Sunday, March 27, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of March 28, 2022

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.


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 on most major platforms including Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube, and BandCamp. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

My Fair Lady
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Fabulous Fox presents the Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady running through April 3. ‘From Lincoln Center Theater that brought you The King & I and South Pacific, comes “a sumptuous new production of the most perfect musical of all time” (Entertainment Weekly), Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY.  Boasting such classic songs as “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “On the Street Where You Live,” MY FAIR LADY tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, a young Cockney flower seller, and Henry Higgins, a linguistics professor who is determined to transform her into his idea of a “proper lady.”  But who is really being transformed?’  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 Bullets in the Bathtub J through May 7. "Mob bosses, flappers, bootleggers and crooked cops will abound as event attendees are transported back in time to Trixie's speakeasy right in the heart of the roaring 20's. There will be plenty of rowdy characters at this fun, interactive event but none so dangerous as Harry "Bullets" Hyde. He’s the boss of the bosses and he is not too keen on "The Familys" taking over his territory. Parts will be passed out at the door and guests can participate as much or as little as they would like too. Some might be famous gangsters of the past, others may dodge the cops as they bootleg over state lines and a few might even be fun, flirty flappers. When a group like this gets together, it’s almost inevitable that somebody ends up "sleeping with the fishes." The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Proof
Photo: Phillip Hamer
Moonstone Theatre Company presents David Auburn’s Proof Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 PM, through April 10.  “The play begins on the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, Catherine, a troubled young woman, who has spent years caring for her brilliant but unstable father, a famous mathematician. Now, following his death, she must deal with her own volatile emotions; the arrival of her estranged sister, Claire; and the attentions of Hal, a former student of her father’s who hopes to find valuable work in the 103 notebooks that her father left behind. Over the long weekend that follows, a burgeoning romance and the discovery of a mysterious notebook draw Catherine into the most difficult problem of all: How much of her father’s madness-or genius-will she inherit?” Performances take place at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center studio theatre in Kirkwood. For more information: https://moonstonetheatrecompany.com

New Jewish Theatre presents Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm through April 10. “Laughter on the 23rd Floor is inspired by the Simon’s youthful experience as a staff writer on Sid Caesars’s Your Show of Shows. This ensemble comedy features all the comic dramas as the harried writing staff frantically scramble to top each other’s gags while competing for the attention of star madman, Max Prince.” Performances take place at the SFC Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information: jccstl.com/arts-ideas/new-jewish-theatre

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents The 39 Steps through April 10. “Hitchcock meets hilarity in this madcap comedic thriller. Richard Hannay is an everyday bloke looking for a little more excitement in his life. But he gets more than he bargains for when he is unwittingly plunged into the world of spies, agents and espionage. Now it’s up to him, with the help of a mysterious woman, to thwart the plot of the dubious organization known as “The 39 Steps.” Don’t miss the tour de force performances as four actors take on over 150 roles in a plot packed with intrigue, international danger, old-fashioned romance, high-spirited comedy and a death-defying finale!” 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

Behind the Sheet
The St. Louis Black Repertory Company presents Behind the Sheet by Charly Evon Simpson through April 3. "Behind the Sheet follows several Black women who suffered invasive experimental surgeries while enslaved on a plantation in Alabama during the 1840s. Although the story is fictionalized, it is deeply rooted in history and the early career of Dr. J. Marion Sims, considered the founder of modern gynecology." Performances take place at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at Center of Creative Arts (COCA) in University City. For more information: www.theblackrep.org.

The St. Louis Writers' Group presents A Show of Hands – a play reading event featuring the work of deaf, hard of hearing, disabled and neurodivergent playwrights, read by deaf actors in ASL alongside voice actors – on Tuesday, March 29 at 6:30 p.m. The reading takes place at Urban Chestnut, 4465 Manchester in the Grove. For more information, visit the St. Louis Writers' Group Facebook page.

Webster Conservatory presents Burial at Thebes April 1-3 “Seamus Heaney's translation of Sophocles' Antigone, commissioned by Ireland's Abbey Theatre to commemorate its centennial, exposes the darkness and the humanity in the Greek masterpiece, inking it with Heaney's own modern and masterly touch. Burial at Thebes stands as a timely exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual's human rights and those who must protect the state's security.” Performances take place in the Stage II Audiorium in the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus in Webster Groves. For more information: www.webster.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.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Opera Review: Lovely to look at, delightful to hear: 'Madama Butterfly" at Winter Opera

This Friday and Saturday, March 25 and 26, Winter Opera presents a polished, musically impeccable production of the 1907 version of Puccini’s “Japanese tragedy” "Madama Butterfly." Beautifully sung and respectably acted overall, with fine playing by the orchestra under the baton of Ed Benyas, this might not be the best “Butterfly” I’ve ever seen, but it’s good one and should appeal to those who love this popular opera.

I, alas, am not one of those people.

Seon Duk Kim, Jonathan Kaufman
Photo Riq Dilly

My issues are mostly about the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on a play by David Belasco. On the one hand, I have always regarded Pinkerton, the sailor who seduces and abandons the title character, as arrogant, self-centered, and chauvinistic. On the other hand, the Geisha Cio-Cio-San (a.k.a. Madama Butterfly) displays a degree of naiveté that, despite her youth (she's supposed to be fifteen when she marries Pinkerton), borders on the delusional.

As a result, this tragedy has always struck me as a bit forced. The libretto also spends far too much time (two entire acts) chronicling Cio-Cio-San’s decline and fall. Citing Butterfly as an example, Dr. Ross Hagen has observed that there is “an impulse towards sadism in Puccini’s treatment of these ill-fated heroines that he has supposedly come to empathize with.” I’m inclined to agree.

Winter Opera has, in any event, assembled a strong cast here, headed by Seon Duk Kim in the title role and tenor Jonathan Kaufman as the appalling Pinkerton. Their voices blend beautifully in the long and rapturous Act I love duet “Bimba, Bimba, non piangere” ("Sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep") And a good thing, too, since the contrast between the diminutive Kim (who really does look like a teenager in the role) and the imposing Kaufman tend to give the entire business a creepy, child molester vibe. Legally, after all, Pinkerton is committing what in our day would be statutory rape.

L-R: Michael Nansel, Jonathan Kaufman
Photo: Riq Dilly

Both singers have strong individual moments as well. Kim's small but crystalline singing makes her "Un bel dì vedremo" (the opera's Big Hit) a lovely thing and Kaufman's big, clear voice drives home the nationalistic braggadocio of “Dovunque al mondo” ("Throughout the world"), his Act I duet with the American Consul Sharpless (baritone Michael Nansel, in another solid performance).

The best combination of acting and singing skills, though, can be found among the supporting roles. In addition to Nansel’s compassionate Sharpless, we have mezzo Sara Louise Petrocelli’s tragically loyal Suzuki, bass-baritone Joseph Park as the romantically disappointed Prince Yamadori, and tenor Marc Schapman as the scheming marriage broker Goro. Director Mark Freiman also has an impressive moment in the cameo bass role of The Bonze, who self-righteously excoriates Butterfly for converting to “the American God.”

The Winter Opera chorus continues their unblemished record of producing a small but mighty sound while still creating individual characters in the process.

Seon Duk Kim and chorus
Photo: Riq Dilly

Freiman and his team have put a lot of care into making this "Madama Butterfly" look and feel authentic—which is considerably more than Puccini and his librettists did.  Lauren Smith Bearden’s costumes and Scott Loebl’s simple but effective set firmly establish the Japan of the librettists’ imagination, assisted by Jessica Dana’s wigs and makeup.

In the 2020/2021 season, “Madama Butterfly” was the 6th Most Performed Opera in the world according to Operabase, so my disdain for it puts me in the minority. If you're in the majority, I don't think you can go wrong with this production. Winter Opera continues to maintain a high standard of quality on a relatively low budget, and that is most admirable.

Winter Opera presents “Madama Butterfly” Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 2 pm, March 25 and 26, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. For more information, visit the Winter Opera web site.

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

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Symphony Review: Elegant Gershwin and persuasive Rachmaninoff highlight a St. Louis Symphony concert

In his comments from the podium at the beginning of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert last Saturday (March 19), Music Director Stéphane Denève talked about the Zoom conference he had with composer James Lee III, whose tone poem “Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan” opened the evening. Lee noted that this memorial to Harriet Tubman—the legendary abolitionist, suffragist, and creator of the Underground Railroad—is ultimately “about the freedom, love, and respect that any human deserves.”

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

That’s certainly a message that needs to be heard these days. That said, I’m not sure it really comes across in this dramatically charged but rather clangorous work. The opening section, which depicts Tubman’s escape from slavery with an agitated four-note figure on the marimba, xylophones, and English horn is certainly attention grabbing in an action movie way, but it wears out its welcome rather quickly. The English horn also gets remarkably few solo passages, given its stated status as a musical protagonist. Overall, “Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan” lacks the kind of emotional impact that was so apparent in Lee’s 2018 “Emotive Transformations” in its SLSO premiere last November.

Still, Denève and the band did an outstanding job with it. Cally Banham’s English horn sang beautifully and the percussion section displayed their versatility on everything from gong to glockenspiel. Like so many newer scores, “Chuphshah!” demands a lot from the orchestra, and it got it.

L-R: Stéphane Denève and Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Up next was Gershwin’s Concerto in F, written in 1925. Coming just a year after the somewhat rough-hewn “Rhapsody in Blue,” the concerto displays how Gershwin’s development as a serious composer and orchestrator proceeded with supernatural rapidity. It’s a beautifully crafted piece: lean, powerful, without a spare note.

Denève often describes Soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as “the most American of the French pianists,” and his performance demonstrated the truth of that appellation. Although he and Denève sounded a bit out of synch at times during the first movement, Thibaudet nevertheless showed the same impressive technique that we heard last week in Saint-Saëns’s “Egyptian” Concerto, especially in the dynamic third movement. He was also elegant and understated when necessary, most notable in the blues-infused second movement. It was a finely balanced combination of American drive and French élégance.

The same was true of Denève’s interpretation. As is so often the case with his work, there were levels of finesse and subtle variations in tone and emphasis that added depth to the performance. The orchestra played with its customary perfection, including outstanding solos by Associate Principal Trumpet Tom Drake in the gritty and elegiac second movement and Principal Flute Andrea Kaplan in the Allegro Agitato finale.

The concert concluded with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 from 1936, when the composer was living in exile in Switzerland. Cut off from his Russian roots and taking up a form he had abandoned two decades earlier, Rachmaninoff produced a symphony of striking originality. His melancholy romanticism and melodic gift are there, but they are infused with an element of harmonic and structural modernism. The second movement, for example, embeds a spiky, almost-Prokofiev scherzo in the middle of a lyrical Adagio, and the symphony itself is cast in three movements rather than the traditional four. It’s a work that constantly changes emotional gears, building to impressive climaxes that suddenly dissipate into lyrical rumination.

It is, in short, a symphony that requires a conductor with a deep understanding of Rachmaninoff’s intentions and the ability to make them clear to the listener. Denève clearly has that understanding and ability, resulting in a very persuasive accounting of this rather neglected work that called to mind, at times, the composer’s own 1939 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

This being Rachmaninoff, there were many solo opportunities, and so we had fine individual performances by, among others, Principal Horn Roger Kaza, Principal Harp Allegra Lilly, Concertmaster David Halen and, in the final movement, Principal Flute Andrea Kaplan. The Symphony No. 3 is a bit more transparently scored than the composer’s earlier works, which makes those little unaccompanied moments all the more important.

I doubt that Rachmaninoff’s last symphony will ever be as popular as the first two. Its charms are a bit elusive and it demands more of the listener but is, in the final analysis, worth the effort.

Next at Powell Hall: The official season takes a break for some special events, with the regular season returning April 6-8:

All events take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

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

Sunday, March 20, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of March 21, 2022

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.


Bob Wetzel and the band
The Blue Strawberry presents Mama Cass - The Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon with Broadway star Bob Wetzel on Saturday at 7:30 March 26. “Bob Wetzel’s Mama Cass show features some of most beautiful music of the 60s and 70s, all with fresh arrangements. Having done tons of research, Bob has created a show that tells the story of Mama Cass and the Laurel Canyon sound. Cass was at the center of it all. She was the networker, the one who brought them all together. It was to her house on Lookout Mountain that neighbors Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, Gram Parsons, David Crosby and many others come to share ideas and make music.  It was an epoch-making moment in musical time, fully captured and fully realized in Bob's new show."  Carol Schmidt is pianist and music director for the show, which also features Steve Schenkel on guitar and Rick Vice on bass. 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 on most major platforms including Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube, and BandCamp. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

My Fair Lady
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Fabulous Fox presents the Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady running through April 3. ‘From Lincoln Center Theater that brought you The King & I and South Pacific, comes “a sumptuous new production of the most perfect musical of all time” (Entertainment Weekly), Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY.  Boasting such classic songs as “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “On the Street Where You Live,” MY FAIR LADY tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, a young Cockney flower seller, and Henry Higgins, a linguistics professor who is determined to transform her into his idea of a “proper lady.”  But who is really being transformed?’  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 Bullets in the Bathtub J through May 7. "Mob bosses, flappers, bootleggers and crooked cops will abound as event attendees are transported back in time to Trixie's speakeasy right in the heart of the roaring 20's. There will be plenty of rowdy characters at this fun, interactive event but none so dangerous as Harry "Bullets" Hyde. He’s the boss of the bosses and he is not too keen on "The Familys" taking over his territory. Parts will be passed out at the door and guests can participate as much or as little as they would like too. Some might be famous gangsters of the past, others may dodge the cops as they bootleg over state lines and a few might even be fun, flirty flappers. When a group like this gets together, it’s almost inevitable that somebody ends up "sleeping with the fishes." The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Proof
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Moonstone Theatre Company presents David Auburn’s Proof Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 PM, through April 10.  “The play begins on the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, Catherine, a troubled young woman, who has spent years caring for her brilliant but unstable father, a famous mathematician. Now, following his death, she must deal with her own volatile emotions; the arrival of her estranged sister, Claire; and the attentions of Hal, a former student of her father’s who hopes to find valuable work in the 103 notebooks that her father left behind. Over the long weekend that follows, a burgeoning romance and the discovery of a mysterious notebook draw Catherine into the most difficult problem of all: How much of her father’s madness-or genius-will she inherit?” Performances take place at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center studio theatre in Kirkwood. For more information: https://moonstonetheatrecompany.com

New Jewish Theatre presents Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm through April 10. “Laughter on the 23rd Floor is inspired by the Simon’s youthful experience as a staff writer on Sid Caesars’s Your Show of Shows. This ensemble comedy features all the comic dramas as the harried writing staff frantically scramble to top each other’s gags while competing for the attention of star madman, Max Prince.” Performances take place at the SFC Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information: jccstl.com/arts-ideas/new-jewish-theatre

Head Over Heels
Photo: Jill Ritter Photography
New Line Theatre presents the musical Head Over Heels through March 26. “Head Over Heels is the bold, sexy new musical comedy from the visionaries that rocked Broadway with American Idiot, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Avenue Q and Spring Awakening. Conceived by Jeff Whitty, with an original book by Whitty, adapted by James Magruder, originally directed by Michael Mayer, based on a novel from 1580 (not kidding!) and set to the music of the iconic 1980s all-girl rock band The Go-Go's, this subversive, high-octane, laugh-out-loud love story includes hit songs like, “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “Mad About You.” The wild story follows the escapades of a royal family who set out on a journey to save their beloved kingdom from extinction -- only to discover the key to their realm’s survival lies within each of their own hearts. . . though not always in the way they expect. . . and in their willingness to let go of rigid tradition and change with the times.” Performances take place at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive. For more information: newlinetheatre.com

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents The 39 Steps through April 10. “Hitchcock meets hilarity in this madcap comedic thriller. Richard Hannay is an everyday bloke looking for a little more excitement in his life. But he gets more than he bargains for when he is unwittingly plunged into the world of spies, agents and espionage. Now it’s up to him, with the help of a mysterious woman, to thwart the plot of the dubious organization known as “The 39 Steps.” Don’t miss the tour de force performances as four actors take on over 150 roles in a plot packed with intrigue, international danger, old-fashioned romance, high-spirited comedy and a death-defying finale!” 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

The St. Louis Black Repertory Company presents Behind the Sheet by Charly Evon Simpson through April 3. "Behind the Sheet follows several Black women who suffered invasive experimental surgeries while enslaved on a plantation in Alabama during the 1840s. Although the story is fictionalized, it is deeply rooted in history and the early career of Dr. J. Marion Sims, considered the founder of modern gynecology." Performances take place at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at Center of Creative Arts (COCA) in University City. For more information: www.theblackrep.org.

Madama Butterfly
Photo Riq Dilly
Winter Opera presents Puccini’s Madama Butterfly Sunday at 2 pm, March 27. “An enduring tale of unrequited love, this heartbreaking story will tug at the heart strings of the romantic as beautiful, innocent Madame Butterfly awaits the return of her American husband.” Performances take place at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, 201 E. Monroe in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: https://www.winteroperastl.org

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Symphony Preview: A passion for freedom

This weekend (Friday and Saturday, April 18 and 19), Stéphane Denève leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) in a trio of deeply passionate works, including a local premiere that pays tribute to an important historical figure whose 200th birthday is being observed this year.

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

That figure is Harriet Tubman, the legendary abolitionist, suffragist, and creator of the Underground Railroad, the network of like-minded Americans who helped runaway slaves escape to freedom in the north. “Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan” by James Lee III (whose “Emotive Transformations” was performed by the orchestra last November) celebrates Tubman’s life and work in a dynamic tone poem that opens with her own escape from slavery rendered as rapid four-note figures on the marimba and the English horn (the instrument that represents Tubman throughout the work).

James Lee III and Stèphane Denève in 2021

The strong emotions that prompted her to take on the dangerous role of “conductor” of the Underground Railroad can be heard in the more contemplative central section. References to the Civil War soon show up in quotes from hymns and songs of the period—most notably “Dixie” (written, ironically, by a Northerner who denounced its appropriation by the Confederacy) and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—as well as in a “battle music” section that begins with an ominous theme in the contrabassoon and bass clarinet. The work concludes with a triumphal vision of Tubman’s 1913 funeral (a large affair with up to 1000 mourners) as a military ceremony, with trumpets and drums.

Regarding the title: “Chuphshah” is Hebrew for “freedom” while Canaan is an ancient (2nd millennium BC) Semitic civilization which eventually became a synonym for the “promised land” of the Bible. For enslaved black Americans, it was also a synonym for the free states of the North. Being on the Underground Railroad meant you were “bound for Canaan.”

Gershwin in 1937
Photo: Carl Van Vechten
en.wikipedia.org

Closing the first half of the program is Gershwin's 1925 Concerto in F. The piano soloist is Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who is completing a two-week gig here in town.  The concerto isn't particularly complex from a purely structural point of view, but I still find it amazing to contemplate that it was written only a year after the far more rudimentary “Rhapsody in Blue.” Gershwin's development as a serious composer took place with an almost supernatural rapidity, as though he somehow knew that his life on this planet would be tragically short (he died of a brain tumor just a few months short of his 40th birthday).

As it is, the Concerto is a beautifully crafted piece: lean, powerful, without a spare note.  Reviewing the December 3, 1925, premiere of the concerto for the New York World, critic Samuel Chotzinoff noted that Gershwin's "shortcomings are nothing in the face of the one thing he alone of all those writing the music of today possesses.  He actually expresses us.  He is the present, with all its audacity, impertinence, its feverish delight in its motion, its lapses into rhythmically exotic melancholy."  You can feel and hear that "jazz age" urgency in every note of this music.

Ferde Grofé, who orchestrated the “Rhapsody in Blue,” also prepared a jazz band transcription of the concerto. Thibaudet recorded it with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony in 2010. I have included that version in my Spotify playlist this week just for comparison, even though the version we’ll be hearing is Gershwin’s original. The performance of the latter that I picked for the playlist was recorded in 1990 by our own SLSO conducted by Leonard Slatkin with Jeffrey Siegel at the keyboard.

Did you know, by the way, that George Gershwin actually conducted the SLSO in a benefit concert on March 1st, 1936, the year before he died? The program included the Concerto in F and selections from "Porgy and Bess," along with Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6." I wish I had Dr. Who's T.A.R.D.I.S. for that one.

Serge Rachmaninoff, circa 1936

The concerts conclude with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3. The composer’s last essay in the form, it was written in 1936, nearly two decades after the composer had begun living in exile and almost three decades since his Symphony No. 2. He had vowed never to write another symphony after that one but, as Tim Lully suggests in his program notes, something about life at the villa he and his wife had built on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland a few years earlier must have re-ignited his symphonic fire.

It is, in any case, a work of striking originality. It’s unorthodox in form (the second movement, for example, embeds a spiky Prokofiev-style scherzo in the middle of a lyrical Adagio) and startling in its occasionally un-Romantic harmonies. Tom Service, in a wonderfully cogent analysis for The Guardian, notes that its “a subtly radical structure” presents the “modern, even modernist, idea” of being able “to speak on multiple expressive levels simultaneously, to say one thing and mean another.”

The third isn’t Rachmaninoff’s most popular symphony by any means—the SLSO hasn’t played it since 2010—so this will be a rare opportunity to hear this remarkable work. The performance in my Spotify playlist (Maris Jansons with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic) is one of Service’s top three recordings.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts and Jean-Yves Thibaudet returns as soloist for Gershwin’s Concerto in F. The program opens with “Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan” by contemporary American composer James Lee III and concludes with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3. Performances take place Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, March 18 and 19 at Powell Hall in Grand Center. Saturday’s concert will also be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3 both over the air and on the Internet. Denève also conducts the orchestra and cellist Alvin McCall in a 90th birthday tribute to John Williams on Sunday, March 20, at 3 pm.

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

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Symphony Preview: Exotic sounds dominate a lively St. Louis Symphony concert

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concerts last weekend (April 12 and 13) opened with a pair of local premieres—one of which no doubt came as a surprise to most of the audience as it wasn’t listed in the program.

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

Members of the Metropolitan Opera sing
the Ukrainian anthem

That unlisted item was “Shche ne vmerla Ukrainas” (“Ukraine Has Not Ye Perished”), more commonly known as the Ukrainian national anthem. Formally adopted in 1991, the anthem has music by priest and composer Mykhailo Verbytsky and a text by poet Pavlo Chubynsky. As Stan Moore wrote in a recent article for the British radio station Classic FM, “one of the world’s mightiest patriotic songs.”

The rousing performance by Stéphane Denève and the SLSO Saturday night certainly demonstrated the truth of that. With all of the musicians and the vast majority of the audience standing in support of the beleaguered nation, it was a moving experience—and a reminder of the “parlous times” [in which we live. English translations of the text vary widely, but this one by Ihor W. Slabicky at the Toronto Ukrainian Genealogy Group site feels extremely relevant right now:

Ukraine's glory hasn't perished, nor her freedom
Upon us, fellow compatriots, fate shall smile once more.
Our enemies will vanish, like dew in the morning sun,
And we too shall rule, brothers, in a free land of our own.

We'll lay down our souls and bodies to attain our freedom,
And we'll show that we, brothers, are of the Kozak nation.

“Alle Menschen werden Brüder,” as Schiller wrote two centuries ago.

Up next was the scheduled local premiere, which was also a world premiere: the “Goddess Triptych” by contemporary (b. 1969) American composer Stacy Garrop. Written for the SLSO and commissioned by the League of American Orchestras, the work is a brief (15 minutes) suite depicting scenes from the legends of three Hindu goddesses: Durga, Lakshmi, and Ganga. Scored for a massive orchestra with a substantial percussion battery (including a thunder sheet and a LOT of drums), the “Triptych” tells its tales in the kind of vivid detail which would have impressed even Richard Strauss.

“Durga Battles a Buffalo Demon” starts big and gets bigger as the eighteen-armed goddess engages in violent conflict with the fearsome demon. The orchestra unleashes a wild array of sounds, including a semi-musical scraping noise created by strumming the undampened bass strings of a piano. Durga finally beheads the demon in what Denève, in his pre-concert talk, called “the loudest sound I have ever heard from an orchestra,” after which the strummed piano strings have the last word, slowly fading into silence.

Stacy Garrop
Photo: Joe Francavalla

In “Lakshmi Sits on a Lotus Blossom,” a contemplative piccolo solo (neatly done by Ann Choomack, who also had some fine moments later in the concert) introduces us to the four-handed goddess of beauty, fertility, and fortune as she meditates serenely in the middle of a lotus blossom. Playing at the top of her register, Principal Harp Allegra Lilly joined Choomack to suggest Lakshmi floating in some ethereal, sparkling light. The brass and percussion sections joined the harp to depict Lakshmi opening her lower two hands to spill gold coins from her palms, after which the meditative mood returned.

In final section, “Ganga Cascades from the Heavens,” the titular personification of the river Ganges dances through the skies to the sound of scurrying strings until Vishnu, in the brasses, kicks a hole in the wall of heaven and Ganga plummets to earth in rapidly descending string figures accompanied by a rainstick. Shiva breaks the fall of Ganga’s massive liquid column and she flows off into multiple melodic streams.

Does this sound like a film soundtrack? Yes, it does; but in a good way. The form of the symphonic poem—music inspired by and descriptive of a non-musical source—has been in decline for far too long. It’s good to see new composers taking it up again, especially when it’s done with the degree of imagination and inventiveness Garrop shows in her “Goddess Triptych.” I was pleased to see that Garrop herself was present Saturday night to share in the richly deserved standing ovation.

The first half of the program ended with music that also has its share of exotic sounds: the Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, op. 103 (“Egyptian”), written during an 1896 winter trip to the monuments of Luxor by the peripatetic Camille Saint-Saëns. One of the souvenirs he brought back was "a Nubian love song which I heard sung by boatmen on the Nile.” It served as the basis for some unusual harmonic effects in the concerto’s long second movement which, in the composer’s words, “takes us, in effect, on a journey to the East and even, in the passage in F-sharp, to the Far East."

L-R: Stéphane Denève and Jean-Yves Thibaudet

The soloist this weekend was former SLSO Artist in Residence Jean-Yves Thibaudet. He and Maestro Denève have worked together many times in the past, as was apparent in their impeccable collaboration on this work.

Thibaudet demonstrated that he could produce the elegant arpeggios and power chords of the Allegro animato first movement with equal facility. The chromatic passages and the bell-like sounds of the Andante second movement came across with impressive clarity, and the Molto allegro finale overflowed with cheerful energy. Denève was with him all the way leading the musicians in a finely wrought interpretation with excellent sonic balance between soloist and ensemble.

The inevitable standing ovation was followed by a sweet encore: Elgar’s “Salut d’amour.” It was a perfect contrast to the vigor of the concerto’s finale.

After intermission came a double helping of ballet: Paul Dukas’s one act “La Péri” (including its famous brass fanfare) and a suite from Stravinsky’s “L'Oiseau de feu” (“The Firebird”). The two ballets were composed within a year of each other—“La Péri” in 1911 and “The Firebird” in 1910—and were both originally scheduled to be premiered by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, although only “Firebird” made the final cut.

Based on Persian folklore, “La Péri” is the story of prince Iskender’s theft of the Flower of Immortality from a sleeping peri (a winged female fairy)—an action he comes to regret. The music is lush and suffused with some of same perfume of the cultural phenomenon of Orientalism that you hear in the Saint-Saëns concerto. The score has some very florid and tricky writing for the woodwind section, perfectly executed by the members of the band. The horns covered themselves with glory here, as they did throughout the evening, and the brass section was commanding in the opening fanfare. Denève drew out all the hothouse exoticism of the work in a very persuasive reading of this often neglected music.

Denève and the SLSO take bows after
Firebird

The evening that began with the Ukrainian anthem ended with a Russian ballet, which somehow felt appropriate. “Firebird” was the score that put Stravinsky on the map, musically speaking, and it remains one of his most popular works. Stravinsky prepared two concert suites from the ballet: one in 1910 and another in 1945. The noted Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet also created one in 1919, which the composer later revised. Denève chose the 1919 suite but with the slightly leaner 1945 orchestration.

Conducting without a score, Denève led the orchestra in a genuine rouser of a performance. The opening tempo hit just the right balance of energy and menace with the growling theme in the low strings that will eventually become the glowing, triumphant chords of the finale. The quick woodwind interchanges were meticulous. The big percussion bang that opens the “Infernal dance of King Kashchei” was like a thunderclap, coming as it did after the quiet conclusion of “The Princesses' Khorovod” (round dance). Andrew Cuneo’s bassoon solo in the “Berceuse” was haunting, and the finale was simply resplendent. Its impact was enhanced by the wide dynamic contrast between the hushed opening horn solo (marked dolce, cantabile—“sweet, singing”—and certainly played that way by Roger Kaza) and those fortississimo ( “very loud”) closing notes.

Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève conducts and Jean-Yves Thibaudet returns as soloist for Gershwin’s Concerto in F. The program opens with “Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan” by contemporary American composer James Lee III and concludes with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3. Performances take place Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, March 18 and 19 at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

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

Sunday, March 13, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of March 14, 2022

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 Blue Strawberry presents a Singers Open Mic Night with host Chuck Lavazzi and pianist Carol Schmidt on Tuesday, March 15, from 7 to 9:30 pm. 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. This month it's a special "it's almost St. Patrick's Day" edition where we encourage songs that are in any way remotely related to the day on which drinking green beer is seen as normal. Or you can just relax, have a drink, and enjoy the music.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 on most major platforms including Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube, and BandCamp. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

The Kirkwood Theatre Guild presents Calendar Girls through March 20. “After the death of her best friend’s husband from cancer, spirited Yorkshire housewife Chris Harper hatches a scheme to raise money for a memorial to him. Utilizing a tradition from the Woman’s Institute association, Chris encourages Annie and their friends to create a calendar – with the novel detail of using the middle-aged women of their village as nude models. Based on the true story of eleven women who posed nude for a calendar to raise money for the Leukemia Research Fund.” Performances take place at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center at 210 E. Monroe Avenue in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: www.ktg-onstage.org

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present Bullets in the Bathtub J through May 7. "Mob bosses, flappers, bootleggers and crooked cops will abound as event attendees are transported back in time to Trixie's speakeasy right in the heart of the roaring 20's. There will be plenty of rowdy characters at this fun, interactive event but none so dangerous as Harry "Bullets" Hyde. He’s the boss of the bosses and he is not too keen on "The Familys" taking over his territory. Parts will be passed out at the door and guests can participate as much or as little as they would like too. Some might be famous gangsters of the past, others may dodge the cops as they bootleg over state lines and a few might even be fun, flirty flappers. When a group like this gets together, it’s almost inevitable that somebody ends up "sleeping with the fishes." The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Head Over Heels
Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre presents the musical Head Over Heels through March 26. “Head Over Heels is the bold, sexy new musical comedy from the visionaries that rocked Broadway with American Idiot, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Avenue Q and Spring Awakening. Conceived by Jeff Whitty, with an original book by Whitty, adapted by James Magruder, originally directed by Michael Mayer, based on a novel from 1580 (not kidding!) and set to the music of the iconic 1980s all-girl rock band The Go-Go's, this subversive, high-octane, laugh-out-loud love story includes hit songs like, “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “Mad About You.” The wild story follows the escapades of a royal family who set out on a journey to save their beloved kingdom from extinction -- only to discover the key to their realm’s survival lies within each of their own hearts. . . though not always in the way they expect. . . and in their willingness to let go of rigid tradition and change with the times.” Performances take place at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive. For more information: newlinetheatre.com

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents The 39 Steps March 18 to April 10. “Hitchcock meets hilarity in this madcap comedic thriller. Richard Hannay is an everyday bloke looking for a little more excitement in his life. But he gets more than he bargains for when he is unwittingly plunged into the world of spies, agents and espionage. Now it’s up to him, with the help of a mysterious woman, to thwart the plot of the dubious organization known as “The 39 Steps.” Don’t miss the tour de force performances as four actors take on over 150 roles in a plot packed with intrigue, international danger, old-fashioned romance, high-spirited comedy and a death-defying finale!” 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

The St. Louis Black Repertory Company presents Behind the Sheet by Charly Evon Simpson March 16 - April 3. "Behind the Sheet follows several Black women who suffered invasive experimental surgeries while enslaved on a plantation in Alabama during the 1840s. Although the story is fictionalized, it is deeply rooted in history and the early career of Dr. J. Marion Sims, considered the founder of modern gynecology." Performances take place at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at Center of Creative Arts (COCA) in University City. For more information: www.theblackrep.org.

The St. Louis Writers' Group presents a reading of the new play Code by Dennis Fisher on Tuesday, March 15th, at 6:30 pm,  The reading takes place upstairs at Big Daddy's in Soulard and will be streamed live via Zoom. More information is available at the St. Louis Writers Group Facebook page.

The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves presents Aaron Sorkin’s drama A Few Good Men through March 22. “Military lawyers at a court-martial uncover a high-level conspiracy in the course of defending their clients, two US Marines accused of murder” Performances take place at 517 Theatre Lane at the corner of Newport and Summit in Webster Groves. For more information: the Theatre Guild Facebook event page.

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, March 10, 2022

Symphony Preview: Myth management

My wife and I have become dedicated travelers over the last couple of decades, but we can't hold a candle to the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Over the course of his long (1835-1921) and prosperous life, his peregrinations took him all over Europe as well as to England, the United States, and even (in 1896) to Algeria and Egypt.

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

Saint-Saën in 1900
By Petit, Pierre (1831-1909)
Photographer Restored by Adam Cuerden

A musical souvenir of the latter trip closes the first half of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concerts this weekend (March 11-13) as pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet joins Stéphane Denève for the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, op. 103 (“Egyptian”). As Michael Steinberg writes in his program notes for the San Francisco Symphony, the concerto picked up its nickname from the composer's own comments about the piece, which was written during a winter trip to Luxor:

Of the second movement, Saint-Saëns himself wrote that "it takes us, in effect, on a journey to the East and even, in the passage in F-sharp, to the Far East." First comes an extended introductory section, much of it like recitative, and then the music settles into a pleasant and serene song for piano and strings. Saint-Saëns said that it was "a Nubian love song which I heard sung by boatmen on the Nile as I myself went down the river in a dahabieh."
The sound of that second movement is so exotic that pianist Steven Hough once wrote a tongue-in-cheek explanation of how to achieve it for the April Fool's Day, 2012, edition of his blog at the Daily Telegraph. It's worth reading.

The "Egyptian" concerto hasn't been heard on the Powell Hall stage since 2016, by the way, so this is a rare opportunity for local classical music lovers to catch it live.

Preceding the Saint-Saëns concerto, though, we’ll have a work making its world debut: the “Goddess Triptych” by contemporary (b. 1969) American composer Stacy Garrop. Written for the SLSO and commissioned by the League of American Orchestras, the work was written in 2020 but will be performed for the first time ever this weekend, so I can’t tell you what to expect from it. Your best bet is just to read what the composer herself has to say about it on her web site.

That said, you can get an idea of Garrop’s eclectic style from her “Mythology Symphony,” the first movement of which is part of my Spotify playlist.  At just under 13 minutes it’s almost exactly the same length as the “Goddess Triptych,” so it will give you at least some notion of what you’ll hear.

Stacy Garrop
Photo: Darrell Hoemann Photography

After intermission, we get a double helping of ballet: Paul Dukas’s one act  “La Péri” (including its famous brass fanfare) and a suite from Stravinsky’s “L'Oiseau de feu” (“The Firebird”). The two ballets were composed within a year of each other—“La Péri” in 1911 and “The Firebird” in 1910—and were both originally scheduled to be premiered by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris.

Unfortunately Diaghilev thought Ukrainian dancer Natalia Trouhanova, who was to play the title role in Dukas’s ballet, wasn’t up to the part and the Ballet Russes production was cancelled. The result, as James M. Keller writes in notes for the San Francisco Symphony, was a bit of a scandal.  “The press went berserk, Trouhanova went into a sulk, and Dukas withdrew his score.” Trouhanova eventually emerged from her sulk and produced a “danced concert” version of the ballet in 1912 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris with Dukas at the podium. This was, happily, a hit. “To what can we attribute the deep impression caused by this work, which is undoubtedly a masterpiece?” asked Robert Brussel in “Le Figaro.”  “I believe that it is an element that cannot be measured, the only one that mediates about perfect beauty: poetry.”

Based on Persian folklore, “La Péri” is the story of prince Iskender’s theft of the Flower of Immortality from a sleeping peri (a winged female fairy) and why this turns out to be an unwise decision on his part. The music is lush and suffused with the fashionable perfume of Orientalism. The same scent is discernable in other works from around the same time, including Richard Strauss’s “Salome” (1905) Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le coq d’or” (1909), Florent Schmitt’s “La tragédie du Salomé” (the 1912 expansion of which shared the bill with the “La Péri” premiere) and, of course, “The Firebird.”

The first in what turned out to be a series of successful collaborations between the composer and impresario Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, "Firebird" contains hints of the upheaval Stravinsky would generate with "Rite of Spring" and "Les Noces" but also pays homage to the work of more conservative Russian composers like the aforementioned Rimski-Korsakov and even, in the final moments of the “Infernal dance” number, Ravel.

Stravinsky owed the opportunity to write "Firebird" to the laziness of his former teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Anatoly Lyadov. Diaghilev originally commissioned Lyadov to write the score but (according to Verna Arvey in "Choreographic Music") when, after months of waiting, Diaghilev went to see Lyadov to view his progress, the composer said, "it won't be long now. It's well on its way. I have just bought the ruled paper."

Soon Lyadov was out, and Stravinsky was in.

Costume sketch for The Firebird by Leon Bakst
en.wikipedia.org

The massively successful premiere of "Firebird" put Stravinsky on the map, musically speaking, and it remains one of his most popular works. It also made the composer an instant celebrity, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Sarah Bernhardt. Stravinsky prepared three concert suites from the ballet: one in 1910, a second in 1919, and the third in 1945. The final suite increased the number of selections from five to ten and the running time from 20 minutes to 30 but reduced the size of the orchestra. This weekend we’ll be hearing the shorter 1919 suite but with the 1945 orchestration.

Interested in seeing a complete performance of the ballet? Fortunately, there are two (that I know of) on YouTube. I put them together in a playlist for your convenience. And, of course, there’s a wonderfully excessive recording of the 1919 suite by Leopold Stokowski in my Spotify playlist.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Stacey Garrop’s “Goddess Triptych,” Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”), Dukas’s “La Péri” ballet, and a suite from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, March 12 and 13. Saturday’s concert will also be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3 both over the air and on the Internet. There’s also a special one-hour “Crafted” concert of the Dukas and Stravinsky works on Friday, March 11, at 6:30 pm that includes drink specials and complimentary snacks starting at 5:30 pm. All performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

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

Monday, March 07, 2022

Symphony Review: An all-Mozart program shows that last minute can also be first rate

It’s not easy for big institutions like the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) to change course abruptly but on the relatively rare occasions when necessity has demanded it, they’ve proved to be remarkably nimble in doing so. Last weekend’s program (March 4-6) was a good example.

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

The original plan was for Russian conductor, countertenor, and violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky to conduct Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626 along with a mix of works by J.C. Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel. Sinkovsky would have played the violin in a Vivaldi concerto and sung two Handel arias in addition to leading the orchestra.

Patrick Summers

All that changed early last week when, according to an SLSO press release, Sinkovksy was “unable to travel to St. Louis,” resulting in his replacement with Houston Grand Opera Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers. That meant that while the “Requiem” stayed on the program, everything else had to go.

Which, as it turned out, was not a bad thing at all. The program went from mostly Mozart to all Mozart, and it was all so well done that once you got past the printed program inserts, there was nothing to even hint at last-minute changes.

The revised program began with the overture to “La Clemenza di Tito,” which, like the Requiem, was composed in the last year of Mozart’s life, 1791. As befits an opera that is serious without being tragic—nobody dies because Good Emperor Titus insists on forgiving all his enemies—the overture is majestic and vigorous. Summers’s interpretation was resplendent, especially in the final statement of the martial opening theme, and played with perfection.

Jennifer Johnson Cano
Photo by Fay Fox

One of the characters Titus pardons is Vitellia, who spends most of the opera plotting against Titus and exploiting the noble Sesto towards that end. In her aria “Non più di Fiori” she finally sees the error of her ways and resolves to confess everything. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano brought it to dramatic, deeply felt life Friday night. She has a big voice with solid low notes and put it to good use both here and in the “Requiem” later.

A tip of the critical hat is also due to SLSO clarinetist Ryan Toher, who performed the basset horn obbligato part that Mozart added to the aria for his friend, the clarinet virtuoso Anton Stadler.  Toher played the bubbling arpeggios and long melodic lines with fluid grace.

Roger Kaza

Writing works for his friends was, as Summers pointed out in pre-concert remarks, a common practice for Mozart. For his friend Joseph Leutgeb he wrote four horn concertos which have since become part of the core repertoire for the instrument.  Principal Horn Roger Kaza took us into intermission with a skillful and nuanced rendition of the second of the four concertos. He had a reserved stage presence but a good feel for the light, precise, and cheerful nature of the work that brought enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Before raising his baton for the final work of the evening, the Requiem, Summers asked for a moment of silence for the people of Ukraine, thereby giving an already powerful work an extra sense of immediacy. The SLSO Chorus, silenced for two years by the pandemic (which has also brought its share of unnecessary death), gave eloquent voice to the music, singing with perfect clarity while masked (singer’s masks having been on the market for a while now). The contrapuntal passages—and there are plenty of them—were impressively precise, and the big dramatic sections like the “Dies irae” and “Rex tremendae” were formidable.

Summers’s operatic background was apparent in the well-paced theatricality of his interpretation. It has often been said of Verdi’s “Requiem” that it was one of his best operas, and I think the same is true of Mozart’s. Or would have been if he had lived to finish it. The sense of dramatic continuity in Summers’s reading made it easy to forget that the only part Mozart completed in its entirety was the opening “Introitus—Requiem.” The rest represents a mix of Mozart, his pupil and copyist Franz Xaver Süssmayr, and possibly a few others as well.

L-R: Erica Petrocelli, Jennifer Johnson Cano,
Nicholas Phan, Soloman Howard

Soloists Jennifer Johnson Cano, soprano Erica Petrocelli, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass Soloman Howard were all in excellent form.  Howard’s big, rolling voice blended well with both Amanda Stewart’s flawless trombone solo in the “Tuba mirum” and Phan’s ringing vocals. I’m not sure what the logic was of having Petrocelli deliver her two short solos from downstage right in front of the small positive “box” organ, but doing do nicely highlighted those moments, both in Friday night’s performance and in the Saturday night broadcast.

It was, in short, a potent and moving evening. And a reminder that what’s done at the last minute can still be first rate.

Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève returns to conduct the orchestra and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) along with Dukas’s ballet “La Péri,” a suite from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” and the world premiere of “Goddess Triptych” by contemporary composer Stacy Garrop. Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, March 12 and 13. There’s also a special one-hour “Crafted” concert of the Dukas and Stravinsky works on Friday at 6:30 pm, March 11 that includes drink specials and complimentary snacks.

Members of the SLSO will also perform a concert of contemporary works for chamber ensemble and video at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation on Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm. As is often the case with Pulitzer events, however, both nights are sold out at this time because the performance space there is very small.

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