Thursday, January 18, 2024

Symphony Preview: The SLSO goes Krazy for Gershwin (among others)

This Saturday and Sunday (January 20 and 21) St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin concludes his two-week, four-concert series with the ensemble he led from 1979 to 1996. Both concerts are at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. Here’s what to expect.

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

Slatkin and the SLSO Youth Orchestra
Photo: Dilip Vishwanat

On Saturday at 7:30 pm, Slatkin conducts a joint concert by members of the SLSO and the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra—a group he founded back in 1970. That makes it an event with a special meaning for him. “For me,” he said in a recent interview, “it will be one of those moments where I hope I don’t lose it just because I see people on stage who could be my grandchildren.”

The program consists of three audience favorites that need very little introduction. It begins with the “Academic Festival” Overture by Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), written in 1880 as a tribute to the University of Breslau which had just awarded him an honorary degree.

Not that it was strictly voluntary, mind you. Brahms had intended to send a nice “thank you” note but Bernhard Scholz, Director of Music in Breslau, insisted on an actual composition for the solemn occasion. The composer’s ironic response was a complex piece scored for a huge orchestra and consisting mostly of a fantasy on student drinking songs, concluding with a majestic setting of “Gaudeamus igitur” (“So let us rejoice,” preferably with a stein of beer). We don’t often think of Brahms as a jolly fellow, but the “Academic Festival” Overture just overflows with good cheer. Prosit!

Next, it’s “A Lincoln Portrait” by Aaron Copland (1900–1990). Written in a burst of patriotic fervor after the Pearl Harbor attack, it premiered in Cincinnati in 1942 with André Kostelanetz at the podium and local actor William Adams reading the narration. It's stirring stuff, blending Copland's spacious music with Lincoln's inspiring words. Saturday’s narrator is Kevin McBeth, Director of the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus.

The concert concludes with a certified rouser: “Francesca Da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante,” op. 32, composed in 1876 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893). It was inspired by the story from Canto V of Dante’s “Inferno” about Francesca da Rimini (original name Francesca da Polenta), a real noblewoman in 13th-century Italy. Her husband caught her in flagrante delicto with his brother and murdered them both. This being the medieval moral universe, it was Francesca and her lover who ended up in the second circle of hell rather than her homicidal spouse.

Tchaikovsky’s musical evocation of the circle, in which sinners are buffeted about by tempestuous winds, is colorfully dramatic. In “Inferno,” Dante is so moved by Francesca’s story that he falls “as a corpse might fall, to the dead floor of Hell.” Tchaikovsky portrays that in a violent, impassioned coda with multiple brass chords and cymbal crashes echoing the poet’s collapse. It never fails to get applause.

Paul Turok
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

On Sunday at 3 pm, it’s the regular SLSO in the last of three programs examining the influence on the classical canon of what Slatkin calls “vernacular music”—a term he uses for jazz, folk, spirituals, theatre, and popular music in general. Sunday, though, the emphasis is firmly on jazz and its progenitor, ragtime.

The concert opens with “A Joplin Overture” by American composer and critic (!) Paul Turok (1929–2012). Composed in 1973 and first played by Slatkin and the SLSO the following year, this short work (according to Daniels’ Music Online) “appears to be the beginning and ending of Turok's Great Scott!— Orchestral Suite after Scott Joplin, spliced together. Joplin's famous rag The Entertainer is prominent.” I can’t find any recordings of either work anywhere, so I’ll just have to take their word for it.

Grove Online describes Turok’s music as “mainly conservative, characterized by accessible, memorable themes, a restrained but expressive use of dissonance, and a masterful handling of tone color and sonority.” Sounds like a good match for St. Louis’s own King of Ragtime.

Next, it’s music by a composer with impeccable jazz credentials, Mary Lou Williams (1910–1981). A highly regarded pianist, arranger, and composer, Williams was something of a keyboard prodigy. Encouraged by her stepfather Fletcher Burley, she became proficient enough by the age of 12 to start sitting in with local bands and even touring on the segregated TOBA vaudeville circuit.  TOBA officially stood for Theatre Owners Booking Association, but blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey more accurately called it Tough on Black Asses due to lower salaries and less desirable theatres.

Mary Lou Williams
by William P. Gottlieb 
Public Domain

That was all in the past when she started work on her “Zodiac Suite” in 1942, however. Williams had moved on to the Big Time, appearing as a headliner at Barney Josephson’s Café Society in Greenwich Village, recording exclusively for Moe Asch’s Asch label, and, by the time the suite had its first performance in 1945, hosting “Mary Lou Williams’ Piano Workshop” on AM jazz station WNEW. She would later retire from performing and concentrate on composing religious works before returning to the secular jazz scene with her 1975 album “Zoning.” In 1977 she became artist-in-residence at Duke University, a position she held until her death.

All twelve movements of the “Zodiac Suite” depict mystical aspects of the constellations, reflecting Williams’s interest in astrology. Eleven of them also reflect the personalities of the composer’s contemporary jazz musician friends based on their birth signs.  Ten of the eleven movements we’ll hear Sunday are portraits of: Billie Holiday and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster (“Aires”), Duke Ellington (“Taurus”), trumpeter Shorty Baker ("Gemini"), alto saxophonist Lem Davis (“Cancer”), jazz legends Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane ("Libra"), trombonist Vic Dickenson (“Leo”),  Ethel Waters (“Scorpio”), pianist Eddie Heywood (“Sagittarius”), dancer/choreographer Pearl Primus and trumpeter Frankie Newton (“Capricorn”), and Eartha Kitt and singer/guitarist/civil rights advocate Josh White (“Aquarius”).

“Virgo” is apparently just Virgo.

Originally composed for the traditional jazz trio of piano, bass, and drums, the suite was expanded by Williams in 1946 to include a chamber orchestra and more closely integrate contemporary jazz and classical music, including (according to Linda Dahl’s 1999 biography of Williams) the work of composers like Ellington, Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Bartók. I haven’t been able to find a recording of that version anywhere, but the SLSO Spotify playlist does have the Smithsonian/Folkways 1995 re-issue of the composer’s own 1945 recording for Asch. Pianist Aaron Diehl (who recorded the suite with The Knights last year) will head to jazz trio on Sunday, with David Wong on bass and Aaron Kimmel on drums.

George Herrimann, 1922
By George Herriman - Entre Comics
Public Domain

After intermission, it’s fifteen minutes of frivolity with “Krazy Kat, a Jazz Pantomime” written in 1921 by John Alden Carpenter (1876–1951). Like his contemporary Charles Ives (1874–1954), Carpenter was interested in bringing vernacular sounds into the concert hall. However, he did so in a less radical fashion, writing in a relatively conservative style with strong elements of French Impressionism. Also like Ives, Carpenter had substantial formal training but made his living primarily in the business world—specifically in his father’s Chicago ship chandlery, George B. Carpenter & Co.

Based on the wildly imaginative comic strip of the same name, “Krazy Kat” had sets and costumes by the strip’s creator George Herrimann and a scenario based on the strip’s absurd love triangle of the eponymous gender-fluid cat (sometimes Krazy is male, sometimes female, at the cartoonist’s whim; today it would probably be banned in Florida), the brick-tossing mouse Ignatz, and the stolid Offisa Pup, a police dog dedicated to protecting Krazy from Ignatz. The strip’s visual and linguistic inventiveness, while baffling to many readers, strongly influenced the next generation of cartoonists—most notably Walt Kelly, the creator of “Pogo.”

The music is appropriately cartoonish in a way that will be familiar to admirers of Carl Stalling’s Warner Brothers animation scores, but there isn’t much in it that most of us would now think of as “jazz” aside from the frenetic chase scene near the end. Never mind; it’s all great fun. And this will be the first time it has been heard here since the SLSO played it way back in 1923 under the baton of guest conductor Frederick Fisher.

Sunday’s concert, like the first two in the series, concludes with music of George Gershwin. This time it’s the composer’s first foray into the concert hall, the popular “Rhapsody in Blue.” It was first performed as the finale of "An Experiment in Modern Music," as bandleader Paul Whiteman billed the February 12, 1924, concert by his Palais Royal Orchestra at New York's Aeolian Hall. The “Rhapsody” was the most memorable piece to emerge from Whiteman's experiment although there were some other fun nuggets in it as well. You can hear them on Spotify in a recreation of the entire concert under the baton of Maurice Peress that was released in 1987. 

Commemorative Gershwin stamp, 1973
USPS, Public Domain

With the composer at the piano, that first performance must have been quite an event, especially since Gershwin hadn’t gotten around to writing down the entire solo part. “We can assume,” writes Peress, “that Gershwin improvised, for the score does contain a humorous warning for Whiteman, ‘Wait for the nod…,’ just before the entrance of the lovely slow theme, andantino moderato.”

Although Gershwin would orchestrate his later concert works, it was composer Frede Grofé (best known for his “Grand Canyon Suite”) who did the arrangement for that first concert, tailored specifically for Whiteman’s jazz band. Grofé would later do several orchestrations of the “Rhapsody” the last of which, for full symphony orchestra, was published in 1942, five years after the composer’s death. That was the only arrangement available until 1971, when Samuel Adler and the Berlin Symphony recorded a reconstruction of Whiteman’s original. Peress would later use that as the basis for his own 1987 version.

That said, what we’ll hear Sunday is the 1942 version, as that’s what Slatkin, pianist Jeffrey Siegal (also the soloist this time), and the SLSO used for their 1974 recording. Since then the SLSO has performed both versions and recorded the jazz band original with David Robertson and Kirill Gerstein for Myrios in 2018.  The saxophones and banjo from the original are also there as optional instruments in what Peress calls “the Hollywood Bowl version”; it’s just that some care is necessary to prevent the full orchestra from swamping them. Somehow, I doubt that’s going to be an issue for Slatkin.

The Essentials: Leonard Slatkin conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, and narrator Kevin McBeth in music by Brahms, Copland, and Tchaikovsky on Saturday, January 20, at 7:30 pm. On Sunday, January 21, at 3 pm Slatkin conducts the orchestra and piano soloist Jeffrey Siegel in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” along with music by Paul Turok, Mary Lou Williams, and John Alden Carpenter. Both concerts take place at the Touhill Center on the University of Missouri—St. Louis campus. The Sunday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio on Saturday, January 27,  at 7:30 pm.

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

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