Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Symphony Review: Love and death with Denève and the SLSO

Last Saturday night (February 17) Stéphane Denève took a few minutes before giving the downbeat to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) to ask the audience to applaud less.

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

Sounds odd, yes? But this was not going to be your ordinary concert. Both the first and second halves of the evening consisted of pieces that were played attacca—that is, without breaks for applause. In the second half—which consisted of the wildly popular “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff (1895–1982)—that was because the score demanded it. The first half, though, was an experiment in creating what Denève called a “virtual symphony” out of three very different works by three very different composers.

The St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Photo: Brendan Batchelor

“Life,” observes Denève in the concert’s program notes, “starts and ends with nothingness. Music is the same: from silence to silence.” True to his word, he began the concert with a long pause for silence before giving Principal Percussionist Will James the cue for the three soft strikes of the chime that begin the 1977 "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten" for strings by Arvo Pärt (b. 1935).

The violins then enter softly while the chime continues to sound, slowly increasing in volume as more strings are added. The music reaches an ecstatic climax on an A minor chord that abruptly stops, leaving only the fading overtones of the chime.

I have heard this many times on recordings, but this was my first live performance and therefore my first opportunity to appreciate what a challenge this is for the percussionist. James had to increase the intensity of each strike of the chime ever so slightly as the music gradually built to its apex over seven minutes. That required a good ear, fine muscular control, precise cueing from the conductor, and sensitive playing by the strings.

Needless to say, all of that was present on Saturday night. Denève constructed a neat bit of sonic architecture and allowed those final chime overtones to linger just long enough before plunging headlong into the sturm und drang opening of “Icarus” by contemporary Russian composer Lera Auerbach (b. 1973).

Darryl Kubian

Like its mythological Greek namesake, "Icarus" rises to great dramatic heights. It then plummets to earth in a great descending swoop of strings, accompanied by the eerie sound of the theremin and a crash of percussion. The work concludes with a quietly elegiac section that features unearthly harmonics in the strings, the gentle sounds of the celesta and harps, and a last dying note from the theremin.

Auerbach is quoted as declaring that “all my music is abstract,” but “Icarus” nevertheless is strongly evocative of its source material, and her orchestration is as inventive as it is demanding. Every section of the orchestra got a solid workout Saturday night, with the winds and percussion being kept especially busy. There were great solo moments here as well by Concertmaster David Halen, harpists Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout, and guest artist Darryl Kubian on the theremin.

The theremin, by the way, is one of those oddball instruments whose almost-human voice you’ve probably heard before in a sci-fi or suspense movie or TV show. Miklos Rozsa featured it prominently in his score for Hitchcock’s 1945 thriller “Spellbound,” for example.  Kubian gave us a brief, entertaining introduction to his instrument at the top of the evening, complete with performances of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and, inevitably, Alexander Courage’s “Star Trek” theme. Everything I wrote earlier about the importance of fine muscle control and a good ear goes double for the theremin, which is played by moving one’s hands and fingers in the air. So kudos to Kubian and also to Denève for a compelling reading of the score.

Like Pärt’s “Cantus,” Auerbach’s “Icarus” also returned us to silence. This time it was broken by the opening notes (bass clarinet and low brass) in the concert version of the “Liebestod” (literally “love death”) from the opera “Tristan und Isolde” by Richard Wagner (1813–1883). Here, again, we have a work that is essentially one long climax (in both the sonic and erotic sense) followed by a gentle fade to silence.

Tenor Sonnyboy Dlada

Denève’s operatic background served him well in a performance that delivered the emotional punch of that big harmonic resolution, although with just a bit less impact than I had hoped for. I’m beginning to suspect that the wider and more shallow stage space at Stifel, in combination with the hall’s somewhat dry acoustics, might make it harder to deliver the kind of visceral impact one could get at Powell. This was, in any event, another fine performance by the orchestra, with lovely solo bits from (among others) Cally Banham on English horn, Tzuying Huang on bass clarinet, and Phil Ross on oboe.

Considering how common standing ovations are at SLSO concerts, I’m a bit disappointed that more of us didn’t rise from our seats at the conclusion of Denève’s brilliantly conceived “virtual symphony.” I’m reminded of Salieri’s remark to Mozart in the film version of “Amadeus”: “Do you know you didn't even give them a good bang at the end of songs to let them know when to clap?"

There’s certainly “a good bang” at the end of “Carmina Burana,” as well as at many other points in this justifiably popular work. Based on an 1847 collection of secular poetry by anonymous authors from the 12th and 13th centuries, Orff’s “scenic cantata” celebrates not the theoretical joys of heaven but rather the practical ones of earth: food, drink, gambling, and (especially) sex.

Those poems also convey an important message for us today: the immense influence of blind chance on our lives. The opening and closing of the work, "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi," sets the tone for this realization by reminding us that the wheel of fortune is continuously turning, and it is unwise for any of us to become overconfident.

Soprano Ying Fang

“Carmina Burana” is mostly about the soloists and the massive, percussion-heavy orchestra. This was my first opportunity to hear the SLSO Chorus and Children’s Choirs at Stifel, and I came away mightily impressed by the clarity of the sound. Both of these ensembles were in top form as usual, and Stifel’s acoustics made it easier to hear the precisely articulated multi-lingual lyrics (Latin, Middle High German, and Old Provençal) more clearly.

As for the orchestra, the big moments had plenty of impact, and the many solos sprinkled throughout the score were done quite nicely. Andrew Cuneo’s bassoon solo in "Olim lacus colueram"—a macabre little piece about a roasted swan seen from the bird's point of view—pushed both him and tenor Sonnyboy Dlada up to the top of their ranges, and they both sounded chilling. Principal Flute Matthew Roitstein had a fine duet with Principal Tympani Shannon Wood in the trio of the boisterous “Tanz.” Matthew Mazzoni and Principal Keyboard Peter Henderson were very effective, especially with their two pianos placed downstage center in front of the podium.

The vocal soloists only have a few numbers each, but those few always have a substantial impact when performed well—as they certainly were Saturday night. Baritone Thomas Lehman sang with a perfect mix of vocal power and theatrical acumen in his several solos, from the comic intoxication of the Abbot of Cockaigne in "Ego sum abbas" to the powerful mix of passion and despair in “Estuans interius.”

Soprano Ying Fang has one of those voices that seems to float effortlessly in the air, as it did with the Children’s Choir “Amor volat undique.” Her singing in the “Cour d’amours” (“Court of Love”) numbers had a subtle sensuality, both in the solos and in the duet with Lehman towards the end of the section. I think she fudged the infamous upward glissando in “Dulcissime” a bit but sang the rest of it in wonderfully coloratura style.

Baritone Thomas Lehman

I have already noted Dlada’s impressive performance of his only solo. That bit can be played for laughs (as it was by Bramwell Tovey’s “Carmina” in 2018), but it’s so much more effective when delivered with the genuine, tragic anguish that Dlada gave it.

So, yes, this was a killer “Carmina,” conducted with that ideal mix of musical sophistication and theatrical insight I have come to associate with Denève’s performances of opera-adjacent works like this and last season’s  “La damnation de Faust.” Congratulations to all concerned, including guest choral director Andrew Whitfield and Children’s Choir artistic director Alyson Moore.

Next from the SLSO: On Friday, February 23, at 7:30 pm Kevin McBeth conducts the IN UNISON Chorus along with vocalist BeBe Winans in “Lift Every Voice,” the SLSO’s annual celebration of Black History Month. On Saturday, February 24, at 7:30 pm Steve Hackman conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and vocalists Rich Saunders, Khalil Overton, Erin Bentlage in “Brahms X Radiohead.” It’s a symphonic synthesis of Radiohead’s album “OK Computer” and Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony. Both performances take place at the Stifel Theatre downtown.

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

Sunday, February 18, 2024

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of February 19, 2024

What's on St. Louis theater and cabaret stages this coming week. Please leave a comment if anything was wrong or got left out

The Alpha Players present  Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sunday (March 3 only) at 2 pm, February 23 through March 3. “Snuggle up for a “late” Valentine’s Day with this modern fairy tale about the enduring power of love! It’s a romantic fantasy about newlyweds Peter and Rita. At their wedding a mysterious elderly man congratulates Rita with a kiss and by a quirky twist of fate, the kiss causes them to switch souls. Rita finds herself living in the old man’s body and the old man in hers. To complicate matters, the old man is dying. Peter must think fast to reverse the spell and regain his bride. Advisory: Contains some adult themes and language.” Performances take place in the James J. Eagen Center in Florissant. For more information: www.alphaplayers.org

Fly
Photo: Keshon Campbell
The Black Rep presents Fly by Joseph L. Edwards through March 10.  “Premiering off-Broadway in 1997, this one-person dramatic comedy received three AUDELCO awards for excellence in Black theatre and has had a limited tour in the years since. The story centers around an African American man who believes he will receive the power to fly on the night of a special celestial event. As he prepares for the event on a Brooklyn rooftop, he shares the comic, dramatic and tragic experiences that have pushed him to the edge of reality.” Performances take place at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus. For more information: www.theblackrep.org.

Marilyn Maye
The Cabaret Project presents Marilyn Maye Thursday and Friday, February 22 and 23, at 7:30 pm. “Get ready to be star-struck by the one and only Marilyn Maye. If you’ve witnessed her greatness before you know it’s time to see her again. If you haven’t, there’s no time like the present. The word iconic is often overused, but in the case of Maye it seems just right. This showbiz legend has been performing for over 75 years, was a favorite singer of Ella Fitzgerald and TV great Johnny Carson called her “super singer”.  Still in top form, she sings all over the country and returns to her beloved audiences in St. Louis after a busy year that included her epic 2023 Carnegie Hall triumph. There is no one else who delivers popular American standards, from Cole Porter to James Taylor, like the Marvelous Marilyn Maye.” All performances take place in the Ballroom at The Sheldon Concert Hall in Grand Center. For more information: www.thecabaretproject.org.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present A Fistful of Hollars  through May 4. "Gun slingers, dance hall girls, cowboys, gold diggers, cowboy boots and ten-gallon-hats will abound. Rowdy cowboys will duel to the death as the crooked sheriff watches with glee. But none of these characters are as dangerous as Nasty Nate, he’s the orneriest gun in the west and word is that he’s going to be stirring up trouble at the Lemp Mansion. " The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

The Sound Inside
Photo: John Gitchoff
Moonstone Theatre Company presents The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp through February 25. “Opening on Broadway to rave reviews and nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play in 2020, The Sound Inside is a gripping drama centered around brilliant Ivy League professor Bella Baird.  Bella begins to mentor the brilliant but enigmatic student Christopher and the two form an unexpectedly intense bond.  As their lives and the stories they tell about themselves become intertwined in unpredictable ways, Bella makes a surprising request of Christopher that neither knows if he can fulfill.  Brimming with suspense, Rapp's riveting play explores the limits of what one person can ask of another.” Performances take place in the Reim Theater at the Kirkwood Community Center in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: moonstonetheatrecompany.com.

Moby Dick
Photo: Liz Lauren
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Moby Dick, adapted and directed by David Catlin from the book by Herman Melville, through February 25. “Madness, obsession and bloodlust take harrowing flight in a thrilling revision of Melville’s masterpiece. Captain Ahab’s hunt for the great White Whale soars to new heights through an exhilarating acrobatic and theatrical spectacle that invites audiences into the heart of the action. This adaptation from Lookingglass Theatre Company brings a literary legend to life in an experience that’s both visceral and evocative.” Performances take on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.. For more information: www.repstl.org.

Copenhagen
St. Louis Actors' Studio (STLAS) presents Copenhagen by Michael Frayn Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, through February 25. “In 1941, German physicist Werner Heisenberg goes to Copenhagen to see his Danish counterpart, Niels Bohr. Together they revolutionized atomic science in the 1920s, but now they are on opposite sides of a world war. In this incisive drama by the prominent British playwright, which premiered at the Royal National Theatre in London and opened to rave reviews on Broadway (ultimately winning the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play), the two men meet in a situation fraught with danger in hopes of discovering why we do what we do.” Performances take place at the Gaslight Theatre on North Boyle. For more information: stlas.org.

The Washington University Performing Arts Department presents Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm, February 23 through March 3. “Once upon a time . . . King Leontes of Sicilia accused his childhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia of seducing his wife. His jealousy was groundless and preposterous, and yet no one could dissuade him from it. Even when the “Oracle” confirmed his wife Hermione’s innocence, he rejected the truth and pushed his entire kingdom into further turmoil. Ultimately, Leontes lost everything -- wife, family, and all those who loved him. Years passed . . . and a new generation moved the world beyond the imperious behavior of delusional men. Geography shifted, magic became possible, and a world formerly driven by rage was re-envisioned to one where reconciliation and understanding prevail.”  Performances take place in the Edison Theatre on the Washington University Campus. For more information: pad.wustl.edu.


Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
To get your event listed here, send an email to chuck at kdhx.org Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills.
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.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Symphony Preview: The sounds of silence

I have often written that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) Music Director Stéphane Denève knows how to use silence as a musical element. So it’s not surprising to see him saying the following in the program notes for the concerts he will conduct this weekend (February 17 and 18): “Life starts and ends with nothingness. Music is the same: from silence to silence.”

[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]

We’ll hear that in the first half of the evening, in which Denève will perform three strongly contrasting works attacca (without pause)—creating in the process a single half hour of music that should range from a nearly inaudible whisper to a shriek that will blow your hair back. Assuming that, unlike me, you have hair.

Arvo Pärt
By Woesinger - Arvo Part,
CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

It all begins with the 1977 "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten" for string orchestra and chime (a.k.a. tubular bell) by Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). Composed to honor the death the previous year of the British composer, whom Pärt greatly admired for "the unusual purity of his music," the work is, like much of the contemporary Estonian composer's music, a massively complex sonic structure that still sounds very simple.

Using only the pitches of the A minor scale, the "Cantus" opens with three soft strikes of the chime, after which the strings enter softly while the chime continues to sound. The music moves slowly to an ecstatic climax on an A minor chord that abruptly stops, leaving only the fading overtones of the chime. It's simultaneously despairing and hopeful—both a dirge and a celebration.

“From silence to silence,” as Maestro Denève said. But not for long. Because the next sound you hear will be the agitated opening of “Icarus” by contemporary Russian composer Lera Auerbach (b. 1973). Based on “Humum mandere” and “Requiem for Icarus” (the last two movements of her seven-movement Symphony No. 1, “Chimera,” from 2006), this 2011 tone poem strongly evokes the tragic figure from Greek mythology whose desire to fly took him just a little too close to the sun. Like its namesake, “Icarus” rises to great dramatic heights, only to finally succumb and fall to earth in a great crash of percussion. The quietly elegiac section that concludes the work ends with the soft, eerie sound of a percussionist rubbing her moistened finger along the rim of a partially filled wine glass—a primitive version of Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica.

Lera Auerbach
wisemusicclassical.com

Because it’s not available on Spotify, “Icarus” isn’t part of the SLSO’s playlist, but you can see it performed by Mark Wigglesworth and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain on YouTube at the 2019 Young Euro Festival. The recording by John Fiore and the Düsseldorf Symphony (also on YouTube) is more polished and includes the optional theremin for that extra touch of otherworldliness, but there's an urgency to the live performance that makes it hard to beat.

The theremin is presumably optional because it’s hard to find people who can master an instrument that’s played simply by moving one’s hands in the air. Fortunately, the SLSO has found composer/thereminist/violinist and AV engineer Darryl Kubian to tame that particular beast.

Like Pärt’s “Cantus,” Auerbach’s “Icarus” also returns us to silence. This time it’s broken by the bass clarinet as we begin the concert version of the “Liebestod” from the opera “Tristan und Isolde” by Richard Wagner (1813–1883). The “Liebestod” is usually performed in combination with the opera’s Act I “Prelude,” with its famous "Tristan chord."  The “Prelude” sets up a harmonic tension that isn’t resolved until nearly four hours later when Isolde, in the "Liebestod," wills herself to join her lover Tristan in death.

We have, once again, music that fades away in the end. “The rest,” as the dying Hamlet says, “is silence.”

There’s considerably less silence in the work that makes up the second half of the concert, “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff (1895–1982). Once described by British critic Richard Osborne as “the best known new composition to emerge from Nazi Germany, ” "Carmina Burana" was something of a cult item in this country until John Boorman's 1981 epic "Excalibur" appropriated bits of it for the soundtrack. The resulting upswing in popularity was not unlike that experienced by Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (or the first two minutes of it, anyway) after the release of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Carl Orff in 1940
By Hanns Holdt (1887-1944)
abebooks, Public Domain

Orff envisioned this material as the basis for a choral cantata with some mimed action and “magic tableaux.” And, in fact, the first performance in Frankfurt in 1937 was fully staged, with dancers, sets, and costumes. It's usually presented strictly as a concert piece these days (although the Nashville Ballet gave us an impressive staging of it in 2013), but the composer's theatrical intentions are evident in every note.

“Carmina Burana” derives its title from an 1847 collection of secular poetry by anonymous authors from the 12th and 13th centuries that turned up in 1803 in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren, Germany. As befits their “vulgar” status, the poems celebrate not the theoretical joys of heaven but rather the practical ones of earth: spring, sex, food, sex, drink, gambling, and sex. They also recognize something that we moderns have lost track of, to our detriment: the heavy influence of blind chance on our lives. The setting of “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” (“Fortune, Empress of the World”), which opens and closes the work, reminds us that the wheel of fortune is always turning and that none of us should get too cocky, as the universe tends to dope-slap the excessively smug.

Although "Carmina Burana" is mostly about the chorus, there are some great moments for the soloists. Highlights include "Olim lacus colueram"—a macabre little piece about a roasted swan seen from the bird's point of view—which pushes the tenor soloist up to the very top of his tessitura; “Dulcissime,” which opens with an absurdly difficult upward glissando for the soprano; and “Estuans interius,” a dramatic baritone aria that boils over with the rage and frustration of the disappointed sensualist.

The singers this week—all of whom have substantial experience with “Carmina Burana”—are soprano Ying Fang, baritone Thomas Lehman, and tenor Sunnyboy Dlada. Die Deutsche Bühne has described Dlada’s voice as “crisp, clearly focused, brightly timbred…agile and coloratura oriented,” which sounds ideal for the role of the swan.

If you're curious as to what the "Carmina Burana" poems might have sounded like back in their original form, check out the René Clemencic Consort’s 1975 and 2009 recordings on Spotify. Also on Spotify: the 1992 recording of “Carmina Burana” by Leonard Slatkin and the SLSO. The recording in the SLSO’s playlist is the 2005 recording by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus along with soloists Ying Fang (soprano), Sunnyboy Dlada (tenor), and Thomas Lehman (baritone) in Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The concerts open with Arvo Pärt’s "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten," Lera Auerbach’s “Icarus,” and Wagner’s “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde.” Performances are Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 17 and 18, at the Stifel Theatre.

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

Monday, February 12, 2024

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of February 12, 2024

What's on St.Louis theater and cabaret stages this coming week. Please leave a comment if anything was wrong or got left out

The Black Rep presents Fly by Joseph L. Edwards opening on Wednesday, February 14 and running through March 10.  “Premiering off-Broadway in 1997, this one-person dramatic comedy received three AUDELCO awards for excellence in Black theatre and has had a limited tour in the years since. The story centers around an African American man who believes he will receive the power to fly on the night of a special celestial event. As he prepares for the event on a Brooklyn rooftop, he shares the comic, dramatic and tragic experiences that have pushed him to the edge of reality.” Performances take place at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus. For more information: www.theblackrep.org.

Ken Haller
The Blue Strawberry presents singer Ken Haller and pianist/music director Jeff Franzell in I’m Just Ken on Friday, February 16, at 7:30 pm. “What happens when your name is Ken, and you meet Barbie, but you realize that you'd rather be with Bobby? Acclaimed cabaret artist Ken Haller (Best St. Louis Cabaret Artist, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2015, 2019) explores this and other burning questions about the things we learn as we grow older”  The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Mamma Mia!
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Fabulous Fox presents the musical Mamma Mia!, based on the songs of ABBA, Tuesday through Sunday, February 13 - 18. “A mother. A daughter. 3 possible dads. And a trip down the aisle you’ll never forget! Set on a Greek island paradise where the sun always shines, a tale of love, friendship, and identity is beautifully told through the timeless hits of ABBA. On the eve of her wedding, a daughter’s quest to discover the father she’s never known brings three men from her mother’s past back to the island they last visited decades ago.” The Fabulous Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present A Fistful of Hollars  through May 4. "Gun slingers, dance hall girls, cowboys, gold diggers, cowboy boots and ten-gallon-hats will abound. Rowdy cowboys will duel to the death as the crooked sheriff watches with glee. But none of these characters are as dangerous as Nasty Nate, he’s the orneriest gun in the west and word is that he’s going to be stirring up trouble at the Lemp Mansion. " The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

The Sound Inside
Photo: John Gitchoff
Moonstone Theatre Company presents The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp through February 25. “Opening on Broadway to rave reviews and nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play in 2020, The Sound Inside is a gripping drama centered around brilliant Ivy League professor Bella Baird.  Bella begins to mentor the brilliant but enigmatic student Christopher and the two form an unexpectedly intense bond.  As their lives and the stories they tell about themselves become intertwined in unpredictable ways, Bella makes a surprising request of Christopher that neither knows if he can fulfill.  Brimming with suspense, Rapp's riveting play explores the limits of what one person can ask of another.” Performances take place in the Reim Theater at the Kirkwood Community Center in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: moonstonetheatrecompany.com.

Moby Dick
Photo: Liz Lauren
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Moby Dick, adapted and directed by David Catlin from the book by Herman Melville, through February 25. “Madness, obsession and bloodlust take harrowing flight in a thrilling revision of Melville’s masterpiece. Captain Ahab’s hunt for the great White Whale soars to new heights through an exhilarating acrobatic and theatrical spectacle that invites audiences into the heart of the action. This adaptation from Lookingglass Theatre Company brings a literary legend to life in an experience that’s both visceral and evocative.” Performances take on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.. For more information: www.repstl.org.

Copenhagen
St. Louis Actors' Studio (STLAS) presents Copenhagen by Michael Frayn Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, through February 25. “In 1941, German physicist Werner Heisenberg goes to Copenhagen to see his Danish counterpart, Niels Bohr. Together they revolutionized atomic science in the 1920s, but now they are on opposite sides of a world war. In this incisive drama by the prominent British playwright, which premiered at the Royal National Theatre in London and opened to rave reviews on Broadway (ultimately winning the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play), the two men meet in a situation fraught with danger in hopes of discovering why we do what we do.” Performance take place at the Gaslight Theatre on North Boyle. For more information: stlas.org.

Soul Siren Playhouse presents Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman through February 18. “In an emotionally charged and highly symbolic version of the Adam and Eve story, an unsuspecting Black man is encountered by a mysterious and calculating white seductress alone on an underground train. A ritual drama, Soul Siren Playhouse presents this bold and challenging work written with a distinct sociological purpose: to galvanize audiences into revolutionary action”. Performances take place at at Greenfinch Theatre and Dive Bar on South Jefferson. For more information: www.playsiren.com

The Mousetrap
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents the Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 through February 17. “As news spreads of a murder in London, seven eccentric strangers find themselves snowed in at a remote countryside guesthouse. A police sergeant unexpectedly arrives, concerned that the murderer at large may be one of the guests at the Manor. One by one, the suspicious guests begin to reveal their sordid pasts.” Performances take place at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee in Tower Grove East. For more information: straydogtheatre.org

An Evening of One-Acts
Photo: Carrie Phinney
West End Players Guild presents An Evening of One-Acts through February 18. “The one-act play is a distinct dramatic form that has been used by the greatest of playwrights. West End’s evening offers a delectable smorgasbord of tales—the sweet, the spicy, the savory, the hot—and some comfort food. A smorgasbord is a celebratory meal, and this production is a celebration of the concise.” 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.
To get your event listed here, send an email to chuck at kdhx.org Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills.
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, February 10, 2024

Review: Great chamber music from the SLSOs "inner circle" at The Sheldon

I have periodically described the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) as an ensemble of virtuosi. The SLSO “Live at the Sheldon” concert last night (Wednesday, February 7) was a welcome opportunity to hear five of those virtuosi in action. Curated by Concertmaster David Halen and Principal Second Violin Alison Harney, the evening was an impressive mix of works old and new for string quartet with Principal Viola Beth Guterman Chu and Associate Principal Cello Melissa Brooks, and in the second half, with SLSO principal Keyboardist, Peter Henderson on piano.

L-R: Peter Henderson, Alison Harney, 
Beth Guterman Chu, David Halen,
Melissa Broois

Halen and Harney introduced the program with some interesting comments on the differences and similarities between playing chamber music and leading their respective sections in orchestral concerts. Halen noted that these four form the "inner circle" of string players, meaning they are positioned at the front of their respective sections, closest to the conductor. This setup allows for a rough approximation of playing chamber music, as they are near each other. At the same time, though, they must remain mindful of leading their respective sections, which limits the intimate give-and-take that is characteristic of chamber music. That insight provided a fascinating glimpse into how the musical sausage is made.

It was made with quality ingredients last night, beginning with the Andante Cantabile second movement from the String Quartet No. 2 in A minor by Florence Price (1887–1953). Composed in 1935 (just two years after the premiere of her unjustly neglected Symphony No. 3), the quartet displays the mix of early twentieth-century chromaticism and African American melodic material that characterizes so much of Price’s music. Coming as it does immediately after the large-scale drama of the first movement, the Andante Cantabile offers a welcome change of pace in the form of a lyrical cradle song. A rocking two-note ostinato in the second violin supports a gentle theme that Antonin Dvořák (1841–1904), whose Piano Quintet concluded the concert, would have surely appreciated.

The quartet’s performance of this little gem was exceptional as they played with seamless teamwork. It was evident that they had a great rapport and communicated with each other effortlessly. Indeed, this performance was characteristic of the entire evening. It was surprising to start the concert with such a gentle and charming piece of music, but the quartet pulled it off with great finesse.

The generally contemplative mood continued with the world premiere of “The Art of Dreaming” by Robyne Sieh (b. 2002), a 2020 winner of the Missouri Composers Project competition who has since moved to a career as a composer, pianist, and arranger. The brief work opens with a yearning first theme which gives way to a more contemplative second before moving to a more agitated section. I’m not sure how the music connected with either the title or Sieh’s description of it as being about a composer’s duty to “bring color to this world,” but the quartet’s sympathetic performance certainly made a good case for it.

Bringing color to the world is, however, a respectable description of what Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) did with his first and only String Quartet. Like his fellow Impressionist Claude Debussy, Ravel was wont to paint in musical watercolors, at least early in his career. The quartet inhabits a hazy, shifting, and sometimes indeterminate emotional landscape and poses a fair number of technical challenges.

The quartet gave an outstanding performance that captured the composer's quicksilver mood shifts while maintaining a consistent sense of momentum. When the melodic line jumped rapidly among the instruments, those leaps were always clear. The lively second movement's pizzicatos, trills, and tremolos were light and precise. The third movement (Très lent) was suitably eerie and nocturnal, while the finale bristled with energy.

Above all, Halen, Harney, Guterman Chu, and Brooks played with a cohesive ensemble sound, despite the somewhat chilly acoustics of the Sheldon’s balcony. Ravel’s scoring is remarkably democratic, with each of the four instruments given equal weight, which amply rewards serious teamwork.

The concert closed with the 1887 Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvořák (1841–1904), a work aptly described by writer/cellist J. Anthony McAllister as “easily one of the finest examples of late Romantic chamber music.” First performed on January 8, 1888 at a concert in the Rudolfinum in Prague, the Piano Quintet was enthusiastically received and quickly became a hot item for the composer’s publisher, Simrock. The work’s combination of craftsmanship and melodic appeal has kept it firmly in the musical mainstream ever since.

The addition of Henderson was a welcome addition to the ensemble. Over the years, I have been impressed by Henderson’s technique and versatility, playing everything from Haydn to Frederic Rzewski on everything from harpsichord to synthesizer. So I expected (and got) superb playing that stood out when it was supposed to and blended seamlessly with his fellow musicians the rest of the time.

The performance paid a great tribute to the essence of Dvořák's worldview, which brilliantly blends the contrasting elements of light and darkness. This was most apparent in the quartet’s performance of the Andante con moto second movement, which is based on the Czech dumka, a dance characterized by a mix of mirth and melancholy. The wistful little opening theme got a most sympathetic treatment by Henderson and Guterman Chu. The wild Vivace of the central section was delivered with gusto by the full ensemble, making the final return to the opening mood that much more poignant.

Next, we got a wonderfully incendiary third movement Furiant, followed by an Allegro finale (complete with a bit of fugal counterpoint) that brought the audience to its feet. Yes, the old “standing O” is easy to get in this country, but it was well-earned Wednesday night.

This was my first chance to catch one of the SLSO’s chamber music concerts at the Sheldon. I do believe I’m going to have to attend more of them in the future.

Next from the SLSO: Stéphane Denève returns to conduct the orchestra and chorus in Orff’s ever-popular “Carmina Burana,” along with works by Arvo Pärt, Wagner, and contemporary composer Lera Auerbach. Performances are Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 17 and 18, at the Stifel Theater.

Monday, February 05, 2024

Symphony Review: Denève brings Florence Price's masterpiece to St. Louis

Last Friday night (February 2)  Stéphane Denève conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) and violin soloist Augustin Hadelich in music by Valerie Coleman (b. 1970), Samuel Barber (1910–1981), and Florence Price (1887–1953). It was a truly memorable concert and a demonstration of the strength that comes from diversity, consisting of works by two black women and a gay man.

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

The concert opened with a glorious performance of Coleman's 2019 "Umoja: Anthem of Unity." Originally a short piece for female choir titled simply “Umoja” (the Swahili word for “unity” and the first of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa) this little musical acorn has now grown into a brilliantly orchestrated oak of a tone poem. It begins with the modest, Celtic-sounding main theme played softly by flute and violin (nicely done by Principal Flute Matthew Roitstein and Associate Concert Master Erin Schreiber) over the otherworldly sounds of bowed percussion (marimba, xylophone, and the like adeptly played by Will James, Alan Stewart, and Kevin Ritenauer). Over the next fifteen minutes or so it goes through a series of variations until building to a triumphant call for unity in the brass and percussion before returning to the quiet serenity of the opening.

L-R: Augustin Hadelich and Stéphane Denève
Photo by Chuck Lavazzi

Under Denève’s sympathetic direction, it emerged as one of the most uplifting and inspiring pieces I have heard in some time, and one I hope we hear more often from now on.

Barber's dramatic Op. 14 Violin Concerto got a highly expressive and technically brilliant performance by Hadelich ably supported by Denève and the orchestra. Hedelich’s intense emotional commitment to the music was apparent from the beginning of the Allegro first movement in both the sweetly nostalgic statement of the first theme and his powerful handling of the subsequent drama that pervades the rest of the movement. Both he and Denève were on the same quietly elegiac page in the following Andante (including a lovely solo by Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks) and delivered the hair-raising fireworks of the Presto in moto perpetuo finale with stunning precision.

That last movement isn’t just an Olympian exercise for the soloist. The members of the orchestra are called upon to inject a plethora of short, tricky motifs all the way through, so the entire ensemble has to work closely as a team. They did so perfectly under Denève’s leadership, providing yet another manifestation of the theme of unity.

The standing ovation that followed was, of course, inevitable but it was also completely justifiable. Hadelich responded with an unexpected and delightful encore: his own virtuoso arrangement of the Robert Shafer/Randy Howard version of the traditional “Wild Fiddler’s Rag.”

The evening concluded with a powerful performance of Florence Price’s remarkable Symphony No. 3. Premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it made Price the first African American woman to see her work performed by a major symphony orchestra.

When I first heard this work last July at Bravo Vail, I recall finding Price’s approach to traditional structures like sonata form to be somewhat episodic, but after Friday night's wonderfully coherent reading by Denève I am obliged to take that all back. The mix of traditional African American elements with modernist dissonances, whole-tone passages, and Wagnerian brass chorales no longer sounded disconcerting. The echoes of Dvořák and traditional spirituals in the second movement kept harmonious company and the bits of sly humor in the third movement Juba dance were just right. The wild, turbulent, and dissonant Scherzo last movement brought it all to a rousing close.

Denève and the SLSO have, in short, demonstrated that the Symphony No. 3 is a genuine masterpiece. He said it needs to be heard more often and I couldn't agree more. Judging from the enthusiastic audience response, that shouldn’t be a hard sell.

If you missed this concert, never fear. It was recorded and will shortly be available for streaming for a limited time at the SLSO website.

Next from the SLSO: On Wednesday, February 7, at 7:30 pm Concertmaster David Halen leads members of the orchestra in a chamber music evening at the Sheldon Concert Hall. On the program: Florence Price’s Andante cantabile from the String Quartet No. 2, the world premiere of “The Art of Dreaming” by Robyne Sieh, Ravel’s String Quartet in F major, and Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major.

On Thursday, February 8, at 7:00 pm, the Washington University Department of Music and musicians of the SLSO team up for “Untold Stories: LGBTQ+ Composers through Time,” a unique narrated performance that introduces stories of composers from the LGBTQ+ community over the last 1,000 years. The concert takes place at the 560 Music Center in University City.

On Saturday, February 10, at 7:30 pm Norman Huynh conducts a special Lunar New Year program with the SLSO and soloists Rulin Olivia Zhang (erhu), the CECC dragon dance team, and the Thunder Drum team. The program includes music by Li Huanzhi, Tan Dun, Ravel, and Stranisnky and takes place at Lindenwood University's J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts.

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

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of February 5, 2024

What's on St.Louis theater and cabaret stages this coming week. Please leave a comment if anything was wrong or got left out


Tim Schall and Carol Schmidt
The Blue Strawberry presents Sunday Standard Time with Tim Schall and Carol Schmidt on Sunday February 11 from at 6 pm. “Join Tim Schall (vocals) and Carol Schmidt (piano) in the lounge for a casual, classy Sunday evening of jazz standards, a little sophisticated pop and a dash of classic Broadway. Tim is no stranger to the theater and concert stages of St. Louis, Chicago and New York's Lincoln Center. Carol has a rich history of entertaining St. Louis audiences as musician and singer. Together they will help you wind down your weekend with timeless music and a lot of irreverent dry humor.”  The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present A Fistful of Hollars  through May 4. "Gun slingers, dance hall girls, cowboys, gold diggers, cowboy boots and ten-gallon-hats will abound. Rowdy cowboys will duel to the death as the crooked sheriff watches with glee. But none of these characters are as dangerous as Nasty Nate, he’s the orneriest gun in the west and word is that he’s going to be stirring up trouble at the Lemp Mansion. " The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Moonstone Theatre Company presents The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp February 8 - 25. “Opening on Broadway to rave reviews and nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play in 2020, The Sound Inside is a gripping drama centered around brilliant Ivy League professor Bella Baird.  Bella begins to mentor the brilliant but enigmatic student Christopher and the two form an unexpectedly intense bond.  As their lives and the stories they tell about themselves become intertwined in unpredictable ways, Bella makes a surprising request of Christopher that neither knows if he can fulfill.  Brimming with suspense, Rapp's riveting play explores the limits of what one person can ask of another.” Performances take place in the Reim Theater at the Kirkwood Community Center in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: moonstonetheatrecompany.com.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Moby Dick, adapted and directed by David Catlin from the book by Herman Melville, February 7 through 25. “Madness, obsession and bloodlust take harrowing flight in a thrilling revision of Melville’s masterpiece. Captain Ahab’s hunt for the great White Whale soars to new heights through an exhilarating acrobatic and theatrical spectacle that invites audiences into the heart of the action. This adaptation from Lookingglass Theatre Company brings a literary legend to life in an experience that’s both visceral and evocative.” Performances take on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.. For more information: www.repstl.org.

St. Louis Actors' Studio (STLAS) presents Copenhagen by Michael Frayn Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, February 9-25. “In 1941, German physicist Werner Heisenberg goes to Copenhagen to see his Danish counterpart, Niels Bohr. Together they revolutionized atomic science in the 1920s, but now they are on opposite sides of a world war. In this incisive drama by the prominent British playwright, which premiered at the Royal National Theatre in London and opened to rave reviews on Broadway (ultimately winning the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play), the two men meet in a situation fraught with danger in hopes of discovering why we do what we do.” Performance take place at the Gaslight Theatre on North Boyle. For more information: stlas.org.

Soul Siren Playhouse presents Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman through February 18. “In an emotionally charged and highly symbolic version of the Adam and Eve story, an unsuspecting Black man is encountered by a mysterious and calculating white seductress alone on an underground train. A ritual drama, Soul Siren Playhouse presents this bold and challenging work written with a distinct sociological purpose: to galvanize audiences into revolutionary action”. Performances take place at at Greenfinch Theatre and Dive Bar on South Jefferson. For more information: www.playsiren.com

Hairspray
Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Stifel Theatre presents the musical Hairspray Thursday and Friday, February 8 and 9, at 7:30 pm. “Join 16-year-old Tracy Turnblad in 1960s Baltimore as she sets out to dance her way onto TV’s most popular show. Can a girl with big dreams (and even bigger hair) change the world?” The Stifel Theatre is at 14th and Market downtown. For more information: www.stifeltheatre.com.

The Mousetrap
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents the Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, February 1 through 17, with an additional performance at 2 pm on Sunday February 11. “As news spreads of a murder in London, seven eccentric strangers find themselves snowed in at a remote countryside guesthouse. A police sergeant unexpectedly arrives, concerned that the murderer at large may be one of the guests at the Manor. One by one, the suspicious guests begin to reveal their sordid pasts.” Performances take place at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee in Tower Grove East. For more information: straydogtheatre.org

An Evening of One-Acts
Photo: Carrie Phinney
West End Players Guild presents An Evening of One-Acts February 9-18. “The one-act play is a distinct dramatic form that has been used by the greatest of playwrights. West End’s evening offers a delectable smorgasbord of tales—the sweet, the spicy, the savory, the hot—and some comfort food. A smorgasbord is a celebratory meal, and this production is a celebration of the concise.” 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.
To get your event listed here, send an email to chuck at kdhx.org Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills.
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, January 31, 2024

Symphony Preview: The great commission

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) programs often have a common theme, especially when Music Director Stéphane Denève is on the podium. This Friday, February 2nd, the program notes suggest that the unifying theme is that time-honored source of revenue for composers, the commission. Composers have relied on individuals, organizations, and governments to fund new works for centuries.

[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]

Valerie Coleman

Friday’s program opens with “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” by Valerie Coleman (b. 1970). Commissioned in 2019 by the Philadelphia Orchestra,  “Umoja” (the Swahili word for “faith”) began life almost 20 years ago as a song for women’s choir. “It embodied,” writes the composer, “a sense of 'tribal unity', through the feel of a drum circle, the sharing of history through traditional ‘call and response’ form and the repetition of a memorable sing-song melody”. Coleman subsequently arranged it for her woodwind quintet, The Imani Winds, who recorded it for Koch International in 2006.

The 2019 version for full orchestra is the most recent of many arrangements of that simple tune, making it the basis of a tone poem in theme and variations format and more than doubling its length. Here the theme is first sung sweetly by the first violin, over a shimmering background of bowed percussion instruments, harp, and strings. Over the next fifteen minutes or so it goes through many transformations and, at one point, is “interrupted by dissonant viewpoints led by the brass and percussion sections, which represent the clash of injustices, racism and hate that threatens to gain a foothold in the world today.” It builds to a triumphant call for unity in the brass and percussion before returning to the quiet serenity of the opening.

According to the program notes by Justino Gordón-LeChevalé, "Umoja" is "a vibrant, musical invocation for a world increasingly in need of unity and freedom." This, along with Coleman's reference to "dissonant viewpoints," proposes another possible unifying idea in the program: the fact that all three composers who are represented here belong to historically marginalized groups. Coleman is a black woman, Florence Price (1887–1953), whose Symphony No. 3 closes the concert, was also a black woman, and the composer of the second work, Samuel Barber (1910–1981), was gay.

Samuel Barber, photographed by
Carl Van Vechten, 1944
Public Domain

Barber is represented by one of his more popular works, the Violin Concerto, Op. 14. It was commissioned in 1939 by Samuel Simeon Fels, founder of the soap company whose principal product, Fels-Naptha, will likely be familiar to those of us d'un certain âge. Fels wanted a concerto for his ward, the Ukrainian-born violinist Iso Briselli. What happened next has been the subject of some debate, but the consensus appears that Briselli’s violin coach, Albert Meiff, disliked the concerto and pressured Briselli not to play it. 

Meiff offered to "help" by rewriting the violin part, apparently under the impression that he was a 20th-century Joseph Joachim. Barber wasn’t having any of it, however. He continued to work on the concerto, Briselli’s exclusivity elapsed, and the premiere finally took place in 1941 with soloist Albert Spaulding and The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Briselli and Barber remained friends and Meiff is now a footnote in musical history.

Meiff was wrong in any case. The concerto proved to be a success, often performed and recorded by a “who’s who” of notable violinists, including this Friday’s soloist Augustin Hadelich. There’s also a 1986 recording by the SLSO under Leonard Slatkin with Elmar Oliveira as soloist.

I have always loved the piece. The dramatic first movement, the contemplative second, and the hair-raising Presto in moto perpetuo finale combine to produce a concerto that is both emotionally moving and, in the finale, filled with virtuoso fireworks. Briselli thought the last movement was too short compared to the first two, but he seems to have missed the fact that sheer length isn’t the same as dramatic impact.

Finally, we turn to Florence Price. Unlike Barber, who had little difficulty finding audiences for his work, Price had to struggle for recognition for her work as a composer. Yes, her Symphony No. 1 earned her first place in the 1932 Wanamaker competition and the work got its first performance the following year by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That made her the first African American woman to see her work performed by a major symphony orchestra, and yet that symphony wasn’t published until 2008. Her Symphony No. 2 has been lost, as was her Symphony No. 4 until it turned up in her former summer home in Illinois in 2009.

Florence Price
By George Nelidoff
Public Domain

Her Symphony No. 3 has fared somewhat better. Commissioned by the WPA in 1938, it was first performed by the Detroit Civic Orchestra (a.k.a The Michigan WPA Symphony Orchestra) in 1940 to considerable acclaim. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a great admirer. In his review for the Detroit Free Press, J. D. Callaghan wrote that Price “spoke in the musical idiom of her own people, and spoke with authority.” He praised the symphony’s “emotional warmth” helped make the evening “one of profound melody satisfaction.” He singled out the “majestic beauty” of the second movement and noted that the finale “swept forward with great vigor.”

Even so, the symphony disappeared into the same oblivion that claimed so many of Price’s other works until early this century—for reasons that Price understood all too well. “To begin with,” she wrote in a 1943 letter to Serge Koussevitzky, “I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” She went on to ask the Koussevitzky to consider one of her scores for performance, a request which the conductor (to his discredit) apparently ignored.

Price died of a stroke in 1953, so she didn’t live to see her work rescued from obscurity. Her Symphony No. 3, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. I heard a pretty persuasive performance of it last July at the Bravo! Vail festival by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is an enthusiastic admirer of Price’s work. She has also been on Stéphane Denève’s radar for years. He originally planned to present the Symphony No. 3 in 2021 on the same bill as the Dvorak Symphony No. 9, but the pandemic killed that program along with many others.

The work is innovative in both its structure and sound. Price’s approach to traditional structures like sonata form can be disconcertingly episodic, as can her cheerful mixture of traditional African American elements (including spirituals) with modernist dissonances, whole-tone passages, and even a somewhat ominous brass chorale that sounds like might have escaped from Siegfried’s funeral music in “Götterdämerung.”  The slyly humorous third movement is based on the African-American juba dance and the fourth is a wild, turbulent, and dissonant Scherzo ending in (John Michael Cooper’s 2022 program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra) “a fury of roaring percussion and chordal interjections that finally manage to reclaim the work from turbulence and discord.”

This is music that takes a bit of mental retooling on the part of the listener, but it’s worth the effort.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the SLSO and violin soloist Augustin Hadelich in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto along with the local premieres Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” and the Symphony No. 3 by Florence Price. Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and 7:30 pm, February 2, at the Touhill Center on the UMSL campus. The Friday night concert will be broadcast Saturday night at 7:30 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, January 30, 2024

Symphony Review: Denève and the SLSO present a musical and visual feast

Five years ago, when Stéphane Denève was the Music Director Designate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), I asked him if he was thinking of using any visuals to go with the ballet scores he was planning since this was something the symphony had done successfully in the past. He said no "because as much as I love combining art forms, I'm very doubtful about the visual and the music together… Every time you have a visual which is very powerful, the music tends to become an accompaniment. And therefore it's very hard to find the right balance to make that successful."

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

Grégoire Pont
Photo: Israel Solorzano

Judging from the use of animation in the concerts Maestro Denève and the SLSO presented this past weekend (January 27 and 28), he has found that balance. Two out of the three works performed during the concert were accompanied by animation. When we saw the concert on Sunday afternoon the result in both cases was unquestionably successful.

The program opened with the 1912 "ballet-pantomime" "Le Festin de l'araignée" ("The Spider's Feast") by Albert Roussel (1869–1937).  Set in a garden at twilight, the whimsical scenario shows us ants grabbing a rose petal, and worms dodging praying mantises to gorge themselves on a piece of fruit dislodged by the wind. A mayfly, unable to resist the demands of her insect audience, dances herself to death.

Meanwhile, the titular spider has spun an intricate web and is lying in wait for her next meal. She traps and kills an incautious butterfly along with a pair of mantises, who have worn themselves out in a pointless duel over who was responsible for letting those worms give them the slip.  Before she can begin her feast, a dung beetle frees a mantis who deals the spider a death blow. As the night falls, the surviving insects come together to bear away the body of the mayfly in a somber funeral procession. Curtain.

Roussel's score is a tour de force of tone painting. His ants enter with a slightly silly march. The worms slither on in high strings on their way to the fruit and then wiggle off, stuffed with fruit, in the low strings. The spider mends her web with quick rising glissandi in the violins and later does a celebratory dance that echoes the "Danse infernale" from Stravinsky's "Firebird."

As Denève pointed out in his pre-concert chat, the score for "Le Festin de l'araignée" is filled with notations of the ballet's stage directions as a reminder to the conductor; "Entrée des Fourmis" ("Entrance of the ants") at rehearsal number 7. and "Danse de Papillon" ("Dance of the butterfly") at number 19, and so on. Instead of displaying static stage directions on a screen, Denève enlisted the help of French illustrator and animator Grégoire Pont to animate them. Pont's work was shown for the first time last week during a performance of the score that Denève conducted with the New World Symphony in Miami.

As you can see in Pont's Facebook sample reel, his fanciful and witty line drawings match the music perfectly. I especially liked what he did with the final bars, when a firefly, after a few false starts, finally achieves illumination, and his light changes into a crescent moon. It was (ahem) de-light-ful.

Every time Denève conducts a Roussel score for us, I'm reminded of why he has so much affection for this composer's work and how completely justified that affection is. Roussel surely deserves more attention than he has gotten over the years. The high quality of the performances his music gets from Denève and the orchestra should help to remedy that situation.

"Le Festin de l'araignée" got a sympathetic and elegant reading from Denève and the usual excellent playing from the orchestra. Associate Principal Flute Andrea Kaplan got a well-deserved nod during the curtain call for her many fine solos, and everyone else was at the top of their game.

After intermission, we leaped forward to 1942 and a suite from the ballet "Les animaux modèles" ("The Model Animals") by Francis Poulenc (1899–1963).  Denève said this work had a special place in his heart because of the ingenious way the composer, who was already part of the resistance movement, managed to sneak in Antifa messages that would be understood by his audience but would sail over the heads of the Nazis. Fascists, as we are reminded far too often, are notoriously unable to handle nuance.

The most notable example is the insertion in the fifth movement of the suite, "Les deux coqs" ("The Two Roosters") of the refrain of the 1871 Franco-Prussian war song “Alsace et Lorraine”: "Vous n'aurez pas l'Alsace et la Lorraine / Et malgré vous nous resterons Français" (roughly, "You will not have Alsace and Lorraine, and despite you we will remain French). Denève favored us with a couple of bars in his talk, which might have made it easier to spot when the trumpets let loose with it in performance. As Poulenc recalled later, "each time the trumpet started out on the tune, I couldn't help smiling."

The orchestra's spirited and incisive performance, along with Ken Page's suave readings of three of the La Fontaine fables on which the ballet is based, left the audience smiling. The rhyming translations of the fables by the late, multi-talented Craig Hill captured the satirical wit of the originals, at least based on my somewhat rudimentary French.

Denève masterfully built the slow crescendo to the somewhat musically ambiguous "Le petit jour" ("Day Break"), with its abrupt shift to darkness near the end, and brought out all the noble romance of "Le lion amoureux" ("The Lion in Love"). Poulenc's vivid portrayals of a man's two rather picky mistresses and the fight of the roosters with its reminder about the evanescence of victory (probably lost on the Germans) were sharply etched in Sunday's performance.

There was excellent playing here from the horns and brasses, especially in "La mort et la bûcheron" ("Death and the woodcutter"), and impressively precise articulation by the strings. Harpists Julie Smith Phillips and Ellie Kirk added to the richness of the sound.

The final work on the program, "Peter and the Wolf" by Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), is written for narrator and orchestra. This time around, however, the narration was replaced with the 2006 “stop motion” animated film “Peter and the Wolf” by British writer/director Suzie Templeton. Templeton's film sticks fairly close to the outline of Prokofiev's original story but embellishes it substantially and sets it in a somewhat dystopic Soviet Russia. Peter is still a hero and the wolf, especially in his animated incarnation, is still menacing. The hunters, though, are essentially thugs, Peter's animal friends are skinny and scruffy, and everyone seems to be leading a hand-to-mouth existence. It's imaginative but a bit bleak.

The music, however, remains unchanged and was played just as well as the last time I heard the orchestra perform it in 2021. Most of the soloists were also the same, including Andrew Cuneo, the Principal Bassoon who played the role of a comically pompous grandfather, and Jelena Dirks, the Principal Oboe who portrayed a mournful and (in this grittier version) unquestionably dead duck. Percussionists Will James and Alan Stewart, the Principal and Associate Principal respectively, played the fearsome hunters. Kevin Ritenauer, who was not part of the 2021 ensemble, joined them on the tympani.

Principal Flute Matthew Roitstein's bird was wonderfully light and agile—allegro and staccato with lots of grace notes, just as written. The contrast with Templeton's clumsy, broken-winged creature (who needs a balloon to stay aloft) was heavily ironic. Ditto clarinetist Steve Ahearn as the cat: musically sly and slinky in contrast with the clumsy and inept animated counterpart.

Titled "Musical Fables," the concert was an innovative approach to putting old wine in new bottles without damaging the vintage. Hats off to everyone.

Next from the SLSO: Denève conducts the orchestra and violin soloist Augustin Hadelich in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto along with the local premieres Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” and the Symphony No. 3 by Florence Price. Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 7:30 pm, February 2 and 3, at the Touhill Center on the UMSL campus. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live 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.