Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony

Gustav-Mahler

(Gustav and Alma Mahler)

Tonight Xian and I are going to Powell Hall to hear the SLSO and SLSO Chorus, conducted by new music director and all-around swell fellow Stéphane Denève, perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”). Although I didn’t write the notes for that concert—or any notes for the SLSO since the beginning of last season—I did feel inspired to post my program notes (dsopn121317 ) for Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, originally published for a 2018 concert by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerson in Dallas.

I’m  going to be thinking about resurrections and rebirths (René means reborn, not that I chose my own name or anything), and possibly updating this site more regularly than every several months. I do have a lot of new chamber music writing that I could add, for a Tippet Rise concert season that just ended. Tonight, at Powell Hall, I’m going to be enjoying the dulcet tones of my friend Patty Kofron and her peerless colleagues in the SLSO Chorus. Patty also helped me purchase my tickets, with the usual stipulation that I’d much rather hear well than see well. She’s a gem, and I love talking with her about music as much as I enjoy dishing the musical dirt with her.

Since this is my personal blog I should probably take the opportunity to muse more about Mahler and bring up all the Mahlerian matters that I can’t discuss in the genre of Professional Notes I Get Paid For. If I were more of a Lester Bangsian annotator, I might bring up a decades-past experience involving an illicit psychedelic substance and a recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s staggering interpretation of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. I might mention, or even reproduce, a minutely handwritten letter to a friend that I was writing while listening to this Children Death Songs cycle, over and over again, in the company of the aspiring composer I was living with, co-captain of our extremely boring-to-recount-and-yet-harrowing-to-experience trip). For several consecutive hours, neither of us wanted to listen to anything else except this song cycle about dead children, and I must thank the unnamed aspiring composer (and indirectly his professor) for hooking us up with the good stuff, that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recording, still my favorite, which was that night branded into my brain forever and ever amen. This is my favorite song in the cycle, the one I couldn’t quit hitting repeat on: “Nun will die Sonn so hell aufgehn.” If the link doesn’t work (I won’t seem to spring for the premium plan, all you profiteering WordPress executive scoundrels), just search Youtube or your favorite streaming service for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it, and you won’t regret it.

My mind was already primed for the over-the-top intensity verging on kitsch sentimentality of the dead-child concept, thanks partly to the great Dolly Parton and her vast canon of ballads about victimized children. Listen to a lot of classic country music (Dolly and the Louvin Brothers and Leadbelly and the Carter Family and George and Tammy), as I was doing at the time of my primal, hallucinogen-enhanced Mahler encounter, and the theme of dead kids is going to come up again and again, the same way it does in Renaissance poetry and my daily newspaper (St. Louis City, my heartbreaker of a hometown, maintains a high tally of murdered children, among them my husband’s recently murdered coworker’s recently murdered 10-year-old daughter). The details change, but the acute and particular grief of surviving a child is eternal. The pain of that loss barely seems endurable, and yet millions and millions have endured it or are enduring it right now. They can’t go on, they go on.  Mahler and Dolly and the Louvin Brothers and Shakespeare and Dickens and Beckett and Morrison, so many unsung others, turn our constant sorrow into a tribute, a consolation, a promise. A grief-stained joy almost seems possible.

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish)

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God on Trial

 by René Spencer Saller

 According to Jewish tradition, mourners recite the Kaddish to prove that they still praise God, even in their grief. Although the title for his third symphony explicitly refers to the Jewish prayer for the dead, Bernstein’s Kaddish focuses on the living. More specifically, it deals with our need to find meaning in an absurd and indifferent universe. In the emotionally fraught original text that shapes this dramatic narrative, Bernstein’s speaker and stand-in hectors God, who remains maddeningly silent; after much pleading and recrimination, the speaker eventually finds, if not peace, at least a way to go on.

In Judaism, arguing with God is a time-honored tradition. From the Old Testament’s Job to the American poet Allen Ginsberg (whose Beat epic Kaddish, dedicated to his late mother, had appeared a few years earlier), Jews had been taking the Creator to task for thousands of years. Although Bernstein expected that his Kaddish would be controversial, this challenging and underrated symphony left audience members and critics more perplexed than outraged. The score presented various difficulties, mostly owing to its outsize ambition. It juxtaposed a crisis of faith with an underlying faith in humanity; it dramatized the dream of peace in a world of strife as a struggle between harmony and dissonance. As the music shifts from sublime melodies to unsettling 12-tone excursions, the narrator accuses, negotiates, and consoles.

Written for a large orchestra, a full mixed choir, a boys’ choir, a soprano soloist, and a narrator, Kaddish asks tough existential questions and doesn’t settle for pat or reductive answers. Even though it is nominally a prayer for the dead, it never mentions death at all. Instead, it grapples with the human drive toward self-destruction, the elusiveness of faith, the infinite ways we betray and redeem one another. In English, Hebrew, Aramaic, and an even greater number of musical languages, the symphony builds a Babel, a welter of voices. Our civilization remakes itself in crisis; out of the welter of voices comes a fragile, tentative hope. The final movement ends with a resolution, but it’s an uneasy one. Whereas a conventional Christian Requiem would end on a note of triumph, Bernstein’s Kaddish closes with a dissonant, suspense-laden chord.

Bernstein was finishing up the scoring of Kaddish on November 22, 1963, when the U.S. President, whom he not only supported but considered a friend, was assassinated in downtown Dallas. Stunned and grief-stricken, he dedicated the symphony “to the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy.” A few weeks later, in Tel Aviv, Bernstein led the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the world premiere. A month after that, he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the U.S. premiere, with his spoken text recited by his wife, Felicia Montealegre. Dissatisfied with the recitation’s excessive length, he revised the work in 1977 and recorded it for the Deutsche Grammophon label. In 1981, he conducted a performance of Kaddish in Rome, where the Pope, who had recently survived an assassination attempt, was in attendance. In 1985, Bernstein led the European Community Youth Orchestra in a performance to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Do yourself a favor and track down the Youtube video. By the final movement, the Maestro’s face is wet with tears.

Copyright 2015 by René Spencer Saller

Fabio Luisi conducts the DSO

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American composer and conductor William Grant Still

On April 18, 2019, Music Director Designate Fabio Luisi led the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in a concert featuring William Grant Still’s Poem for Orchestra (1944), Frank Martin’s Concerto for Wind Instruments, Percussion, and String Orchestra (1949), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (1813).

If you weren’t lucky enough to be present at the Meyerson, you can still check out the concert thanks to the wonders of Vimeo. The video is available to stream until May 23, 2019. It’s an exciting program, and the first two works aren’t programmed nearly often enough.

Here is a link to the concert. Remember to watch it before it disappears on May 23:

https://tinyurl.com/y2bvn482

Here are my program notes:

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And just for the hell of it, here is another photo of Still, because he’s a brown-eyed handsome man:

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Copland, Rachmaninoff, Hanson

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The time is nigh for a Howard Hanson revival.

This weekend (April 14 and 15), Music Director David Robertson leads the SLSO in works by Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Serge Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, “Romantic” (the source of the most memorable tune from the Alien soundtrack). The soloist for the Rachmaninoff piano concerto is Simon Trpceski.

My program notes can be read here:

https://tinyurl.com/yb2w3wsn

If you can’t make it to Powell Hall in person, tune in Saturday night at 8 PM CST to St. Louis Public Radio. That’s FM 90.7 for those of you in the broadcast range, or you can click on the livestream here:

http://news.stlpublicradio.org/#stream/0

Tüür, Rautavaara, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Respighi

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(Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür, whose Solastalgia receives its U.S. premiere in these concerts.)

On Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon (March 24 and 25), St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Resident Conductor Gemma New leads the SLSO in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, Rautavaara’s Cantus Articus, Tüür’s Solastalgia (a U.S. premiere, featuring SLSO principal piccolo Ann Choomack), and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.

As usual, my program notes can be read on the SLSO website, in the Plan Your Visit section, but here is a somewhat longer version, minus the fancy formatting and cool photos:

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If you can’t make it to Powell Hall tonight or Sunday afternoon (good tickets are still available!), be sure to tune in to the live stream on St. Louis Public Radio at 8:00 PM Central Time:

http://news.stlpublicradio.org/#stream/0

Britten, Saint-Saëns, Vaughan Williams

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This weekend (March 10 and 11), guest conductor Cristian Macelaru leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in works by Britten, Saint-Saëns, and Vaughan Williams. Special guest soloist James Ehnes performs Saint-Saëns’s Third (and final) Violin Concerto.

My program notes begin on p. 26 and can be read here:

https://tinyurl.com/yc3ahfvv

Tune in at 8 PM CST to St. Louis Public Radio on Saturday, March 10. That’s FM 90.7 for those of you in the broadcast range, or you can click on the livestream here:

http://news.stlpublicradio.org/#stream/0

Smetana, Schumann, Tchaikovsky

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This weekend (March 2 and 3), guest conductor Christian Arming leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in works by Smetana, Schumann (pictured), and Tchaikovsky. Special guest soloist Rémi Geniet performs Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

Tune in at 8 PM CST to St. Louis Public Radio. That’s FM 90.7 for those of you in the broadcast range, or you can follow the livestream here:

http://news.stlpublicradio.org/#stream/0

My program notes can be read here:

https://tinyurl.com/yclz9c96

 

Bernstein and Orff

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This weekend guest conductor Bramwell Tovey leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and St. Louis Symphony Chorus in Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

If you can’t make it to the live concert at Powell Hall tonight, tune in at 8 PM CST to St. Louis Public Radio. That’s FM 90.7 for those of you in the broadcast range, or you can follow the livestream here:

http://news.stlpublicradio.org/#stream/0

My program notes can be read on the SLSO website, in the Plan Your Visit section, but here’s a somewhat longer version for those who enjoy extraneous details.

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The Gallic Lightness of Ravel, Poulenc, and Connesson

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This weekend, Music Director Designate Stéphane Denève leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in works by Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, and Guillaume Connesson. The special guest pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton perform Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.

If you can’t make it to Powell Hall, be sure to tune in at 8 PM CST to St. Louis Public Radio. That’s FM 90.7 for those of you in the broadcast range, or you can follow the livestream here:

http://news.stlpublicradio.org/#stream/0

My program notes can be read on the SLSO website, in the Plan Your Visit section, but here’s a slightly longer version for people who prefer the somewhat more prolix version of me.

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Mendelssohn, Ruzicka, Adams

 

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Felix Mendelssohn

This weekend (January 26 and 27), Music Director David Robertson leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (and special guest violinist Julian Rachlin) in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Adams’s Harmonielehre, and Ruzicka’s Elegie: Remembrance for Orchestra (U.S. premiere).

My program notes can be read on the SLSO website (under Program Notes, in the Plan Your Visit section), but here’s a slightly longer version for the insane RSS completists out there (all two of you).

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