Thursday, January 11, 2024

Symphony Preview: And (almost) all that jazz

This Saturday (January 13) St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin presents the second of three concerts demonstrating the influence of what Slatkin calls “vernacular” music—jazz, folk, spirituals, theatre, and popular music in general—on the classical canon. In the first half of Saturday’s concert, the emphasis is on jazz.

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

Darius Milhaud, 1923
By Agence de presse Meurisse
Public Domain

The evening opens the ballet “La création du monde” (The Creation of the World) by Darius Milhaud (1892–1974). A member of that group of somewhat eccentric French anti-Romantic composers known as "les six" (the others were Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey), Milhaud enjoyed a brief infatuation with jazz that began with a 1920 performance of the Billy Arnold Jazz Band in London and reached its apex during a USA tour two years later when the composer heard jazz bands in Harlem.

“The music I heard was absolutely different from anything I had ever heard before and was a revelation to me” he wrote in his 1953 biography “Notes Without Music.”

Against the beat of the drums the melodic lines crisscrossed in a breathless pattern of broken and twisted rhythms... Its effect on me was so overwhelming that I could not tear myself away… When I went back to France, I never wearied of playing over and over, on a little portable phonograph shaped like a camera. Black Swan records I had purchased in a little shop in Harlem. More than ever I was resolved to use jazz for a chamber work.

“La creation” was the result of that resolution. Upon his return to Paris Milhaud got in touch with Blaise Cendrars, who had published Anthologie nègre (a collection of African folk tales) the year before. Cendrars’s scenario involved “giant gods, trees which impregnate the earth with their seed, leaves transformed into animals, men and girls emerging from the trees and performing a mating dance, until they disperse, leaving a single couple on stage, united in love.” Milhaud’s score, for a band of 19 soloists, makes prominent use of the piano, sax, and percussion.

It went over well enough in jazz-infatuated Paris but, as Svend Brown wrote in program notes for a 2007 performance of the score by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the ballet “was more a chic succès de scandale than a true success. The costumes designed by Fernand Léger (who also created the set) worked magnificently visually, but were hell to dance in—heavy and inflexible, they made it difficult to move freely.”

Woody Herman, 1943
By General Artists Corporation-management 
Public Domain

Which may explain why “La création du monde” is rarely seen but often heard. The small size of the ensemble will be a test of the SLSO’s mettle, but it will also offer an opportunity for many of the section principal players to shine.

Speaking of which, SLSO Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews steps into the spotlight next in the “Ebony Concerto” by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). Written in 1945 for Woody Herman and his band The Herd (who premiered it in 1946 at Carnegie Hall), it’s a pithy work that crams a lot of musical variety into its ten minutes without overwhelming the listener. Yes, it’s jazzy, but it’s jazz heard through a heavy Stravinsky filter.

That filter made things a bit challenging for Herman and The Herd. “The piece was extremely difficult and the band struggled mightily,” writes an anonymous author at the Carnegie Hall web site. “After the first rehearsal,” recalls Herman, “we were all so embarrassed [that] we were nearly crying.” Check out the YouTube video of the recording by Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain with its synchronized display of the score to see the kind of thing that made grown men cry.

Fortunately, it all came together at the concert, which also included plenty of The Herd’s popular hits.

Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, 1942
By Wide World Photos
Public Domain

Next, we head back to the theatre for the “Kleine Dreigroschenmusik” (“Little Threepenny Music”) by Kurt Weill (1900–1950). Scored for winds and percussion, it’s a suite of tunes from Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 “play with music” “Der Dreigroschen Oper” (“The Threepenny Opera”) that the composer put together in 1929 at the request of legendary conductor Otto Klemperer. In fact it’s Klemperer who conducts the performance on the SLSO’s Spotify playlist

Without the bitterly satirical lyrics that Brecht wrote for them, Weill’s suite is a mix of a half dozen appealing “ear worms” marinated in the spirit of 1920s popular song and dance and bookended with a dramatic overture and finale. But the suite’s accessibility doesn’t necessarily mean that Weill’s motivation in creating the site was largely mercenary.

Weill might have felt that his music would be more properly appreciated outside of the theatre, where he could use a larger ensemble and rely on the skills of conservatory-trained musicians. Given the success of his theatrical works, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he had studied composition with Ferrucio Busoni and wrote extensively for the concert hall before he embraced the stage.

When Weill and Brecht were completing work on “Der Dreigroschen Oper” George Gershwin (1898–1937) was putting the finishing touches on his first major orchestral work, “An American in Paris,” which closes Saturday night’s concert. Begun during a trip to Paris two years earlier, the work is a reminder of just how much solid craftsmanship lurks behind Gershwin’s irresistible tunes.

Gershwin in 1937
Photo: Carl Van Vechten

In a 1928 interview for Musical America Gershwin described “An American in Paris” as “a rhapsodic ballet” intended “to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere." As someone who has visited Paris several times and who has fallen in love with the City of Light, I’d say he succeeded completely.

The lively opening with its colorful evocation of the city's sidewalk cafes and bustling boulevards (complete with honking taxi horns in the percussion section) is a masterful bit of musical imagery. And the bluesy central section evokes not only the homesickness of the traveler but also the charm of Paris at night.

Plus, Gershwin’s orchestration is a reminder of how far he came in such a short period of time. This is, after all, a guy who went from being a Tin Pan Alley "song plugger" to an accomplished composer and orchestrator in only thirteen years. In another seven years he would write one of the mainstays of twentieth-century American opera, "Porgy and Bess.” Not shabby.

Slatkin and the SLSO recorded “An American in Paris” 50 years ago as part of the orchestra’s multi-LP set of Gershwin’s complete orchestral works for Vox (now available in digitally remastered format on ArchivMusic). Although the SLSO’s playlist for this Saturday’s concert does not feature that recording (opting instead Leonard Bernstein’s sonically dated version from 1959), it is also available on Spotify

The Essentials: Leonard Slatkin conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and clarinet soloist Scott Andrews in works by Darius Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weill, and George Gershwin on Saturday, January 13, at 7:30 pm at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. For more information, visit the SLSO web site.

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

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