Sunday, May 15, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of May 16, 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.

The Alpha Players present Tom Sawyer Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sunday (May 29) at 2 pm, May 20 - 29. “Refresh your memory of what it means to be a kid and introduce your kids and grandkids to a classic Missouri tale. What a great way to kick off the summer! All the familiar characters are here – Tom, Huck, Aunt Polly, Becky Thatcher and Injun Joe. Watch as Tom learns the lessons of childhood whether “painting” a fence, getting in trouble in school with the strict Mr. Dobbins, courting Becky Thatcher or glimpsing the murder of Doc Robinson in the graveyard. It’s a classic! Masks are required by the Alpha Players and socially distanced seating will be in place.” Performances take place in the James J. Eagen Center in Florissant. For more information: florissantmo.thundertix.com

The Cabaret Project and The Blue Strawberry present a Singers Open Mic on Tuesday, May 17th, 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. 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 of cabaret in St. Louis."  The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: thecabaretproject.org.

Jason Danieley
The Cabaret Project presents Jason Danieley Wednesday and Thursday, May 18 and 19, at 7:30 pm. “Jason Danieley brings the same dynamic voice, warmth and charm to his Cabaret Series debut as he has to his critically acclaimed, award-winning Broadway roles. Born and raised in St. Louis, Danieley began his career when he was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to play the title role in the Broadway revival of Candide (Theater World Award). From his star turn in Candide, to the original cast of the smash hit The Full Monty and his most recently acclaimed work in the hit musical version of the film Pretty Woman, Jason has entertained audiences on Broadway, in concert halls, and in cabaret rooms across the country. Danieley returns to his hometown to perform a personal evening of songs ranging from Broadway to jazz standards to pop classics.” Performances take place at Jazz St. Louis in Grand Center. For more information: thecabaretproject.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

KTK Productions presents Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady Fridays at 7:30 pm and Sundays 2 pm through May 22. “The Gingerbread Lady is a dark drama with comic overtones centering on Evy Meara, a cabaret singer whose career, marriage, and health all have been destroyed by alcohol. We meet her at the end of a ten week drying out period at a sanitarium when her friend, her daughter, and an actor try to help her adjust to sobriety. The friend is so constantly vain that she loses her husband; the actor, a homosexual, is also doomed, and indeed loses his part three days before an opening; and the daughter needs more affection than she can spare her mother. Evy's efforts at hosting a party crumble when she falls off the wagon and careens toward a tragic end.” Performances take place at St. John the Baptist Parish, 4200 Delor. For more information: kurtainkall.org.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present The Comic Book Killer through August 27. "Calling all superheros and villains! There’s trouble afoot for you both! Evil Doctor Weevil is back and he’s trying to erase your very existence! The time has come to join forces against true evil and restore balance to the comic universe. But who will be the hero or heroes and rid this plain of Evil Dr. Weevil forever? Could it be you? Quick…to the Prius! Dawn your cape and spandex and meet us the famously haunted Lemp Mansion for a mystery like no other! Here I come to save the daaaaaay!!!!"  The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Metro Theater Company presents In My Granny’s Garden live at multiple locations in the bi-state area through June 26 and streaming on line June 1 through 26. “Inspired by the children’s book by acclaimed playwright and New York Times bestselling author Pearl Cleage and her husband, writer and director Zaron W. Burnett Jr., In My Granny’s Garden invites the youngest audiences to explore the glory of growing your own food. Watch a tiny seed become a field of corn, green beans, collard greens, and bright red tomatoes. Step into a visual feast inspired by world renowned artist Radcliffe Bailey’s original paintings, and discover the one superpower that fuels Granny’s garden. The play promises to leave the very young nourished in body and soul. In My Granny's Garden was commissioned by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. For more information: www.metroplays.org

Anomalous Experience
Photo: Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company presents Joe Hanrahan’s Anomalous Experience: A Modern Ghost Story Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm through May 21. “Inspired by true events, the play is designed as a public lecture from a respected psychiatrist. He’s been dealing with professional ridicule for his research into the phenomenon of Alien Abduction. In the course of the play, he will present two patients who, in very different ways, have been victims of their perceived abductions. While he’s not exactly sure what’s going on, the psychiatrist is convinced that something real, something profound, is happening to these people and to our world.“ Performances take place at the .ZACK in Grand Center. For more information: www.midnightcompany.com

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents Bizet’s Carmen opening on Saturday, May 21, at 7:30 pm and running through June 25. “Free, rebellious, and beautiful, Carmen is the most desired woman in town. Every man wants her, and every woman envies her. Sparks fly when Carmen meets the young soldier Don José, and they quickly begin a passionate affair. José is ready to sacrifice everything for Carmen: his reputation, his career, even his family. But when Carmen leaves José for the handsome bullfighter Escamillo, a tangled web of lust, obsession, and jealousy play out to fatal effect.” Opera Theatre requires proof of vaccination and strongly recommends that guests wear a mask during indoor events. Performances are sung in English with projected English supertitles and take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University Campus. For more information: opera-stl.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 continues its in-person 45th Anniversary season with Jitney by August Wilson, through May 29. "Jitney is the eighth play in August Wilson’s ten-play Century Cycle which examines every decade of the 20th century and chronicles Black American history through the lens of The Hill District of Pittsburgh. Set  in 1977, Jitney takes on the devastating impacts of rapid urban renewal. As the city begins to shut down businesses - including the jitney cab station - to make way for new buildings, we meet five gypsy cab drivers as they struggle to survive." For more information: www.theblackrep.org.

The St. Louis Writers' Group presents a reading of Broom – Act II by Mario Farwell on Tuesday, May 17 at 6:30 p.m. “The play explores racism and police misconduct in America.” The reading takes place at Big Daddy’s, 1000 Sidney in Soulard and on line via Facebook. For more information, visit the St. Louis Writers' Group Facebook 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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Digital Symphony Review: The SLSO does recycling in a program of chamber music by Strauss and Schubert

Available for on-demand streaming through August 31st, the fourth of five videos in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s digital series comes from a pair of concerts recorded in an audience-free Powell Hall last spring. Both of the two works on this one-hour program engage in musical recycling but they do so in very different ways.

Till Eulenspiegel, einmal anders!

The video opens with Richard Strauss’s popular orchestral tone poem “Till Eulenspiegels lustige streiche” (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”) retooled by violinist/composer Franz Hasenöhrl  and retitled “Till Eulenspigel, einmal anders!) (“Till Eulenspiegel Another Way!)”.  Hasenöhrl cut Strauss’s piece to half its original length and reorchestrated it for five players, so hearing it is rather like viewing Strauss’s big, splashy original through the wrong end of a telescope. Still, all of the composer’s snarky, rambunctious fun survives intact, even if it does create a real workout for the five musicians.

The players are up for it, though. Associate Principal Second Violin Kristin Ahlstrom and bassist Sarah Hogan Kaiser impressively represent the entire string section while clarinetist Ryan Toher, horn player Victoria Knudtson, and Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo carry the flag for the winds. Knudtson knocks the infamously difficult opening solo right out of the park while Toher and Cuneo turn in equally praiseworthy performances of their many solo passages.  The performance was originally released as part of a live video broadcast, so it’s good to have it available on demand. It deserves a wider audience.

The rest of the program is taken up with an example of musical expansion instead of contraction.  Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667, was written in 1819 as a commission for Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy amateur cellist. The composer used the theme from his earlier song “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) as the basis for a series of variations in the fourth of the quintet’s five movements and it has been known as the “Trout Quintet” ever since. Given that Schubert’s original song runs only a little over two minutes vs. around 45 for the full quintet, it might seem odd to name the entire work after it, but the tune is a genuine “ear worm”—so jaunty and appealing that it's unforgettable.

The "Trout" Quintet

The performance by members of the SLSO is pretty jaunty and appealing as well. Kristen Ahlstrom, Principal Viola Beth Guterman Chu, Principal Cello Daniel Lee, Associate Principal double bass Aleck Belcher, and pianist Peter Henderson (who should, in my view, be Principal Keyboard but isn’t) all work seamlessly as a team. The videography makes it easy to admire the way the string players stay in visual contact with each other as well as with Henderson, even though he’s not facing the quartet directly. Closeups provide intimate glimpses of the emotional engagement of each player with Schubert’s appealing score.

The frequent shifts between light and darkness that are so much a part of Schubert’s style are expertly handled, although there are, perhaps, fewer of those in this mostly sunny and leisurely work than in the composer’s other chamber music. Certainly the performance radiates good cheer, even in the more lyrical Andante second movement.

Unlike the Strauss/Hasenöhrl remix, this performance has not been publicly released, so this is your first chance to experience it. I think you'll find that it was worth the wait.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s concert of chamber music by Schubert and Richard Strauss is available via on-demand video through August 31st. Visit the SLSO web site for more information.

Sunday, May 08, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of May 9, 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.

Webster Conservatory Seniors
The Blue Strawberry presents the Webster Conservatory Senior Cabaret Showcase on Friday at 6 pm, May 13th. Eleven seniors of the Sargent Conservatory will perform an evening of songs from Broadway and the Great American Songbook. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. The show is also available via a live video stream.  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

Hamilton
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Fabulous Fox presents the musical the musical Hamilton through May 15. “HAMILTON is the story of America then, told by America now. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B and Broadway, HAMILTON has taken the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and created a revolutionary moment in theatre—a musical that has had a profound impact on culture, politics, and education. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, direction by Thomas Kail, choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, and musical supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, HAMILTON is based on Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography.” The Fabulous Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: www.fabulousfox.com.

KTK Productions presents Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady Fridays at 7:30 pm and Sundays 2 pm, May 13-22. “The Gingerbread Lady is a dark drama with comic overtones centering on Evy Meara, a cabaret singer whose career, marriage, and health all have been destroyed by alcohol. We meet her at the end of a ten week drying out period at a sanitarium when her friend, her daughter, and an actor try to help her adjust to sobriety. The friend is so constantly vain that she loses her husband; the actor, a homosexual, is also doomed, and indeed loses his part three days before an opening; and the daughter needs more affection than she can spare her mother. Evy's efforts at hosting a party crumble when she falls off the wagon and careens toward a tragic end.” Performances take place at St. John the Baptist Parish, 4200 Delor. For more information: kurtainkall.org.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present The Comic Book Killer May 13 through August 27. "Calling all superheros and villains! There’s trouble afoot for you both! Evil Doctor Weevil is back and he’s trying to erase your very existence! The time has come to join forces against true evil and restore balance to the comic universe. But who will be the hero or heroes and rid this plain of Evil Dr. Weevil forever? Could it be you? Quick…to the Prius! Dawn your cape and spandex and meet us the famously haunted Lemp Mansion for a mystery like no other! Here I come to save the daaaaaay!!!!"  The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Metro Theater Company presents In My Granny’s Garden live at multiple locations in the bi-state area May 13 through June 26 and streaming on line June 1 through 26. “Inspired by the children’s book by acclaimed playwright and New York Times bestselling author Pearl Cleage and her husband, writer and director Zaron W. Burnett Jr., In My Granny’s Garden invites the youngest audiences to explore the glory of growing your own food. Watch a tiny seed become a field of corn, green beans, collard greens, and bright red tomatoes. Step into a visual feast inspired by world renowned artist Radcliffe Bailey’s original paintings, and discover the one superpower that fuels Granny’s garden. The play promises to leave the very young nourished in body and soul. In My Granny's Garden was commissioned by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. For more information: www.metroplays.org

Anomalous Experience
Photo: Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company presents Joe Hanrahan’s Anomalous Experience: A Modern Ghost Story Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays (May 15 only) at 2 pm, through May 21. “Inspired by true events, the play is designed as a public lecture from a respected psychiatrist. He’s been dealing with professional ridicule for his research into the phenomenon of Alien Abduction. In the course of the play, he will present two patients who, in very different ways, have been victims of their perceived abductions. While he’s not exactly sure what’s going on, the psychiatrist is convinced that something real, something profound, is happening to these people and to our world.“ Performances take place at the .ZACK in Grand Center. For more information: www.midnightcompany.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

The St. Louis Black Repertory Company continues its in-person 45th Anniversary season with Jitney by August Wilson, opening May 11 and running through May 29. "Jitney is the eighth play in August Wilson’s ten-play Century Cycle which examines every decade of the 20th century and chronicles Black American history through the lens of The Hill District of Pittsburgh. Set  in 1977, Jitney takes on the devastating impacts of rapid urban renewal. As the city begins to shut down businesses - including the jitney cab station - to make way for new buildings, we meet five gypsy cab drivers as they struggle to survive." For more information: www.theblackrep.org.

Theatre Guild of Webster Groves presents the comedy Farce of Habit through May 15. Performances take place at 517 Theatre Lane at the corner of Newport and Summit in Webster Groves. For more information: theatreguildwg.org

Upstream Theater presents Beyond the Scorched Mountain, an evening of music and poetry from Ukraine and elsewhere, on Wednesday May 11 at 8 pm. “The evening features live music by Farshid Soltanshahi and includes poems by Dzvinia Orlowsky, Oksana Maksymchuk, Olga Livshin, Serhiy Zhadan, Ilya Abu Madi and Yehuda Amichai as read by Peter Mayer, Caitlin Mickey, Kathleen Sitzer, Jeffery Cummings, Mona Sabau, Farshid Soltanshahi and Philip Boehm.” Admission is free. The event takes place at the International Institute, 3401 Arsenal. For more information: www.upstreamtheater.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, May 05, 2022

Symphony Preview: Looking out for No. 1

[UPDATE: Per a press release from the SLSO these concerts have been cancelled due to positive COVID-19 diagnoses in the orchestra.]

When I saw that the composer of the opening work on the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s (SLSO) program this weekend (Friday and Saturday, May 6 and 7) was “Joachim,” my first thought was that it was one of the rarely-played pieces by the Hungarian violinist, conductor, composer, and teacher Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). My second thought was that, as it was listed as a world premiere, it was more likely to be by contemporary American vocalist, flutist, and composer Nathalie Joachim.

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

Nathalie Joachim

Sometimes it’s good to think twice. Nathalie Joachim’s “Family” is not only a world premiere. It’s also a commission by the SLSO written for the IN UNISON Chorus, which will perform it this weekend. Indeed, as Tim Munro relates in the program notes, “Family” was inspired by Joachim’s conversations with members of the chorus. “The title was clear early in the process,“ he writes. “Every chorus member used the word ‘family’ when talking about the chorus…These conversations gave Joachim the text for her new work.”

There are, of course, no recordings of this brand-new composition for chorus and orchestra available anywhere. Joachim’s work as both performer and composer is available at Spotify and other on-line sources, though, so I have included her irresistible “Suite pou Dantan” in my playlist. It’s from her 2019 album “Fanm d'Ayiti,” an orchestral version of which will open the SLSO’s 2022/2023 season.

So no, Joseph Joachim isn’t represented this weekend as a composer. But the first half of the concert will close with a work on which he acted as a consultant: Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. It’s Bruch’s most popular work, but the 26-year-old composer found writing it a daunting task when he began work on it in 1864. A first draft was performed exactly once in 1866 but Bruch was unhappy with the results. He immediately withdrew the work and sent a copy of the manuscript to Joseph Joachim with a request for some feedback.

He got a detailed list of suggestions, some of which he implemented. After soliciting additional input from his conductor friend Hermann Levi and the composer and violinist Ferdinand David, Bruch finally felt confident enough to have a final version published. It got its premiere on January 7, 1868, with Joachim as the soloist. The violinist would later describe the concerto as “the richest, the most seductive” of what he regarded as the four great German violin concertos. The other three were by Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn, which put Bruch in pretty good company.

Max Bruch
en.wikipedia.org

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Bruch didn't make a dime from it. For all his strengths as a composer, Bruch was apparently not a savvy businessman, and he sold all the rights to the concerto to his publisher N. Simrock for a pittance. He wrote many other worthy pieces (I've always been fond of his 1880 "Scottish Fantasy" myself), but none of them matched the phenomenal popularity of this first concerto.

You'll understand why when you hear it. Bruch was a bit of a musical conservative, affiliated with Brahms and the German Romantic tradition rather than with Liszt, Wagner, and the whole "New Music" crowd, who held Brahms and company in such contempt. That means he wasn't afraid to write beautiful melodies or to play the virtuoso card. The concerto is a warm, heartfelt, and utterly irresistible work that marries technical flash with genuine emotion. The Adagio second movement, in particular, is a piece of almost heartbreaking beauty.

The program closes in a spectacular fashion with the Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler. Clocking in at just under an hour, the First is probably the most economical of Mahler’s symphonies. It is, to paraphrase Anna Russell, a kind of Mahler vitamin pill, combining all the composer’s characteristic gestures in one compact work.

Mahler in 1892
Public Domain

It’s all here: the vivid invocation of the natural world, the heaven-storming despair, the macabre humor, the jocular impressions of village bands and sounds that would later be labeled “klezmer”, and of course, a wildly triumphant finale with a full complement of brass—including an expanded horn section—standing and gloriously blazing away. The subtitle “Titan” that’s often applied to this work may have originally referred to a novel of the same title by Jean-Paul Richter, but I think it’s simply an apt description of this music. Its impact is Titanic in every sense of the word.

It's also an appropriate choice for a springtime concert. Its hushed, expectant opening, its birdcalls, and what Chicago Symphony Orchestra program annotator Phillip Huscher calls "the gentle hum of the universe, tuned to A-natural and scattered over seven octaves"—all these things bring to mind a world emerging from darkness into light. Persephone is on leave from the Underworld and it’s time to get the short-sleeved shirts out of the spare closet. At a time when geopolitical darkness seems to be closing in on us, Mahler’s symphony offers some rays of light.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the orchestra and Kevin McBeth’s IN UNISON Chorus in the world premiere of Nathalie Joachim’s “Family.” Also on the program: Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (with soloist Akiko Suwanai) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Performances of this final concert of the season are Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 8 pm, May 6 and 7. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live, as usual, on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Review: The SLSO sets sail for Chorus Director Amy Kaiser's retirement with an opulent 'Sea Symphony'

At the top of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert last Sunday, May 1st, SLSO CEO Marie Hélène Bernard and a representative from the office of Mayor Tishaura Jones took the stage to announce that forthwith, May 1st would be Amy Kaiser Day in St. Louis. And they handed retiring SLS Chorus Director Kaiser a sizeable proclamation to make it official.

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

Amy Kaiser (center) and her proclamation

Stéphane Denève celebrated the event by conducting a blockbuster concert that began with the local premiere of the full orchestra versions of Jessie Montgomery’s “Starburst” and Debussy’s “Nocturnes” and concluded with an opulent performance of Vaughan Williams’s mammoth “Sea Symphony.”

I’m not kidding about the “mammoth” part. Composed between 1903 and 1909 and first performed in 1910, The “Sea Symphony” calls for a massive orchestra (around 90 musicians last Sunday), a full chorus, and soprano and baritone soloists. Laid out in four movements and running over an hour, it might not be quite as gargantuan as Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (the “Symphony of a Thousand”)—which premiered the same year—but it comes close.

Like the Mahler Eighth, it’s a true choral symphony in which the chorus is not an add-on but rather an integral part of the ensemble. “The chorus gets very few breaks,” writes Kaiser in the program notes, and what they’re called upon to sing is at times fiercely difficult. The composer’s overlapping vocal lines often combine to create a thick contrapuntal texture that sounds difficult to navigate, especially with the syncopation necessary to match the irregular stanzas of Walt Whitman’s “free verse” poetry. Some small ensemble sections demand subtle transparency, and the third movement scherzo has a rapid main theme that rattles on like a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song.

L-R: Stephen Powell and Karie Van Kooten

It calls, in short, for a solidly professional ensemble of singers and direction that is both exacting and sensitive to the work’s wide emotional range. Which is to say that it calls for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and Amy Kaiser.

Let me not mince words: this was a bravura performance of a big, difficult work. The SLS Chorus has always been impressive, but they truly outdid themselves this time. From the bold, sweeping declamation of the opening “Behold the sea itself” to the final, pianississimo chords of “Oh farther sail,” the singers captured the epic sweep of this music perfectly.

The many passages that linger in my memory include the moment in the first movement  where the women’s chorus softly sings of “all intrepid sailors and mates, / And all that went down doing their duty” and the vast pantheistic hymn, “This vast similitude spans them”, that forms the climax of the second movement. The full chorus put down their books and sang the passage from memory, giving it an extra theatrical kick.  There were also stretches of transcendent beauty in the episodic but ultimately profoundly moving final movement, with its elliptical meditation on death as the ultimate exploratory voyage to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

Vaughan Williams doesn’t give the soloists as much to do by comparison, but soprano Katie Van Kooten and baritone Stephen Powell more than did justice to their roles. Van Kooten’s big, clear voice rang out in “Token of all brave captains” in the first movement and Powell showed impressive gravitas in the opening of the second movement, “On the beach at night alone.”  Their duet in the final movement is essentially a love song for the sailor and his soul, and it was sung with a rapturous intensity.

As for the orchestra, their playing was nothing short of heroic. The expressive range of the instrumental writing is no less vast than that of the choral and no less challenging. Maestro Denève deserves a laurel wreath as well for keeping the composer’s sprawling and sometimes discursive music on, if you’ll pardon the expression, an even keel.

Stéphane Denève conducts the SLSO
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

The concert opened with Montgomery’s “Starburst.” When I heard the SLSO play it in 2020, I described Jannina Norpoth’s string orchestra arrangement of “Starburst” as a delightful sonic explosion. Norpoth’s expansion for full orchestra was a bigger explosion with brighter colors, and just as delightful.

In between Montgomery’s high-flying pyrotechnics and Vaughan William’s profound emotional depths came a luminous reading of Debussy’s “Nocturnes.” First performed in 1901, this set of three tone poems owes something to both the literary poems of Henri de Regnier and a set of paintings by James McNeill Whistler also titled “Nocturnes.” Unlike Whistler’s relatively realistic paintings (his “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” is the one commonly referred to as “Whistler’s Mother”), Debussy’s “Nocturnes” are more akin to the paintings of Monet, which are less about photo-realism and more about producing an impression on the viewer. Hence the term “Impressionism.”

The opening movement, “Nuages” (“Clouds”) uses slow rising and falling motifs in the strings and a haunting mini-melody in the cor Anglais (played with great sensitivity by Cally Banham) to suggest drifting patches of gray in an overcast sky. A soft tympani roll at the end suggests a storm might be in the offing. Denève wisely held the first downbeat until he had total silence in the hall, allowing those first notes to emerge almost imperceptibly out of the ether.

“Fêtes” (“Festivals”) chases the clouds away with bucolic dances and, after another of Denève’s judicious moments of silence, a nocturnal procession that begins softly on muted trumpets against a backdrop of pianississimo harp and strings, as though approaching from a distance. That procession quickly builds to another whirling celebration.

Finally, with “Sirènes” (“Sirens”), we have a mysterious moonlit seascape over which is heard (in the composer’s words) “the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.” Members of the women’s chorus play the sirens, singing their wordless song with great clarity and superb breath control, in perfect balance with the orchestra, fo rwhich I must credit both Kaiser and Denève. In her program notes, Kaiser observed that Denève wanted “a very light, almost innocent sound…very fluid, like water flowing.” He definitely got what he wanted, and it was lovely.

Most artists would prefer to retire with a performance that will be remembered for its excellence. Amy Kaiser has achieved that. Ave atque vale.

Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève conducts the orchestra and Kevin McBeth’s IN UNISON Chorus in the world premiere of Nathalie Joachim’s “Family.” Also on the program: Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (with soloist Akiko Suwanai) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Performances of this final concert of the season are Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 8 pm, May 6 and 7. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live, as usual, on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Review: At the Sheldon, everybody listened to Paula Poundstone

The title of comic, actress, and writer Paula Poundstone’s hilarious and informative podcast is “Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone.” Based on the response by the sold-out crowd on April 30th for her long-postponed appearance at The Sheldon, I’d say that might be something of an exaggeration.

[Check out  my interview with Paula Poundstone on my Chuck's Culture Channel Video Blog]

For over 90 minutes, we not only listened to Paula Poundstone, we also laughed. A lot. Her political jokes fell upon sympathetic ears, of course, but so did her stories of the quotidian travails of a performer constantly on the move in these times of, as Tom Lehrer said, “universal brouhaha.” The simple vexation posed by reclining airline seat backs, for example, became the basis for an extended mix of verbal and visual comedy, especially after an audience member admitted to pushing hers back to prevent her head from rolling to one side.

Paula Poundstone
paulapoundstone.com

Her tales of the joys and sorrows of pet ownership also resonated with the crowd. Our little group has a couple of high-maintenance canine family members, so Poundstone’s account of a visit to a veterinary cardiologist whose solution to her dog’s congestive heart failure involved “inserting a tube into my bank account and draining it” really struck home.

If you’ve never seen Poundstone’s act before it can be difficult to describe. It’s a hybrid of traditional jokes, real-life stories (possibly embellished for maximum comic effect), wry political rants, and impromptu riffs on interactions with audience members in the first few rows. The simple question “what do you do for a living?” can easily lead to an entire routine of its own, as was the case with a retiree whose job at Boeing had involved testing paint fume levels in the shop. It was a rich vein of humor ore and if it was mined past the point of exhaustion, that’s just live comedy, folks. They can’t all be gems.

The vast majority were, though. And while Poundstone claimed that she has a terrible memory, she showed an impressive ability to bring back those off-the-cuff bits later in the show as punch lines when I least expected them. Surprise is an important element of comedy, and she used it well.

I also liked her whimsical wardrobe sense. Last night that took the form of a cartoonish, almost clown-like red and white striped suit with shoes that would not have looked out of place on Jay Gatsby. An outfit like that slaps a smile on your phiz and says “comedy” before a single word has been spoken.

What really makes Paula Poundstone’s act unique, though, is its refreshing, ego-free honesty. She doesn’t drop names (even though she certainly could), and her stories spring from experiences that nearly all of us have shared at one time or another. This is “we’re all in this together” humor. We could use a lot more of that these days.

By the time you read this, Paula Poundstone will have left St. Louis far behind. But she’s on her way to other gigs, and they might even be in your town. To find out where she’s appearing next, check out her web site. And while you’re at it, listen to her podcast. Co-host Adam Felber (a pretty funny fellow in his own right) calls it a “comedy field guide to life.” That’s something else we all need these days.

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

Sunday, May 01, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of May 2, 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.

David Giuntoli
The Blue Strawberry presents David Giuntoli in What Is This Thing Called Love? on Friday at 7:30 pm, May 6th. “The ever affable, always unflappable and eternally graceful David Giuntoli comes to Blue Strawberry with some of the greatest songs of love - falling in, staying in, losing in, repeat - from the masters of the songbook."  Carol Schmidt is pianist and music director for the show.  The show is also available via a live video stream. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Blue Strawberry presents The Comedy Magic of Jeff Lefton & Steve Barcellona on Monday at 7:30 pm, May 2nd. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Blue Strawberry presents a Singers Open Mic Night on Tuesday at 7:00 pm, May 3rd. Meghan Kirk  hosts with Ron McGowan at the piano.  Singers should bring music in their key. 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

Hamilton
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Fabulous Fox presents the musical the musical Hamilton through May 15. “HAMILTON is the story of America then, told by America now. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B and Broadway, HAMILTON has taken the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and created a revolutionary moment in theatre—a musical that has had a profound impact on culture, politics, and education. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, direction by Thomas Kail, choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, and musical supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, HAMILTON is based on Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography.” 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

The Midnight Company presents Joe Hanrahan’s Anomalous Experience: A Modern Ghost Story Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm (May 8 and 15), May 5-21. “Inspired by true events, the play is designed as a public lecture from a respected psychiatrist. He’s been dealing with professional ridicule for his research into the phenomenon of Alien Abduction. In the course of the play, he will present two patients who, in very different ways, have been victims of their perceived abductions. While he’s not exactly sure what’s going on, the psychiatrist is convinced that something real, something profound, is happening to these people and to our world.“ Performances take place at the .ZACK in Grand Center. For more information: www.midnightcompany.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

The St. Louis Writers' Group presents a reading of Fledgling by Joe Link on Tuesday, May 3 at 6:30 p.m. “The early life of Adam Montrose, a budding aviation engineer, as he discovers the hubris of intellectualism, the importance of love and friendship, and the benefit of acknowledging a higher power.” The reading takes place at Big Daddy’s, 1000 Sidney in Soulard and on line via Facebook. For more information, visit the St. Louis Writers' Group Facebook page.

Theatre Guild of Webster Groves presents the comedy Farce of Habit May 6-15. Performances take place at 517 Theatre Lane at the corner of Newport and Summit in Webster Groves. For more information: theatreguildwg.org

Wentzville Christian Church presents Seussical the Musical Friday at 7 pm, Saturday at 2 and 7 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm, May 6-8. “Seussical is a fantastical, magical, musical extravaganza! Tony winners, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Lucky Stiff, My Favorite Year, Once on This Island, Ragtime), have lovingly brought to life all of our favorite Dr. Seuss characters, including Horton the Elephant, The Cat in the Hat, Gertrude McFuzz, lazy Mayzie and a little boy with a big imagination – Jojo. The colorful characters transport us from the Jungle of Nool to the Circus McGurkus to the invisible world of the Whos.” Wentzville Christian Church is located at 1507 Highway Z in Wentzville, MO. For more information: www.wentzvillecc.org

The Lonesome West
West End Players Guild presents Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West April 29 through May 8. “Brothers Valene and Coleman Connor live alone in their father’s County Galway house after his recent death.  Despite whatever brotherly bond exists between them, they find it almost impossible to exist without getting into the most massive and violent disputes over the most mundane and innocent of topics – a situation the Guardian described in its review of the play as being ‘closeted together in undying hostility like a penned-up Cain and Abel.’  They probably would have killed each other by now were it not for the efforts of young Father Welsh, who has made it his mission to reconcile the two before they do.” West End Players Guild this season will employ touchless ticketing, socially-distanced seating and indoor masking of all patrons and front-of-house staff and volunteers. Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For more information: westendplayers.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.