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

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.

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