musicologist Donald Mitchell, Mahler once told Sibelius that a symphony "must be like the world. It must embrace everything." His "Resurrection" Symphony takes that "one stop beyond" to embrace not only the world but also what comes after the world has been left behind. Death, rebirth, transcendence--it's all here and delivered with that dramatic punch that characterizes Mahler's best work.

The "Resurrection" had a long gestation period. Mahler composed the grandly tragic first movement--which he titled Todtenfeier ("Funeral Rite")--in 1888, shortly after the completion of his popular Symphony No. 1. Indeed, as Richard Freed points out in program notes for the National Symphony Orchestra, the composer originally intended this movement as "a direct sequel to his First Symphony, representing the funeral of the hero celebrated as a young man in that just-completed work."

Contemporary characterture of Mahler
conducting his Symphony No. 1
In 1889, during his tenure as director of the Budapest Opera, he began work on the sweetly nostalgic second movement, with its reflection of earthy joys left behind, but didn't manage to finish it until 1893, when he had relocated to Hamburg. There, he also wrote the witty scherzo that became the symphony's third movement. Based on Mahler's earlier setting of a poem from the collection of folk poetry "Das Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Boy's Magic Horn") about St. Anthony trying to preach to fishes--who, like humans, listen politely and then and go on their merry way--it becomes a metaphor for the endless whirl of daily existence.

At the same time Mahler wrote another "Wunderhorn" song, "Urlicht" ("Primal Light") which would become the basis for the mysterious fourth movement. It represents, in Mahler's words, "the soul's striving and questioning attitude towards God and its own immortality."

The grand final movement, with its overwhelming depiction of the end of the world and the final spiritual rebirth of all things, didn't take shape until 1894 when Mahler attended the funeral of Hans von Bülow, the renowned pianist and conductor who was a major figure on the 19th-century German musical scene. At the funeral, the chorus began to intone the first words of Friedrich Gottlob Klopstock's "Resurrection Ode"):

Rise again, yes, you will rise again,
My dust, after brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He, who called you, grant you.

As Mahler wrote in an 1897 letter to Arthur Seidl "It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for--"conceiving by the Holy Ghost!" He fleshed out Klopstock's original with lyrics of his own (see below) and the symphony was finally born.

The work was the most popular of Mahler's symphonies during his lifetime and it was voted the fifth most popular symphony of all time by a worldwide poll of high-profile conductors conducted by the BBC Music Magazine in 2016.

The SLSO assembles for the Mahler 2nd in 2019
In program notes for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's performance of the "Resurrection" last September, Maestro Denève articulated the work's universal appeal quite well. "Maybe the 'Resurrection' is the most global of Mahler's symphonies," he observed. "It is beyond religion. He had lost his mother, his father, his sister. At the end of the Second Symphony, the god that offers the possibility to arise, to be immortal, is a god that does not judge. It is about love. The way we will save ourselves is love."

If that sounds rather unlike the angry, hyper-judgmental religion of some believers these days, perhaps it's because Mahler's own faith has never been entirely clear. An Austrian Jew who converted to Catholicism out of professional expediency, Mahler has always, to my ears, shown a kind of joyous pantheism in his music that transcends the crabbed limitations of dogma. You hear it most prominently in his Symphony No. 3, but also in those lines that Mahler added to Klopstock's originals in the triumphal, ecstatic finale of the "Resurrection" (translation from the SLSO program):

O believe, my heart, believe:
Nothing will be lost to you!
Yours, yes, yours is what you longed for,
Yours what you loved,
What you fought for!

O believe:
You were not born in vain!
You have not lived in vain, nor suffered!

All that has come into being must perish!
All that has perished must rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare to live!

O Pain, piercer of all things!
From you I have been wrested!
O Death, conqueror of all things!
Now you are conquered!

With wings I won for myself,
In love's ardent struggle,
I shall soar upwards
To that light which no eye has penetrated!
I shall die so as to live!

Rise again, yes, you will rise again,
My heart, in the twinkling of an eye!
What you have conquered,
Will bear you to God!

Normal Lebrecht
By Abigail Lebrecht
en:wiki, Public Domain
This God doesn't build walls. He doesn't have someone sitting at the gates of heaven to weigh souls. He's not interested in seeing anyone roast in hellfire. He's just welcoming back the part of himself that lives in everyone and everything. As Norman Lebrecht writes in "Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World" (Anchor Books, 2010), "Mahler's Resurrection Symphony is deliberately Christless...A century will pass before Pope John Paul II, hearing the symphony in the Vatican in January 2004, speaks of its quest for 'a sincere reconciliation among all believers in the one God,' erasing--as Mahler intended--the artificial divisions of doctrine."

As you may have gathered from the preceding, the "Resurrection" Symphony has long been a favorite of mine, going back to my first encounter with the classic Otto Klemperer recording from early 1960s. A kind of Mahler multivitamin, the "Resurrection" contains all the key elements of the Viennese master's work: moments of chamber-music delicacy alternating with massive orchestral outbursts, vulgar marches, lilting Ländler, a darkly comic scherzo, and passages of sublime beauty, and, of course, that overwhelming final movement. And yet, in the musical equivalent of alchemy, Mahler's sense of architecture somehow transmutes it all in to a single, unified work that brilliantly encompasses the themes of death, rebirth, and transcendence.

Done well, the work's final glorious moments of spiritual rebirth never fail to move one to tears.

If you'd like a more detailed breakdown of the work, there's quite a good one at the web site of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, whose complete Mahler symphony cycle under the baton of Maurice Abravanel was one of the first to appear on LPs back in the 1960s. For a lighter point of view, there's a droll article at Britain's commercial classical music station Classic FM that includes video snippets of great conductors going into near-orgasmic states of ecstasy conducting the work's final moments. It's irreverent but not inaccurate.

Leonard Slatkin
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
As for recordings of the "Resurrection," there are so many out there displaying such a wide interpretive range that it's difficult to make a recommendation. My own favorite is the one Leonard Slatkin recorded with our own St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (back when Thomas Peck was the chorus director) in 1983. I saw this performance live and was blown away by it. Telarc's digital recording does a remarkably good job of capturing the wide dynamic range of this performance.

Over at The Gramophone, Edward Seckerson regards Vladimir Jurowski's 2011 recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir as a "the most illuminating to have appeared on disc in a very long time." At NPR, Ted Libbey praises Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic recording for it's "apocalyptic vision." "This is the Resurrection taken to the limit, and then well beyond, he writes. " It may not be a reading to everyone's liking, but it is certainly an experience, and there's no question of the performers' commitment."

And, of course, the late Bruno Walter's 1958 recording with that same orchestra has the advantage of being the work of a man who knew Mahler personally and was his protégé. It has the disadvantage of being somewhat dated sonically.

Regardless of which recording you listen to (and I haven't even touched on the plethora of them available for free on YouTube), I can't think of a better way for the classical music lover to spend part of their stay-at-home Easter Sunday than to curl up with a decent wine and savor Mahler's apocalyptic and inspiring vision of life and death.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.