The string section is the backbone of the symphony orchestra, but even so, it’s rare to see them dominate a program the way they will when David Danzmayr conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) at 10:30 am and 7:30 pm this Friday (December 1, 2023). The wind and percussion sections don’t show up until after intermission, and even then, there are only a “baker’s dozen” of them. Sounds that are plucked and bowed will be more common than those that are struck and (ahem) blowed.
[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]
Photo by Jiyang Chen
The concerts open with "Strum” by Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981), a violinist and composer whose colorful "Starburst" was the first piece to be played on the stage at Powell when it reopened on a limited basis on October 15th, 2020, after a seven-month shutdown due to the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic. The composer says the title refers to "an upward and downward (back and forth) pizzicato stroke" for the strings that mimics the sound of a strummed guitar. "Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement," she writes, "the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration."
It achieves that by employing a wide variety of techniques as the string players pluck, strum, and bow in ways that call to mind everything from Appalachian folk tunes to guitar rock. You can hear that right from the start in the Catalyst Quartet's recording in this week's Spotify playlist, with Ms. Montgomery herself on second violin. Given her participation, we can probably regard that as the definitive performance. It certainly rocks and sings with virtuosity and spirit.
First performed by members of the SLSO in its string quartet version in the fall of 2020, “Strum” will be heard this weekend in an arrangement for full string orchestra that had its first performance on October 14, 2023, by Sinfonia Rotterdam. This will be the local debut of this latest version.
Up next is the Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings, written in 1943–44 by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958). As the date indicates, this was a work written under the shadow of World War II, and in fact, its world premiere had to be postponed for over three months and moved from London to Liverpool because of the Luftwaffe’s bombardment of the British capital with the infamous V-1 flying bomb.
You’d never know that from the mix of moods that characterizes much of the concerto, though. The opening “Rondo pastorale” has a kind of thoughtful nostalgia and a pentatonic melody that evokes images of “England's green and pleasant land,” while the “Minuet and Musette” second movement continues in a bucolic vein with (as the title suggests) a mix of the court and country dances.
|Ralph Vaughan Williams|
The concluding “Scherzo” expands the emotional scope of the work significantly. It opens in a jaunty enough mood, but soon moves on to moments of longing and even anxiety before returning to the calmer world of the opening movement. It all concludes with a rapid mini cadenza ending on a sustained pianissimo high D that, “continues to strike fear into oboists.” Given that this Friday’s soloist is SLSO Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks, however, I don’t expect that to be an issue.
The concerts conclude with the Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 36, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Written in 1802, the year in which the composer’s deafness was becoming apparent and in which he composed the famous “Heiligenstadt Testament”—a letter intended for (but never sent to) his brothers documenting his despair and hinting at suicide—the symphony shows not a trace of the anguish that plagued its creator. “In this Symphony,” wrote Hector Berlioz, “everything is noble, energetic, proud.” It’s as though the composer sought release from his dark mood in unstintingly sunny music.
Ironically, that unbridled cheerfulness rankled some stuffy critics at the work’s premiere at the Theater an der Wien on April 5th 1803. The French journal Tablettes de Polymnie grumbled about its “barbaric chords” that suggested “doves and crocodiles…locked up together.” The Vienna Zeitung für die elegante Welt declared it “a hideously wounded, writhing dragon that refuses to die.” Listening to the work now, one wonders what was up with those guys. A bad Schnitzel at the local Gaststätte maybe? In any case, audiences have found the Second Symphony pretty irresistible over the centuries. I expect you will as well.
The Essentials: David Danzmayr conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and oboe soloist Jelena Dirks in a program of Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum”, the Vaughan Williams Oboe Concerto, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 on Friday, December 1, at 10:30 am and 7:30 pm. The performances take place at the Touhill Center on the University of Missouri—St. Louis campus. The Friday evening concert will be broadcast on Saturday, December 2, at 7:30 pm on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3 and will be available for streaming for a limited time at the SLSO web site.