Sunday, November 28, 2021

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of November 29, 2021

Now including both on-line and live events during the pandemic. Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills. To get your event listed here, send an email to calendar [at] stageleft.org.

The Alpha Players present The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Thursday and Friday, December 2 and 3. Performances take place in the James J. Eagen Center in Florissant. For more information: alphaplayers.org/season.html.

Christine Brewer
The Blue Strawberry presents Christine Brewer: From Grand Tower to Grand Opera Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, December 3 and 4. “Before Christine Brewer won a Grammy, before she was named one of the top 20 sopranos of all time (BBC Music), and before she played leading roles in the great opera houses of the world, she was singing gospel and folk with her friends and family in Grand Tower, Illinois, a small town about two hours south of St. Louis. In this show, Christine weaves the music of her childhood and college years with the music that she discovered in the chorus of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, with the repertoire she sang to win the Metropolitan Opera auditions, with an aria from her debut at New York City Opera in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and ultimately with many of her roles for the leading opera companies of the world. And in her cabaret debut, she tells the story of it all. Craig Terry, Pianist and Music Director."    The Blue Strawberry is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with mandatory vaccination and masking. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

ERA Theatre presents the radio play SHE by Nancy Bell with music by Joe Taylor and Lyrics by Nancy Bell via on-demand streaming  "SHE controls the radio station of the fascist regime in power. SHE's also the star of the broadcast. Her recording studio abounds with music and oysters. But in the nearby government camps full of misfits and would-be revolutionaries, only torture and starvation is thick on the ground. Tonight, however, SHE's realm feels different. The bombs sound closer. Time moves faster. But SHE will finish her radio show, and it will be her finest. If executing every number in the broadcast means some people need to die, so be it; it is a small sacrifice. The citizens need her and she will not let them down." SHE is available for digital purchase via bandcamp at eratheatre.bandcamp.com. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

First Run Theatre presents the one-act plays Fleshtones by J.E. Robinson and Playing for Real by Ron Asher Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2 pm, December 3-5. Performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: firstruntheatre.org.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present The Christmas Killer through January 8. "Join classic Christmas characters like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf, Grandma and Santa’s Elves for the annual Misfit Toys Banquet event hosted by Chatty Cathy herself.  It’s going to be a great party so long as the wrong element doesn’t show up.  We’re talking about that slimy, no good, rotten, Ricky Stitch of course.  Why, I wouldn’t touch him with a 39 ½ foot pole!  Gee, sure hope he doesn’t try to ruin Christmas…again.  If he does, I’m sure someone will show him who makes the candy canes around here! But how will we figure out whodunnit…was it you?" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Songs for Nobodies
Photo by John Lamb
Max and Louie Productions presents Songs for Nobodies, starring Debbie Lennon, December 2-12.  "This one-woman powerhouse performance, starring Debby Lennon, weaves the music of legendary divas Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, and Maria Callas throughout a mosaic of stories told by the everyday women who had unexpected life-changing encounters with these musical icons."  Performances take place at the Kranzberg Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center.  For more information: maxandlouie.com

The Midnight Company presents Tinsel Town: Three Short Plays 24 Hours in L.A. by Joe Hanrahan Thursdays through Saturdays, December 2-18. There will also be matinees at 2 pm on December 2 and 12. “In Tinsel Town, Ellie Schwetye and Joe Hanrahan each play characters in the three short plays set in the Los Angeles entertainment scene.” Performances take place at the .ZACK, 3224 Locust in Grand Center. For more information: https://www.midnightcompany.com.

Moonstone Theatre Company presents Moonstone Connections, a series of in-depth interviews with arts leaders by company founder Sharon Hunter. The latest episode features John O’Brien, who currently serves as Director of Programming for The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, where he is responsible for programming the U.S. Bank Broadway Series.  New episodes air the third Tuesday of each month; see linktr.ee/moonstoneconnections for more information.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents A Christmas Carol December 4-23. “The Rep is proud to launch a new holiday tradition with our first-ever annual production of A Christmas Carol! At long last, the ghosts of Ebenezer Scrooge’s past, present and future have caught up with him. Now London’s most infamous miser must take a transformative journey as he faces the worst parts of himself and discovers unexpected redemption. Michael Wilson’s wondrous adaptation has delighted more than 1 million audience members throughout the country.” Performances take place on the Emerson Main Stage at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: www.repstl.org.

R-S Theatrics presents While the Ghostlight Burns, a virtual discussion series featuring R-S Artistic Director Sarah Lynne Holt in conversation with St. Louis theatre artists, Mondays at 7 pm.  Conversations will be archived at the R-S Theatrics YouTube channel. For more information: r-stheatrics.com/while-the-ghostlight-burns.html

Comfort
Photo by Patrick Tube
The St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents Neil LaBute’s Comfort Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, December 3-19. “A new play by the STLAS  friend and associate Neil LaBute in which mother and son meet after some time apart to see if their relationship can survive the past and two new book deals.” Performances take place at The Gaslight Theater on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.stlas.org

Stray Dog Theatre presents Who’s Holiday Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm as well as Sunday, December 12, at 2 pm, December 2-18. “Who's Holiday is a wildly funny and heartfelt adults-only comedy that explores the twisted tales after that fateful night when a certain Grinch tried to steal Christmas.” Performances take place at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information: straydogtheatre.org.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Symphony Preview: Sailing to Byzantium

If you’re looking for things to be thankful for this week, how about our own St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO)? This Saturday and Sunday (November 26 and 27) while many of us are still working on that leftover turkey, they’re presenting a pair of concerts under the baton of previous Resident Conductor Gemma New (), who has gone on to a lead some big-name bands since her time here.

[Preview the music with my commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

We can also be thankful for the life and work of the late St. LouisPost-Dispatch music critic Sarah Bryan Miller, to whose memory these concerts are dedicated. A former professional mezzo-soprano and life-long singer, Bryan (as she preferred to be called) died almost exactly one year ago (November 28, 2020) after a long and valiant battle with cancer. Bryan and I were both members of the Music Critics Association of North America and the St. Louis Theater Circle and I greatly admired both her dedication to the local music scene and her critical insights. She will be greatly missed.

Sarah Bryan Miller

Following her death, the SLSO established the Sarah Bryan Miller Fund to support vocal soloists and performances of choral repertoire with the SLSO. This weekend’s concerts, which feature two works for solo mezzo-soprano, represent the first use of that fund.

The program opens with music inspired by the work of a woman fighting her own battle against cancer. Originally performed in 2015, Jake Heggie’s “The Work at Hand” is a setting for mezzo-soprano and cello (with either piano or orchestral accompaniment) of a poem of the same name by late Laura Morefield (1961-2011) whose mother, as Caitlin Custer writes in her program notes, was a close friend of the composer. Here’s how Heggie describes the composition for Bohdi Tree Concerts:

The Work at Hand is one of Laura’s post-diagnosis poems. It is about the difficult and deeply human experience of knowing it is time to say goodbye and let go: resenting, fighting, struggling, and then finding peace in acceptance. The language and imagery she chose is particularly striking: origami, the yoga Warrior 1 position, and a shimmering reconnection to nature.

Each of the three movements of “The Work at Hand” is based on a stanza from the poem. “Part One: Original Origami” opens and closes with an angry, tormented cello solo that contrasts sharply with the lyrical vocal line as the narrator imagines her “long goodbye” as a work of origami, “folding advice until it reveals hope, creasing resilience side by side with laughter”. In “Part Two: Warrior One,” an aggressive march reflects the poet’s vision of defiance (“A warrior keeps her back leg strong, connected to the earth…as her front leg leans into the territory of the enemy”) before dissolving into a kind of resignation with the words “as far as, as long as, her breath will take her.” A sense of resignation mixes with quiet acceptance in “Part Three: The Slow Seconds” as the soloist sings of the poet’s desire “to unfold a small quilt of sunlight onto the cool green and sit very still, to let the light of heaven flow over me like honey until my bones are on fire with the beauty of it all.”

It’s a beautiful image and only one of many in Morefield’s moving poem. You can read the whole thing in the program booklet for Heggie’s CD “Unexpected Shadows.” The performance of “The Work at Hand” in my Spotify playlist is from that album. It’s the original version with piano accompaniment. This weekend we’ll be hearing the orchestral version with mezzo Sasha Cooke and SLSO cellist Elizabeth Chung.

The concerts continue with Elgar’s Op. 37 song cycle “Sea Pictures.” Composed in 1844 for soprano solo and piano, the work was revised for mezzo-soprano and orchestra in 1898, largely to take advantage of the vocal prowess of Dame Clara Ellen Butt, and it’s that later version that’s on the bill this weekend. With Elgar at the podium, Butt sang at the premiere in Norwich dressed (according to Michael Kennedy’s 1968 “Portrait of Elgar”) as a mermaid.

“I’m not making this up, you know!” – Anna Russell

Dame Clara Butt

That sounds like the kind of thing for which the late Florence Foster Jenkins was (in)famous, but Clara Butt was a serious and powerful singer (“On a clear day you could have heard her across the English Channel!” – Thomas Beecham) and according to Kennedy, Elgar was very pleased with her performance.

Still, this seems a bit odd for a work which, while hardly solemn, is certainly far from frivolous.  The last three of its five movements even bring mortality back into the picture. Elgar sets poems by five different writers, including his wife Alice, that cover a wide variety of moods and imagery.

“Sea Slumber Song,” the first movement, is an occasionally uneasy lullaby set to a text by Roden Noel in which a mother sings “Hush thee, oh my child, / Forget the voices wild!... Foam glimmers faintly white / Upon the shelly sand / Of this elfin land.” The real-world inspiration for the poem, Kynance Cove in Cornwall, is evoked by gently rocking music in the lower strings. “In Haven (Capri)”, with a text by Alice Elgar, is a sweetly nostalgic evocation of the triumph of love as “storms are sweeping sea and land.” Plucked strings and a swaying rhythm are used to suggest the picturesque Italian island.

In the third movement, “Sabbath Morning at Sea” mortality begins to make its presence known. With a text by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the music builds gradually from a sense of mourning to a formidable religious fervor as the narrator, who is presumably saying farewell to life, rejoices that God “shall assist me to look higher, / Where keep the saints, with harp and song, / An endless sabbath morning.” The orchestra reflects the mood with a sweeping climax followed by calm final chords.

Death, in fact, is never far away from the last three songs. The music of “Where Corals Lie” sounds sweetly graceful, with the harp and strings accompanying a woodwind melody. But it’s deceptive; Richard Garnett’s text suggests that the narrator sees the “rolling worlds of wave and shell” not as a place to visit, but (as the final stanza implies) a place to stay: “Yet leave me, leave me, let me go / And see the land where corals lie.” And in “The Swimmer,” the most dramatic of the five movements, poet Adam Lindsay Gordon’s protagonist reflects on lost love as he strives against “seas that climb and the surfs that comb” along “a grim, grey coast and a seaboard ghastly, / And shores trod seldom by feet of men.” Elgar’s music is nearly cinematic in its vivid depiction of the storm and the swimmer’s battle with it.

The final moments are triumphant, but is it the triumph of this world or the next? The poet leaves it somewhat ambiguous because that’s what poets do. You can decide for yourself when you hear Cooke perform the work this weekend. Meanwhile, there’s a fine version by Alice Coote, Sir Mark Elder, and the Hallé Orchestra in my playlist and complete texts of the poems at the Oxford Lieder site.

Little needs to be said about this weekend’s finale. It’s Rimski-Korsakov’s popular "Scheherazade," Op. 35.

Scheherazade by Anna Rettberg
annarettberg.blogspot.com

Written in the summer of 1888, "Scheherazade" is one of those works that needs little in the way of introduction or explanation.  The four colorful movements vividly evoke the scenes from the "One Thousand and One Nights" that served as the work's inspiration. The composer himself sets the scene in a brief introduction, written for the first performance in St. Petersburg, with Rimsky-Korsakov conducting:

The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim, for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.

Talk about your toxic masculinity.

Aside from the dazzling violin part, which represents the voice of Scheherazade herself, the piece is filled with brilliant orchestral writing, including some nice solo bits for the first-chair players. That's no surprise since Rimsky-Korsakov quite literally wrote the book on instrumentation. His "Principles of Orchestration" was begun in 1873, completed posthumously by Maximilian Steinberg in 1912, and finally published 1922. It's still available today, in both print and digital editions, from Dover Books.

The role of Scheherazade will be played, as it was the last time the SLSO performed the piece in 2018tru, by our own “trusty and well-beloved” Concertmaster David Halen.

The Essentials: Gemma New conducts the SLSO along with soloists Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Elizabeth Chung (cello), and David Halen (violin) in Jake Heggie’s “The Work at Hand,” Elgar’s “Sea Pictures,” and Rimski-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 27 and 28.

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Symphony Review: Scottish snap and snappy Schubert with the SLSO

Prepandemic my wife and I traveled quite a bit. One of our favorite destinations for a time was Scotland. We haven’t been back in a while, but the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert last Saturday (November 20) summoned up, however briefly, memories of the gloomy, glorious land north of England.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

The concerts opened the USA premiere of Anna Clyne’s brief and rowdy “Pivot.” Inspired by the composer’s experiences at the 2021 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, “Pivot” lives up to its title by constantly moving from one musical style to another. It starts with a very Celtic-sounding fiddle tune backed up by a bagpipe-like drone in the brasses and percussive slaps in the lower strings. From there it switches to a mix of other styles, including a woodwind melody that sounds distinctly Middle-Eastern. Sometimes multiple musical ideas clash in way that Charles Ives would probably have appreciated. But the music always returns, rondo-style, to that fiddle tune.

“Pivot” clearly demands precise playing and someone on the podium who can hold this brilliantly organized chaos together. In his SLSO debut, conductor David Danzmayr, the newly appointed Music Director of the Oregon Symphony, proved fully up to the task. The SLSO musicians played with exciting snap and physical energy, making this a perfect opening number.

The Scots theme continued with Max Bruch’s 1880 “Scottish Fantasy” for violin and orchestra.  Bruch’s experience of Scotland was literary rather than literal in that he never set foot on Scottish soil but, as Caitlin Custer points out in this week’s program notes, Bruch read “everything Scottish he could get his hands on.” In any case, he did a surprisingly good job of communicating the majestic windswept and melancholy beauty of the countryside. That’s especially the case in the wistful third movement, which makes liberal use of the traditional air “I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie”.

Simone Porter
Photo by Elisha Knight

In her SLSO debut, soloist Simone Porter proved to be a most persuasive interpreter of Bruch’s sentimental and appealing work. Fully engaged with both the conductor and the orchestra, Porter played with rich warmth in the lyrical first and third movements. In the latter, she played with so much tenderness that I felt a temptation (wisely resisted) to hum along with her. She had a brighter sound and more physically active stage presence in the cheerful second movement, based on the lively fiddle tune “The Dusty Miller”, and brought out the majesty and pride of the finale, which is based on “Scots Wha Hae”—Scotland’s unofficial national anthem, at least back in Bruch’s day.

All of which is a loquacious way of saying that it was a damn fine performance of a tremendously appealing work, by both Porter and Danzmayr. The latter chose his tempi and dynamic contrasts with great care—including the wise use of an extended moment of silence after the third movement. The orchestra was right there with him all the way. A special shout-out is owed to harpist Allegra Lilly, whose playing added another rich layer, especially in the third and fourth movements. It has been suggested that Bruch saw the harp as an essential part of the Scottish folk tradition. If so, he was wise to include it.

The audience clearly appreciated Porter’s work and insisted on an encore, And the one she gave us was lovely: the third movement (“Sarabanda”) from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2. Porter prefaced it by describing her experience working with the SLSO as “joyous.” I think the audience would agree.

The concert closed with Schubert’s imposing Symphony No. 9 (or maybe 7 or 8) in C major, nicknamed “The Great” to distinguish it from his Symphony No. 6, the “Little,” C major. Unperformed during the composer’s brief life and ignored for many years afterwards, the symphony long had a reputation among many musicians and critics as repetitive, difficult to play, and simply too long. And while it’s now a regular part of the repertory, it’s still a work filled with challenges for both conductors and listeners, as Joshua Weilerstein recently noted in his Sticky Notes podcast.

The biggest challenge is simply bringing enough variety and sense of momentum to a work which, if one takes all of the composer’s repeats, can last fifty minutes or more. Personally, I believe they should be treated as optional, but not everyone agrees. I recall a critic on the long-defunct WQXR radio show "First Hearing” once referring to a recording that dumped the repeats in the final movement as the equivalent of “blowing a hole in the Sistine Chapel.”

Perhaps he was engaging in hyperbole.

David Danzmayr

In any case, Danzmayr apparently decided they were indeed optional, at least in the first and last movements. Omitting them, together with generally brisk tempi, clean high-level playing by the band, and an overall concept of the work that was both vigorous and subtle, produced a Schubert Ninth that was bursting with energy, sentiment, and drama.

I have about a page of notes in front of me on the many decisions by Danzmayr that made this performance such a standout, but I’m going to demonstrate adult restraint and limit myself to a just a few. To begin with, tempo choices in the first movement were ideal. The Andante opening was actually taken (as the term implies) at a “walking” pace—relaxed but not sluggish. The transition to the main Allegro ma non troppo body was dramatic, and the movement as a whole crackled with energy.

The second movement, Andante con moto, has always suggested a mysterious nocturnal procession to me, and Jelena Dirks’s oboe solo hit just the right mix of the enigmatic and mournful. The moment at which the main theme unexpectedly bursts forth in a shriek of terror was powerful, with the one-measure rest afterwards held just long enough to underline that feeling. When the pizzicato strings made their hesitant entrance, it felt like they were cautiously emerging from a bomb shelter.

The Scherzo third movement had just the right amount of contrast between the boisterous main theme and the more flowing trio section. And the Allegro vivace finale galloped along with an irresistible vitality, with a powerful coda that brought the house down. Seriously, this was one of the best Schubert Ninths ever and a real feather in Danzmayr’s cap.

And what spectacular playing by the SLSO musicians! Roger Kaza’s horns were in excellent form as were all the winds. Schubert gives most of the best stuff to the woodwinds and brasses in this symphony (one reason why string players disliked it so much at first), and ours have never sounded better.

Next at Powell Hall: Gemma New conducts the SLSO along with soloists Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Elizabeth Chung (cello) and David Halen (violin) in Jake Heggie’s “The Work at Hand,” Elgar’s “Sea Pictures,” and Rimski-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 27 and 28. The concerts are dedicated to the memory of the late St. Louis Post-Dispatch music critic Sarah Bryan Miller, who died last November 28th after fighting a long battle with cancer with courage and grace.

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

Sunday, November 21, 2021

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of November 22, 2021

Now including both on-line and live events during the pandemic. Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills. To get your event listed here, send an email to calendar [at] stageleft.org.

Steve Ross
The Blue Strawberry presents Steve Ross: Back on the Town Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, November 26 and 27. “When Steve performs, the world comes right. For Steve is an illusionist of the highest order. He’s like reading Scott Fitzgerald in high school. Although we are not in the social world of the 1930’s, we know nevertheless it is the way to be and to live. We go to a party on the water, where the world is not just one of wealth and status, but wordplay and word joy, melody and lyric and rhyme, gaiety and glamour, cocktails and cleverly convincing charm, sleek physiques and sharp, summer whites. So complete is the illusion that even though we were never there, we feel we have returned. We are in the heights of the heights, free to yearn and hope and live, insulated and protected for a night or a week or a summer from the danger, the hurt and the wolf at the door."  The Blue Strawberry is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with mandatory vaccination and masking. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Circus Harmony in St. Louis and Circus Circuli in Stuttgart, St. Louis's German sister city, present Sister City Circus, on Circus Harmony’s YouTube page.  "Through a series of online meetings, workshops, and classes the two troupes created 6 different circus acts and then filmed them at iconic architectural locations in each of their cities." This and many other Circus Harmony videos are available at the Circus Harmony YouTube channel.

ERA Theatre presents the radio play SHE by Nancy Bell with music by Joe Taylor and Lyrics by Nancy Bell via on-demand streaming  "SHE controls the radio station of the fascist regime in power. SHE's also the star of the broadcast. Her recording studio abounds with music and oysters. But in the nearby government camps full of misfits and would-be revolutionaries, only torture and starvation is thick on the ground. Tonight, however, SHE's realm feels different. The bombs sound closer. Time moves faster. But SHE will finish her radio show, and it will be her finest. If executing every number in the broadcast means some people need to die, so be it; it is a small sacrifice. The citizens need her and she will not let them down." SHE is available for digital purchase via bandcamp at eratheatre.bandcamp.com. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

Pretty Woman
The Fabulous Fox presents the musical Pretty Woman through November 28.  “PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL, based on one of Hollywood’s most beloved romantic stories of all time, is now on tour! Starring Broadway superstar and Tony Award®-nominee Adam Pascal as Edward Lewis and rising star Olivia Valli as the charming and charismatic Vivian Ward, PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL springs to life with a powerhouse creative team led by two-time Tony Award®-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde).” The Fabulous Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: www.fabulousfox.com.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present The Christmas Killer through January 8. "Join classic Christmas characters like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf, Grandma and Santa’s Elves for the annual Misfit Toys Banquet event hosted by Chatty Cathy herself.  It’s going to be a great party so long as the wrong element doesn’t show up.  We’re talking about that slimy, no good, rotten, Ricky Stitch of course.  Why, I wouldn’t touch him with a 39 ½ foot pole!  Gee, sure hope he doesn’t try to ruin Christmas…again.  If he does, I’m sure someone will show him who makes the candy canes around here! But how will we figure out whodunnit…was it you?" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Moonstone Theatre Company presents Moonstone Connections, a series of in-depth interviews with arts leaders by company founder Sharon Hunter. The latest episode features John O’Brien, who currently serves as Director of Programming for The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, where he is responsible for programming the U.S. Bank Broadway Series.  New episodes air the third Tuesday of each month; see linktr.ee/moonstoneconnections for more information.

R-S Theatrics presents While the Ghostlight Burns, a virtual discussion series featuring R-S Artistic Director Sarah Lynne Holt in conversation with St. Louis theatre artists, Mondays at 7 pm.  Conversations will be archived at the R-S Theatrics YouTube channel. For more information: r-stheatrics.com/while-the-ghostlight-burns.html

SATE, in collaboration with COCA and Prison Performing Arts, presents Project Verse: Creativity in the Time of Quarantine. Project Verse presents two new plays: Quatrains in Quarantine by e.k. doolin and Dream On, Black Girl:Reflections in Quarantine by Maxine du Maine. The performances are streamed free of charge on SATE’s website and Facebook page. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Symphony Preview: My heart's in the highlands (or maybe Edinburgh)

Prior to the pandemic, my wife and I traveled quite a bit. We plan to hit the airports again next year, but meanwhile the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concerts this weekend (November 19 and 20) bring back memories of one of our favorite places: Scotland. And, in particular, that unforgettable town once known as “Auld Reekie,” Edinburgh.

[Preview the music with my commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

Edinburgh Castle

Our first sight of Edinburgh many years ago came after we disembarked from the Flying Scotsman overnight train, made our way up to Princes Street, and turned to look at the Old Town across from the deep gorge of the Princes Street gardens. In daylight the Medieval skyline, topped by the castle at the end of High Street, was like a real-life Escher painting. At night, with a light scrim of fog in front of it, the view took on the unreal quality of a stage set.

It was stunning, and I have never forgotten it. Both of the works in the first half of the program bring back memories of that experience.

This weekend’s concerts open with a brand-new work by Anna Clyne (a name that should be familiar to SLSO audiences by now) inspired by the composer’s experiences at the 2021 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an annual celebration of the performing arts that takes place each August. It coincides with the legendary Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a massive spectacle of sound, light, marching, and dance at Edinburgh Castle.

“I enjoyed an array of fantastic performances across the arts,” writes Clyne of her experience:

It is this variety that I have tried to capture in PIVOT which, as the title suggests, pivots from one experience to another. The Pivot is also a former name of the 200-year-old folk music venue and pub in Edinburgh, The Royal Oak. PIVOT quotes fragments of The Flowers of Edinburgh, a traditional fiddle tune of eighteenth century Scottish lineage that is also prominent in American fiddle music and thus bridges between Edinburgh and St. Louis, where this music was premiered.

That last sentence refers to the fact that “Pivot” had its world premiere in Edinburgh on August 7th by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and its USA premiere this weekend right here.

Anna Clyne
Photo: Christina Kernohan

That BBC Symphony performance was recorded by Linn for an album of festival highlights and is part of my custom Spotify playlist for this week. It’s the kind of bouncy, toe-tapping piece that would not be out of place at a “pops” concert. As promised, it pivots from one lively tune to another while always sounding distinctly Celtic.  For more background on “Pivot” and Clyne, including her creative partnership with Stéphane Denève, check out Eric Dundon’s conversation with her at the SLSO Stories site.

The Scottish influence continues with a larger-scale work that has not been played by the SLSO since 2008: Max Bruch’s 1880 “Scottish Fantasy.” Essentially a four-movement violin concerto, the “Fantasy” dips into the well of Scottish folk tunes more deeply than “Pivot,” despite the fact that Bruch’s experience of Scotland was literary rather than literal. As Caitlin Custer points out in this week’s program notes, Bruch prepared for the composition by “reading everything Scottish he could get his hands on: poetry by Robert Burns (of “Auld Lang Syne” fame), novels by Sir Walter Scott, and Scottish folk songs.” He never set foot on Scottish soil.

Even so, he did a surprisingly good job of communicating the majestic windswept beauty of the countryside. There’s dark melancholy in the Prelude and Adagio cantabile first movement and a wistful sadness in the Andante sostenuto third. But the second movement Allegro kicks up its heels in a classic Scottish cèilidh and the finale embraces the patriotic fervor of the folk tune on which it’s based, "Hey Tuttie Tatie.” When Robert Burns added lyrics to it, the song became “Scots Wha Hae”. It was essentially Scotland’s unofficial national anthem for centuries, although these days “Scotland the Brave” has somewhat overtaken it.

Bruch composed the work entirely in Berlin in the winter of 1879-1880, with technical assistance from the noted violinist Joseph Joachim. The closest he got to Caledonia was Liverpool, where he was the director of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society in 1881. The “Scottish Fantasy” has its first performance there with Joachim as the soloist. It would later be presented with great success by the more flashy Pablo de Sarasate (to whom Bruch dedicated the piece) and has since been embraced by an impressive list of high-profile violinists, including former SLSO Music Director David Robertson’s brother-in-law Gil Shaham and Joshua Bell (whose recording with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is part of my Spotify playlist).

Max Bruch
en.wikipedia.org

This weekend’s soloist is Simone Porter, whose bio describes her as “an emerging artist of impassioned energy, interpretive integrity, and vibrant communication.” That seems to be putting it mildly, since she made her professional debut in 2006 at the age of 10 with the Seattle Symphony, her international debut three years later with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, and her Carnegie Hall debut in 2016. This is her first appearance with the SLSO, but she has appeared with Denève at the Edinburgh Festival as well as with frequent SLSO guest conductor Nicholas McGegan.

Speaking of conductors, these concerts will also be the local debut of David Danzmayr, the newly appointed Music Director of the Oregon Symphony. He has also been the MD of the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra Columbus for the past seven years and even has ties back to Scotland, where he launched his career as Assistant Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Glasgow. Danzmayr has gotten rave reviews for everything from Brahms to contemporary works like Javier Álvarez’s “Brazos de niebla” (“Arms of Mist”). Like Porter, he is a young musician whose star appears to be in the ascendant.

Danzmayr will certainly have his work cut out for him in the second half of the program, which will consist entirely of Schubert’s imposing Symphony No. 9 in C major, nicknamed “The Great” to distinguish it from his Symphony No. 6, the “Little,” C major symphony from 1817-1818. Largely completed in 1825 but not fully scored until 1826, the symphony was never performed in its final version during Schubert’s lifetime. He sent the score to Vienna’s Society of the Friends of Music requesting a performance, but after a few rehearsals they deemed it unplayable (at least by them). It was rediscovered in 1838 by Robert Schumann (who wrote an ecstatic review of the score) and finally got its premiere in 1839 by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Felix Mendelssohn, who shared Schumann’s high opinion of the work.

Still, many critics and musicians were unenthusiastic about the symphony. For many years it was seen as repetitive, difficult to play, and simply too long.

They had a point about the length. Clocking in at around 50 minutes if you take all the repeats (which not everyone does), the 9th would have seemed gargantuan at the time, dwarfed only by Beethoven’s 9th. Still, it’s hard to hear this now and not be completely captivated by the endless flow of irresistible melodies and rhythmic drive that runs throughout. As long as the conductor is able to maintain a sense of momentum throughout (as Roger Norrington does in the performance I selected for the playlist), this is an alluring work.

There’s much more to be said about the Ninth (including the question of whether it really is the Ninth vs. the Seventh or Eighth), and you can take a deep dive with Peter Gutman’s exhaustive article at Classical Notes as well as by listening to Joshua Weilerstein’s fascinating discussion on his Sticky Notes podcast.

The Essentials: Conductor David Danzmayr makes his SLSO debut with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”), the USA premiere of Anna Clyne’s “Pivot,” and Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy” with violin soloist Simone Porter. Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, November 19 and 20.

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Symphony Review: Revolutionary Beethoven and Greig with Víkingur Ólafsson and the SLSO

If I were called upon to summarize the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert last Saturday night (November 13) in one word, it would probably be something along the lines of exciting, electrifying, or stunning. But maybe the best choice would be “revolutionary.”

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

That is, after all, what the concluding work on the program—Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5—was when it first saw the light of day back in December 1808, even if it probably wasn’t apparent at its disastrous premiere at the end of a four-hour marathon in the unheated Theater an der Wein. The symphony’s structure, its obsessive energy, and even (as Joshua Wallerstein suggests in a recent episode of his “Sticky Notes” podcast) its musical content were all revolutionary.

As Music Director Stéphane Denève pointed out in his pre-concert remarks, Beethoven once contemplated actually relocating to France. He never did, but his fifth symphony was nevertheless inspired by the French Revolution’s values of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” (freedom, equality, brotherhood). That’s still the national motto in France, in fact. Here in the USA, sadly, we seem to have recently decided that only the first word matters, so it’s good to be reminded of the principles that were at the heart of both their revolution and ours.

Stéphane Denève and the SLSO take bows
after the Beethoven Fifth

The Beethoven Fifth has become such a familiar work that it might seem impossible to do anything truly revolutionary with it. But, as Denève proved with his stunning Beethoven Ninth last February, “it ain’t necessarily so”—especially when you pay attention to Beethoven’s directions about tempi.

As Denève points out,  Beethoven was an early adopter of what was, in the early 19th century, a cutting-edge piece of technology—the metronome. Patented in 1815 by the composer's sometime friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, the device for accurately indicating a musical tempo was happily adopted by Beethoven. So much so that in 1817 he went back to earlier works like the Symphony No. 5 and added metronome markings to the score. Over the centuries, alas, many conductors decided that those tempi were unreasonably fast, with the result that the Fifth has sometimes lost the visceral thrill it was supposed to have.

Not so Saturday night. From that famous four note phrase at the beginning right through to the devil-may-care triumph of the coda (taken at the hair-raising speed the composer had in mind), this was a Beethoven Fifth that made critical niceties like taking notes virtually impossible. It was too compelling, too dazzlingly executed, and just too much fun to take time out to scribble in a notebook.

Highlights of this glorious performance include the superhuman precision of the lower strings in the rapid fugal passages in the third movement, Jelena Dirks’s brief but beautiful oboe cadenza in the first movement, and the truly epic sound of the brasses and Thomas Jöstlein’s horn section. Denève’s interpretation was filled with delicious details, including an Andante con moto second movement that was imbued with the spirit of the dance—something I haven’t always heard in this work.

If this had been the only killer performance of the evening, that would have been enough. But we also got a Greig Piano Concerto that simply could not be beat. Soloist Víkingur Ólafsson made quite a stunning impression in his local debut with a performance that blended nuance and poetry with virtuoso flair. A veritable ball of physical energy, Ólafsson at some points bent so close to the keyboard that his face nearly touched the keys, yet at others seemed ready to leap from the bench in an explosion of passion.

His version of the famous first movement cadenza was a study in extremes, nearly coming to a complete halt before building steadily to the boiling power of the big restatement of the main theme. His concentration on both Denève and the orchestra was intense. And his playing overall was a model of clarity.

Víkingur Ólafsson and Stéphane Denève

Speaking of the orchestra, let’s not forget that the concerto includes a fair number of opportunities for individual players and sections to shine. Roger Kaza’s horn had a warm, lush sound in the second movement, for example, and Adam Sandberry’s flute solo in the third movement’s bucolic interlude was a gem. At the podium, Denève kept everything moving along smoothly, making it easy to forget how episodic Greig’s writing is (he was, let’s face it, not a master of the larger musical forms). Some readings of the concerto come across as disjointed. This one felt like a spontaneous outpouring of melody—which is presumably what the composer intended.

It was a fine piece of work and got an enthusiastic standing ovation from the packed house. That led to an encore that took us to an entirely different musical world: the Adagio from Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4, BWV 528, in a transcription by the Bohemian virtuoso pianist/composer August Stradal (1860-1930). Here, again, I was impressed by the lucidity of Ólafsson’s playing and his ability to keep the various threads of Bach’s counterpoint clear.

The concert opened with “Fate Now Conquers,” written just last year by Carlos Simon, the new Composer-in-Residence with the National Symphony Orchestra. The composer says that this short (five minutes), animated work was inspired by “the beautifully fluid harmonic structure of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony” but to my ears it felt more like a highly compressed version of the Fifth. Dominated by a short, driving motif first heard in the tympani and low strings, “Fate Now Conquers” pauses briefly in the middle for a lyrical cello solo (played with great feeling by Daniel Lee). The headlong rush returns, builds to a brassy finale, and then, in bit of Haydnesque wit, abruptly stops, leaving the final notes to the low strings.

It got a precise and exhilarating performance by the orchestra and was an ideal way to start the concert.

Next at Powell Hall: Conductor David Danzmayr makes his SLSO debut with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”), the USA premiere of Anna Clyne’s “Pivot,” and Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy” with violin soloist Simone Porter. Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, November 19 and 20.

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

Monday, November 15, 2021

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of November 15, 2021

Now including both on-line and live events during the pandemic. Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills. To get your event listed here, send an email to calendar [at] stageleft.org.

Chuck Lavazzi and Carol Schmidt
The Cabaret Project and The Blue Strawberry present a Singers Open Mic Tuesday, November 16, from 7 to 9:30 pm. “Chuck Lavazzi is your host, with pianist and music director Carol Schmidt. If you plan to sing bring sheet music or a chart in your own key, and perform your favorite Broadway, pop, or jazz tunes. Medium/up-tempo songs are encouraged but not required. Or you can just relax, have a drink and dinner or a snack, and enjoy the music. No admission or cover, but there is always a tip jar! All proceeds go to The Cabaret Project, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to promoting, developing, and sustaining the art cabaret in St. Louis. "   The Blue Strawberry is operating under a "COVID careful" arrangement with mandatory vaccination and masking. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: thecabaretproject,org.

Cats Cradle Theatre presents The Last Days of Judas Iscariot Thursdays through Saturdays at 7 pm, through November 20. "Set in a space between heaven and hell, THE LAT DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT tells the story of a court case over the ultimate fate of Judas Iscariot. In this courtroom drama of epic proportions, lawyers call for the testimonies of historic witnesses who share imagined memories, religious ramblings, and philosophical arguments. The results of this trial ask both the characters and the audience to reconsider what they thought they knew about forgiveness, faith, despair, and the humanity inside not only one of history’s most famous villains, but ourselves. While this play cross-examines the gospels, posing complex moral and spiritual questions about divine justice, and human failures of virtue – it’s not a play about religion. It’s an examination of the intersection of humanity, grace, and justice and what it means to be good to each other, and ourselves in this world." Performances take place at Jefferson Avenue Mission at 2241 S. Jefferson. For more information: www.catscradletheatre.com.

Circus Harmony in St. Louis and Circus Circuli in Stuttgart, St. Louis's German sister city, present Sister City Circus, on Circus Harmony’s YouTube page.  "Through a series of online meetings, workshops, and classes the two troupes created 6 different circus acts and then filmed them at iconic architectural locations in each of their cities." This and many other Circus Harmony videos are available at the Circus Harmony YouTube channel.

ERA Theatre presents the radio play SHE by Nancy Bell with music by Joe Taylor and Lyrics by Nancy Bell via on-demand streaming  "SHE controls the radio station of the fascist regime in power. SHE's also the star of the broadcast. Her recording studio abounds with music and oysters. But in the nearby government camps full of misfits and would-be revolutionaries, only torture and starvation is thick on the ground. Tonight, however, SHE's realm feels different. The bombs sound closer. Time moves faster. But SHE will finish her radio show, and it will be her finest. If executing every number in the broadcast means some people need to die, so be it; it is a small sacrifice. The citizens need her and she will not let them down." SHE is available for digital purchase via bandcamp at eratheatre.bandcamp.com. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

Pretty Woman
The Fabulous Fox presents the musical Pretty Woman, opening on Tuesday, November 16, at 7:30 pm and running through November 28.  “PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL, based on one of Hollywood’s most beloved romantic stories of all time, is now on tour! Starring Broadway superstar and Tony Award®-nominee Adam Pascal as Edward Lewis and rising star Olivia Valli as the charming and charismatic Vivian Ward, PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL springs to life with a powerhouse creative team led by two-time Tony Award®-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde).” The Fabulous Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: www.fabulousfox.com.

The Gateway Center for Performing Arts presents the musical Annie Thursday and Friday at 7 pm, Saturday at 2 and 7 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm, November 18-21. “With equal measures of pluck and positivity, little orphan Annie charms everyone's hearts despite a next-to-nothing start in 1930s New York City. She is determined to find the parents who abandoned her years ago on the doorstep of a New York City Orphanage that is run by the cruel, embittered Miss Hannigan. With the help of the other girls in the Orphanage, Annie escapes to the wondrous world of NYC. In adventure after fun-filled adventure, Annie foils Miss Hannigan's evil machinations... and even befriends President Franklin Delano Roosevelt! She finds a new home and family in billionaire, Oliver Warbucks, his personal secretary, Grace Farrell, and a lovable mutt named Sandy.”  Performances take place at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 S. Geyer. For more information: www.gcpastl.org.

The Kirkwood Theatre Guild presents the Kaufman and Hart comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner through November 21. “While on a speaking tour in Ohio, opinionated and arrogant radio personality Sheridan Whiteside injures himself slipping on ice and becomes an unexpected houseguest for a prominent area family. Whiteside proceeds to make brash proclamations and offer his unsolicited advice to the family members. When a romance begins between Whiteside’s assistant and a local reporter, he interferes with that as well!”  Performances take place at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood. For more information: www.ktg-onstage.org.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present The Christmas Killer through January 8. "Join classic Christmas characters like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf, Grandma and Santa’s Elves for the annual Misfit Toys Banquet event hosted by Chatty Cathy herself.  It’s going to be a great party so long as the wrong element doesn’t show up.  We’re talking about that slimy, no good, rotten, Ricky Stitch of course.  Why, I wouldn’t touch him with a 39 ½ foot pole!  Gee, sure hope he doesn’t try to ruin Christmas…again.  If he does, I’m sure someone will show him who makes the candy canes around here! But how will we figure out whodunnit…was it you?" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Looking Glass Playhouse presents the comedy Lend Me a Tenor Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through November 21. “On a very important night for the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, Tito Mirelli, the world-famous Italian tenor, is set to perform the starring role in Otello. Henry Saunders — General Manager of the company — is beyond stressed about everything turning out right, and insists that his assistant, Max — a nervous, young fellow and secret tenor extraordinaire — watch over Tito’s every move to ensure smooth sailing. After a huge fight with his fiery, Italian wife Maria, Tito receives a double dose of tranquilizers through a series of mishaps. Throw in Diana, an ambitious, female co-star; Maggie, Max’s giddy girlfriend; Julia, a flirty head of the opera guild; and a meddling bellhop fighting for Tito’s attention. Together, you have a recipe for comedic disaster. Max navigates the company through one catastrophe after the next — an angry wife, a presumed death, crazy costumes, secret sex romps, and loads and loads of slamming doors and mistaken identities — and, ultimately, takes on the role of Otello to great effect. Together, Max and Saunders find a way to save the Opera Company’s big night in grand, farcical fashion.” Performances take place at 301 West St. Louis Street in Lebanon, IL. For more information: lookingglassplayhouse.com.

Monroe Actors Stage Company presents the Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm, through November 21. “Grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”) inherits his family’s estate in Transylvania. With the help of a hunchbacked sidekick, Igor (pronounced “Eye-gore”), and a leggy lab assistant, Inga (pronounced normally), Frederick finds himself in the mad scientist shoes of his ancestors. “It’s alive!” he exclaims as he brings to life a creature to rival his grandfather’s. Eventually, of course, the monster escapes and hilarity continuously abounds.” Performances take place at the Capitol Theatre in Waterloo, IL. For more information: www.masctheatre.org.

Jake's Women
Photo by Philip Hamer
Moonstone Theatre Company presents Moonstone Connections, a series of in-depth interviews with arts leaders by company founder Sharon Hunter. The latest episode features John O’Brien, who currently serves as Director of Programming for The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, where he is responsible for programming the U.S. Bank Broadway Series.  New episodes air the third Tuesday of each month; see linktr.ee/moonstoneconnections for more information.

Moonstone Theatre Company presents Neil Simon’s Jake’s Women Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 PM through November 21.  “This warm and poignant comedy from America’s premier comic playwright makes another hilarious foray into the world of modern relationships. Jake, a novelist who is more successful with fiction than with life, faces a marital crisis by daydreaming about the women in his life. The wildly comic and sometimes moving flashbacks played in his mind are interrupted by visitations from actual females. Jake’s women include a revered first wife who was killed years earlier in an accident, his daughter who is recalled as a child but is now a young woman, his boisterous and bossy sister, an opinionated analyst, his current wife who is leaving Jake for another man, and a prospective third wife.” Performances take place at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center studio theatre in Kirkwood. For more information: moonstonetheatrecompany.com.

R-S Theatrics presents While the Ghostlight Burns, a virtual discussion series featuring R-S Artistic Director Sarah Lynne Holt in conversation with St. Louis theatre artists, Mondays at 7 pm.  Conversations will be archived at the R-S Theatrics YouTube channel. For more information: r-stheatrics.com/while-the-ghostlight-burns.html

St. Louis University Theatre presents Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Thursday through Sunday, November 18-21. “Mischief is in the air when the King and Queen of the Fairies quarrel and Puck is left in charge of the love potion. Four young people are lost in the woods on midsummer’s night. Will they find each other and true love, or will Puck’s meddling leave them broken-hearted and alone? A band of players prepares to entertain the Duke of Athens. But now that the fairies have made a donkey out of their leading man, will Quince and the others ever get to play their parts? Is there time to put everything right before this magical night is over?” Performances take place at the Xavier Hall Main Stage on the campus at 3733 West Pine Mall in Grand Center. For more information: www.slu.edu.

SATE, in collaboration with COCA and Prison Performing Arts, presents Project Verse: Creativity in the Time of Quarantine. Project Verse presents two new plays: Quatrains in Quarantine by e.k. doolin and Dream On, Black Girl:Reflections in Quarantine by Maxine du Maine. The performances are streamed free of charge on SATE’s website and Facebook page. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

The Washington University Performing Arts Department presents The Science of Leaving Omaha Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 and 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm, November 18-21. “Iris is working the night shift at the Belladonna Funeral Home when Baker breaks in to say farewell to his wife, who recently died in a bungled robbery.  As they sort through the comedic rubble of their young lives, they discover a mutual yearning to escape. Will they make a run for it before they lose their last chance to leave Omaha behind?” Performances take place at the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre on the Washington University Campus. For more information: pad.wustl.edu.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Symphony Preview: Revolution now

This weekend (November 12-14) Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) in a program that pairs two certified Greatest Hits with a new work inspired by the composer of one of those hits.

[Preview the music with my commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

The new work is “Fate Now Conquers,” written just last year by Carlos Simon, the new Composer-in-Residence with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO). The man who inspired it is Beethoven, whose Symphony No. 5 is the closing work on the program. The concerts will open with Carlos’s music but chronologically Beethoven comes first by two centuries. So let’s start with him, shall we?

Beethoven in 1803
Painted by Christian Horneman

To say that the Beethoven Fifth is one of the most popular classical works of all time is merely to state the obvious. As conductor Joshua Weilerstein said in a recent episode of his “Sticky Notes” podcast, if you were to walk up to a random person on the street and ask them to name a piece of classical music, the odds are your answer would be “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has some data to back that up. They examined 2014-2015 seasons of 22 American orchestras and the top three most-programmed works were (in descending order) Handel’s “Messiah,” Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and (yep) Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

The symphony’s opening movement, in particular, has been heard and parodied so often that it's easy to forget that the symphony's premiere on December 22, 1808, was not a great success. The Fifth was part of a mammoth four-hour program of Beethoven premieres that included the Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral"), the Piano Concerto No. 4, a couple of movements from the Mass in C, a concert aria ("Ah, perfido"), the Op. 80 "Choral Fantasy," and piano improvisations by the composer himself. Beethoven also conducted and played the solo piano part in the concerto and the Fantasy.

Lengthy concerts weren’t necessarily that uncommon back then, but there were more serious issues. The heating had failed at the Theater an der Wein, so the place was freezing cold. And there was competition for musicians. The state-owned Burgtheater was presenting a benefit performance for the Tonkünstler-Societät, a benevolent society for the widows and orphans of musicians. Members of the Society—essentially every professional musician in Vienna—were expected to perform at the benefit or risk paying a fine. That left only the semi-pros and amateurs to perform in Beethoven’s Monster Concert.

And to add insult to injury, they only had one day of rehearsal. Things went so badly that at one point the "Choral Fantasy" had to be stopped completely after a performance error. Not auspicious.

In fact, it wasn't until E.T.A. Hoffmann published an enthusiastic review of the newly published score in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung a year and a half later that everyone began to sit up and take notice of the Fifth. "Radiant beams shoot through this region's deep night," wrote Hoffmann of the music's dramatic effect,

and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.

More and better-rehearsed performances followed. By the time Hector Berlioz wrote his Critical Study of Beethoven's Nine Symphonies he could state that the Fifth was "without doubt the most famous of the symphonies" and "the first in which Beethoven gave wings to his vast imagination without being guided by or relying on any external source of inspiration." Today the Fifth is famous not just on earth but in outer space as well; a recording of the first movement by the Philadelphia Orchestra was part of the Voyager Golden Record, included on the first two Voyager space probes launched in 1977 and now speeding through deep space.

As a result, it’s easy to forget these days that in 1808 the Fifth was a new kind of symphony. It was revolutionary in both its content (Weilerstein suggests it might even include a reference to a French Revolution anthem) and its musical structure. Instead of placing the most weighty movement at the beginning, as earlier composers usually did, Beethoven built the Fifth to build inexorably towards the finale—a practice that would soon become the norm for symphonists. He also used instruments rarely heard in orchestras of the day, such as the contrabassoon; piccolo; and alto, tenor, and bass trombones.

Carlos Simon

The Fifth’s heroic and revolutionary spirit can also be heard in Simon’s work. As he relates in an interview accompanying the NSO’s performance of the piece on YouTube, his inspiration for “Fate Now Conquers” came from one of Beethoven’s journal entries from 1815: “But Fate now conquers; I am hers.” He never quotes Beethoven directly, but he has acknowledged that he references “the beautifully fluid harmonic structure of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony” (which he describes as one of his favorite symphonies by the composer).

To my ears, though, “Fate Now Conquers” sounds more like a highly concentrated version of the Fifth crammed into less than five minutes. The work is dominated by an obsessive motif in the tympani and low strings that Simon himself describes as “fate knocking.” It drops into the background during a more lyrical middle section (where it’s briefly confined to a muted trumpet) but soon returns in the triumphant finale. It’s invigorating stuff.

Sandwiched in between Simon and Beethoven, we find Edvard Grieg, represented by his Greatest Hit, the Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16, from 1868. It was his first and only piano concerto. In fact, it was his only completed concerto of any kind. He started (but never finished) a violin concerto and composed his first and only symphony in 1863 at the age of 20.

That’s because Grieg was fundamentally a miniaturist. He was at his best in short forms like his justly popular “Lyric Pieces” and other works for the piano. Longer works like his “Symphonic Dances,” the “Lyric Suite,” and his incidental music for Ibsen’s gargantuan drama “Peer Gynt” are, ultimately, little more than a collection of short pieces. It’s what he did, and he did it darned well.

It’s not surprising, then, that his piano concerto tends to sound a bit episodic. The episodes are all entrancing, though, and the concerto was an instant hit at its 1869 Copenhagen premiere by the Royal Danish Orchestra with Edmund Neupert as soloist. Neupert, to whom the concerto was dedicated, wrote to Grieg (who was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict) describing the happy event:

The triumph I achieved was tremendous. Even as early as the cadenza in the first movement, the public broke into real storm. The three dangerous critics, [composer Niels] Gade, [pianist/composer Anton] Rubenstein, and [composer Emil] Hartmann, sat in the stalls and applauded with all their might. I am to send you greetings from Rubenstein and say that he is astounded to have heard a composition of such genius. (cited in program notes by Robert C. Bagar and Louis Biancolli for the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York)

The interior of Grieg's hut at Troldhaugen

I’ve always loved Grieg’s music, myself, and have a substantial collection of it on CD, LP, and digital downloads. My wife and I even made a pilgrimage to Troldhaugen, the home Grieg had built for his family and where they lived from 1885 until his death in 1907. Located just outside of Bergen, it’s now the Grieg Museum, with the composer’s home lovingly preserved. That includes the little hut Grieg had built just for composing. With a piano and a window overlooking Lake Nordås, it’s easy to see how this idyllic setting inspired the Norwegian master’s music. The place was uninhabitable in the depths of winter, of course, but Grieg and his wife spent many happy summers there.

Our soloist this weekend will be Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, who has earned praise for his recordings of everything from Bach to Philip Glass. Those include the Greig concerto, which you can see him perform in a 2011 concert recording on YouTube with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy. His approach to the work might have changed over the intervening decade, but it will at least give you an idea of what to expect when he makes his local debut this weekend.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and pianist Víkingur Ólafsson in Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, and Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers.” Performances take place Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 13 and 14, at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. There will also be a special Crafted Happy Hour performance of Beethoven’s Fifth on Friday, November 12, at 6:30 pm at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the UMSL campus.

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Symphony Review: The SLSO explores the dark side of the moon in works by Lee, Sibelius, and Shostakovich

The concert by Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) last Saturday (November 6th) opened with a powerful work of personal lamentation and ended with a gripping and ultimately horrifying depiction of life under an autocratic regime run by a personality cult centered on a morally bankrupt and violent ideologue. In between we had a violin concerto that evoked images of pines, snow, and brisk northern winds.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

It was dark, disturbing, and riveting. And I loved it.

The lamentation came from the opening work, “Emotive Transformations,” written in 2018 by Michigan-born James Lee III. Inspired by the death of the composer’s father the work, as Tim Munro writes in the program notes, “conveys the stages of grief after the death of a loved one.” Stéphane Denève went a step further in his pre-concert talk, specifically referring to the five stages of grief described by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

“Emotive Transformations” opens with an agitated theme that suggests the first two stages of denial and anger. A second, more soothing motif in the strings and winds hints at “comforting words” according to Denève, but to my ears it also could include the “bargaining” stage. Denève described a third ascending theme in the strings as a reference to resurrection, and I’m inclined to agree, although you could just as easily say it’s about acceptance.

James Lee III and Stèphane Denève

Either way, that last theme is almost overwhelmed by the opening sense of anger and agitation. Indeed, it eventually takes over the “comfort” theme entirely, turning it into a kind of wail of anguish (depression, possibly?) which slowly descends through the string section and is extinguished. The initial theme returns again, but now it has taken on the character of the acceptance music, rising triumphantly to a final major chord.

It all sounded a bit like Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration,” but the resemblance is at best superficial. Lee’s musical world is more compact and less sentimental than that of Strauss. His musical vocabulary is unquestionably contemporary, but still listener-friendly—a hallmark of the new music that Denève has introduced to local audiences. And it was beautifully played by Denève and the band, with a shout-out due to Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews for the tranquil start of the resurrection/acceptance theme. Lee was also on hand Saturday night to share in the generous applause.

Sadly, the St. Louis Public Radio broadcasts of current SLSO concerts are not available online and there are no recordings of this work available at YouTube, Spotify, or Amazon Music. I have, however, added an album of Lee’s piano music to my Spotify playlist for this concert, and you can hear his “Towards a Greater Light” for string orchestra on YouTube, so you can get some idea of what his stuff sounds like.

Up next was the Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47 by Jean Sibelius. Originally presented in 1904 and then, after a thorough drubbing by critics, premiered in a substantially revised form in 1905, the work is deeply informed by the composer’s love of his native Finland’s forests and striking but somewhat forbidding landscape. I have always found it to be a dramatic and often emotionally intense piece—qualities that were communicated very effectively in Saturday’s deeply committed and finely shaded performance by Denève and soloist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider.

Close friends outside of the concert hall, Szeps-Znaider and Denève have often performed the Sibelius concerto together, a fact which lent an air of intimacy to the performance and often produced the illusion that we were hearing the music of, in the words of novelist Jasper Fforde, “two minds with but a single thought.” Szeps-Znaider’s virtuosity was clearly on display in the challenging first movement cadenza and the galloping final movement, but his technique was always deployed in the service of Sibelius’s dark, passionate soundscape. It was, as well, always completely in synch with Denève’s nuanced approach to the work.

I’m not sure I’m completely persuaded by that approach, especially when it seemed to pull back a bit from some of the more dramatic episodes. Still, that restraint made some of the big moments—like the first brass chord in the opening movement—that much more powerful. And the final pages of the closing Allegro, ma non tanto packed a wallop. So on the whole, I can’t complain.

The audience certainly approved. Szeps-Znaider and Denève got a solid, prolonged ovation, after which Szeps-Znaider took up the microphone to let us all know how much he had enjoyed his two-week residency here and express his deep admiration and affection for the orchestra. “You’ve got a good thing going here,” he said, and he clearly meant it. He then gave us an encore: Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebeslied” with Denève at the piano, in an echt Viennese performance infused with sentiment and topped with schlag—the musical equivalent of what the Viennese call a Franziskaner. They were clearly enjoying the hell out of it, and that joy was (if you’ll excuse my use of the word) infectious.

Stéphane Denève and Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider

It would have taken some seriously contagious joy, though, to stand up to the harsh, cold winds that blow through the final work of the evening, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor. Written over the course of three months in 1937 it was, at the time, seen as an attempt by the composer to get himself off of Stalin’s blacklist, since being on it was likely to end not just his career but his life. He even went so far as to accompany the first performance with an article in the Moscow newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva titled "A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism"—lest there be any doubt that he had Learned His Lesson.

It worked. Official response was enthusiastic, and Shostakovich was officially rehabilitated. Even in the West the work was, well through the 1960s, seen as an example of unabashed pandering to mandatory patriotism. As Maestro Denève pointed out, however, great music is nothing if not ambiguous, and as more details began to emerge about what composer’s private thoughts might have been about the fifth symphony, critics and conductors began to realize that something much darker lurked beneath the brilliant orchestration, memorable tunes, and apparent bombast of the Allegro non troppo finale.

That something was a portrait of the grim reality of life in a one-party state run by a mass murderer and his ethically challenged enablers. "Many in the premiere audience were seen to weep openly," wrote Richard Freed in his liner notes for the SLSO’s 1986 recording of the work. "They wept, Shostakovich himself felt, because 'they understood; they understood what was happening around them and they understood what the Fifth was about.'"

These days, performances of the symphony are more likely to emphasize that dark side. Denève’s certainly did. The emotional impact of this engrossing and devastating reading left me unsure what the appropriate response was. Should I sit there in stunned silence at the brutality of the thundering finale, or should I give this reading the enthusiastic standing ovation it so richly deserved? I opted for the latter, partly because it had been so brilliantly done and partly to shake off uneasy feeling that (to paraphrase Jon Landau’s famous review of Bruce Springsteen in 1974) I had heard America’s future and its name was Dmitri Shostakovich.

Conducting without a score, Denève gave us a Fifth that began with a cry of pain in the strings, followed by snarling march from the brass and percussion sowing death and destruction. The first movement ends with nobody left to tell the tale except the harp and celesta (Allegra Lilly and Peter Henderson, respectively, in a beautifully tragic duet) quietly commenting on the smoking ruin of the battlefield.

And so it went for the next three movements. The Allegretto was a lumbering waltz of storm troopers, briefly interrupted by graceful ballerina (Concertmaster David Halen, in a touching solo assisted by Lilly and flutist Jennifer Nitchman). She tries to return in a pleading English horn solo by Jelena Dirks but is ultimately banished from the scene. The Largo that made Russians weep is pure desolation, ending in tranquil string chords that fade to a silence which is violently broken, after only a brief pause, by the aggressive final movement.

Here, in a fusillade of blazing brass and pounding percussion, the Soviet bureaucrats heard triumph, affirmation, and apotheosis. And perhaps, in that first performance, conductor Evgeny Mravisnky made sure it came across that way. But, as Mr. Denève demonstrated Saturday night, it only takes a few adjustments to reveal the coercion behind that triumph. The slow, relentless hammer blows of the percussion in the coda sounded less like affirmation and more like a case of “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” The effect was both thrilling and horrifying.

I don’t know how well that all came across in the live broadcast, but in Powell Hall it was shattering. Kudos to everyone involved and especially to Maestro Denève for what must have been a physically and emotionally draining experience.

Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and pianist Víkingur Ólafsson in Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, and Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers.” Performances take place Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 13 and 14, at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. There will also be a special Crafted Happy Hour performance of Beethoven’s Fifth on Friday, November 12, at 6:30 pm at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the UMSL campus.

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