The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concerts this weekend (October 1 and 2) open with an example of something that I have in common with Leonard Slatkin and Stéphane Denève—unlikely as that might seem.
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
Back when I was doing a weekly radio show on KDHX, one of my favorite things was to play two or more pieces one after the other, without pause, because I thought they made a logical unit and/or because doing so allowed listeners to hear them in a different light. It didn’t matter whether they were from the same period or the same genre, or much of anything else; music was music, and I wanted my listeners to appreciate that the arbitrary barriers created by marketing departments were meant to be demolished.
Current SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève is fond of doing something similar, but on the concert stage. He finds works that go together musically and emotionally and then plays them attacca (without pause), creating something new that is more than the sum of its parts. We had a striking example of that in 2019, when he played Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” and “Serenade to Music” together. The result, as I wrote back then, was “one of the most beautiful things I've ever head at Powell Hall.”
This weekend, Denève opens his SLSO concerts with a set of three works that work rather well as a matched set, even though they span nearly a century and reflect three very different approaches to composition: the string orchestra version of Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte” (2014), Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question” (1908), and Christopher Rouse’s “Rapture” (2000). “I was curious to see what happened if we played the first three pieces together, without a break,” Denève says in the orchestra’s program notes. “I love the idea that when you listen to something it influences the way you enter into the other musical worlds.”
Photo: Kait Moreno
Last heard here in its original string quartet version as part of last year’s chamber music festival, “Entr’acte” is, among other things, a virtuoso study in just how much sonic variety a person can get out of a string section. There are some eerie harmonics, creative use of pizzicato, and at one point, something that sounds rather like an amiable conversation among a quartet of cats. On her publications web site, Shaw says "Ent'racte" "was written in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2—with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further." I'd say it takes the idea quite a bit further, and with intriguing results. You can hear the original quartet version as part of my custom Spotify playlist for this weekend’s concerts and the string orchestra version on YouTube in a 2019 performance by the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra.
From the quiet end of “Entr’acte” we move to the quiet beginning of Charles Ives's enigmatic “The Unanswered Question,” which is essentially a six-minute contemplation of the difficulty in finding The Meaning of Life in a vast and possibly empty universe. Musically, the universe is played by the strings, which calmly play cosmic chords that Ives described as "the silences of the Druids." Against this harmonic vastness, the solo trumpet intones four notes constituting (in Ives's words) the "perennial question of existence." A quartet of flutes tries (and fails) to provide an answer, finally deteriorating into chaos and silence. The trumpet asks its question one final time, but (true to the title) there's no answer.
Christopher Rouse’s “Rapture” provides that answer, according to Denève, and the answer is “love—the ecstasy of love, the light of love.”
In this, he is supported by the composer’s own description of his work:
I used the word "rapture" to convey a sense of spiritual bliss, religious or otherwise. With the exception of my Christmas work, Karolju, this is the most unabashedly tonal music I have composed. I wished to depict a progression to an ever more blinding ecstasy, but the entire work inhabits a world devoid of darkness—hence the almost complete lack of sustained dissonance.
Photo by Jeffrey Herman
If you listen to the performance by Alan Gilbert and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra on my playlist, I think you’ll have to agree that his description could not be more accurate. Indeed, in the wild euphoria of its final moments, the work reminds me of nothing so much as a more concise and less lubricious version of a work with a similar title: the “Poem of Ecstasy” by Alexander Scriabin. They both cover very similar emotional ground, although Scriabin, a notorious womanizer, was more explicit about the kind of “ecstasy” he had in mind. Rouse’s rapture is more all-encompassing, in my view.
“One of my little quotes I use once in a while,” said Rouse in a 2018 interview, “is ‘man does not live by dread alone.’ So I don't want to write music that is always dark and probing…sometimes it's just nice to—I won't say "take a holiday" because there's never a point at which composing is a holiday—but I hope that the music sounds as though we're on holiday a bit.” In “Rapture,” it’s a holiday that includes one heck of a party.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, closes the concerts this weekend. Fiercely difficult, it's a reminder of what a prodigious pianist Rachmaninoff was. For many years after its premiere, its only real advocate was the composer himself. Even the virtuoso to whom the piece is dedicated, Josef Hofmann, never attempted to perform it in public. It wasn't until the great Vladimir Horowitz recorded it in 1930 and began to actively promote it that it started to rise in popularity. These days it's so much a part of the standard repertoire that two of the finalists in the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition picked it for their final-round concerts.
Still, it's not the sort of thing a pianist takes on lightly. Fortunately the soloist this weekend is the justifiably celebrated Russian-born Yefim Bronfman, whose prodigious technique should be more than up to the task, as he has demonstrated in multiple past appearances with the SLSO.
An interesting local note: when the concerto had its St. Louis premiere on January 27, 1928, the soloist was Horowitz (the "young Russian pianist," to quote Post-Dispatch critic Thomas B. Sherman). The pianist had arrived in the USA just two weeks previously and had already created a sensation with the New York Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham. Mr. Sherman loved Horowitz ("a powerful tone and a sparkling and expertly controlled technique") but hated the concerto, calling it "as dull a thing as the noted Muscovite expatriate has ever done". History has rather overruled him on that one.
The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and piano soloist Yefim Bronfman in Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte,” Ives’s “The Unanswered Question,” Christopher Rouse’s “Rapture,” and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, October 1 and 2. There will also be a special “Crafted” series performance of Denève's rousing Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 Friday at 6:30 pm that includes “happy hour” drink specials at the SLSO bars.
P.S.: The titles of these preview articles are sometimes obscure reference to bits of cultural effluvia that my brain has accumulated over the decades. From now on I will footnote them if I think that’s advisable. The title of this article refers to the pop song “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me),” written in 1939 by Nelson Cogane, Sammy Mysels, and Dick Robertson. It was a #3 Billboard hit for both The Ink Spots and Frank Sinatra in 1940.