Tuesday, January 09, 2024

Symphony Preview: Mass in the vernacular

This Friday (January 12), St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin steps up to the podium in the Touhill Center to present the first of a three-concert series that, as he said in a recent interview with yours truly, “focuses on the intersection between vernacular and, for lack of a better term, classical music.”

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

By “vernacular,” he means pretty much anything that isn’t part of the “classical” canon—jazz, folk, spirituals, theatre, and popular music in general. It’s a broad category but, as anyone who has listened to Slatkin’s radio show “The Slatkin Shuffle” knows, his musical interests are nothing if not eclectic.

Antheil and some Ballet Mécanique "noisemakers"
By Unknown author - Unknown Newspaper
Public Domain 

That’s clear from the very beginning of the program Friday morning, January 12, as the orchestra delivers a jolt of sonic caffeine in the form of the 1955 revision of the 1925 “Jazz Symphony” by American composer George Antheil (1900–1959). Episodic and only twelve minutes long, it’s not really a symphony and not, for the most part, especially jazzy. It is, however, raucous, cheerfully vulgar, and often a bit wacky in a way that anticipates the cartoon soundtracks of Carl Stallings.

First performed as part of a 1927 Carnegie Hall concert that included his infamous “Ballet Mécanique” (the 1925 Paris premiere of which caused riots that may or may not have been staged), the “Jazz Symphony” was performed by the Harlem Sinfonietta under W.C. Handy (composer of “The St. Louis Blues”). The performance went over well with both critics and fellow composers like Gershwin and Copland but was overshadowed in the press by equipment failures during “Ballet Mécanique” that turned what might have been a succès de scandale into something more akin to a Marx Brothers movie

But I digress. The slightly tamer 1955 version of the “Jazz Symphony” is still pretty wild and wooly, but if you’d like to hear what the original sounds like it’s available at Spotify.

Composer Jeff Beal

Up next is “Body in Motion,” a violin concerto by Jeff Beal (b. 1963). As this is the work’s world premiere, I have no idea what it will sound like. So the best I can do is to quote the composer, as cited in this weekend’s program notes:

The first image that came to me when developing the materials for this new violin concerto was one of water. I love the way water presents a visual tension between the hypnotic, peaceful, and—in the case of a windy lake or sea—a sense of constant, fluid motion. I began to think of both the orchestra and soloist as active natural forces.

Beal is probably best known for his music for the TV series "House of Cards," but he also has extensive film and more recently, concert credits. Local audiences may recall SLSO’s world premiere of his song cycle “The Paper-Lined Shack” back in 2019. That was also conducted by Slatkin whom Beal (in a 2019 interview with me) descried as “an important mentor in my life.… His parents were very involved with film music, so he's not afraid to reach out to a film composer to write a piece of concert music. That's very special to me.”

More to the point, as far as Friday’s concert goes, is this quote: “I really feel—and I know Leonard feels this way too—that the more we can break down the barriers between "high" art and "low" art and the more we can have the story telling drive what gets played, I think that's the way music is going. I'm not the only one doing this and it's nice that this is starting to happen.”

Duke Ellington, 1973
By Hans Bernhard (Schnobby)
Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Another St. Louis premiere is next: “Three Black Kings,” the last composition by the legendary Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899–1974). Left uncompleted at the time of his death, the three-movement suite was described by his son Mercer (who finished the work, along with Luther Henderson) as a musical eulogy to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated six years earlier. Dr. King is the last of the three titular kings, the first two being “King of the Magi” (specifically Balthazar) and “King Solomon.”

Balthazar’s music is energetic and restless, driven by a four-note xylophone ostinato later taken up by the full orchestra. The prominent role for percussion suggests a kind of primitivism, while the insistent rhythmic drive reminds us of the long journey of the three magi. As the scene shifts to King Solomon, the music becomes more lyrical and romantic, possibly indicating that Ellington was thinking of Solomon’s hundreds of wives and concubines.

Dr. King’s music is marked as “Slow Gospel, 4 beat,” but the 12/8 rhythm gives it an extra bit of swing that makes me think of the choir swaying back and forth at a church service. It rises to heroic heights, which seems only appropriate for one of the more well-known of the far too numerous martyrs to the cause of racial justice in the USA.

“It’s kind of like three little tone poems,” said Slatkin in our interview.  “I've done it now a couple times. Extraordinary man, extraordinary thinker.” Too true.

Friday’s concert concludes, as does each of the three in the series, with the sounds of George Gershwin. That’s partly a nod to Gershwin’s importance in bringing jazz and other vernacular sounds to the concert hall and partly a tribute to the 1974 recording of Gershwin’s complete orchestral works that Slatkin did with the SLSO. Although these have never been out of print, the ArchivMusic reissue from this past June has been remastered in 192kHz / 24-bit high definition. Whether it’s still in the original surround sound format (or quadraphonic, as they called it Back in the Day), I have no idea.

That said, the work you’ll hear Friday wasn’t part of those historic recordings. It’s “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture,” written in 1942 by Robert Russell Bennett (1894–1981), who is probably best known for the many orchestrations he did for Broadway and Hollywood musicals. It’s relatively faithful to Gershwin’s own orchestrations of what is arguably his masterpiece, but I’m a bit baffled as to why we’re not hearing the suite that was recorded back in 1974: the composer’s own “Porgy and Bess” suite from 1936.

It's always possible that with two local premiers already on the bill and one work (“Three Black Kings”) that hasn’t been heard here in 1995, Bennett’s more familiar music seemed a better bet. In any case, it’s a great lineup. And you can always listen to Slatkin and the SLSO play "Catfish Row" on Spotify.

The Essentials: Leonard Slatkin conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist Kelly Hall-Tompkins in works by George Antheil, Jeff Beal, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin on Friday, January 12, at 10:30 am 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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