Walton, Nicolai, and Elgar


This weekend, February 24 and February 25 (but not Sunday, sadly), the St. Louis Symphony and St. Louis Symphony Chorus perform William Walton’s insane and gorgeous oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. Also on the program are Otto Nicolai’s delightfully nutty overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor and Edward Elgar’s Falstaff, a more nuanced and tragic portrait of the same Shakespearean buffoon. (Sense a literary theme here? SLSO programs are always very thoughtfully conceived, which makes writing an introduction somewhat easier.)

You can tune in to the live broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio if you can’t make it to the concert at Powell Hall tonight. The St. Louis Public Radio broadcast streams live on the website, too, starting at 8:00. Once I figure out how to make a hyperlink again, I will do it; in the meantime, Google is your good buddy. And speaking of good buddies, check out the photo I found featuring William Walton (left) with a baby koala. Baby koala doesn’t seem too impressed, but my huge love for Walton’s facial expression compensates for the fact that he is much older in this photo than he was when he composed Belshazzar’s Feast, a completely koala-free endeavor as far as I can determine.


My program notes are on pp. 26-30.



I had the good fortune of interviewing Shannon Wood, St. Louis Symphony Principal Timpani, for Playbill. We met in his percussion studio/rehearsal space, across the street from Powell Hall. We talked about Kraft’s Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, No. 2, his mallet business sideline, and lots of other fascinating stuff.

You can read it here if you like:


All-Strauss program at the St. Louis Symphony


I have been terribly remiss in updating my blog, but better late than never, I suppose. In these program notes for the St. Louis Symphony (this weekend! I know! I suck!), I wrote about the much-misunderstood Richard Strauss: specifically, his tone poems Don Quixote and Macbeth, as well as the final scene from his final opera, Capriccio. I have many more things to say about Richard Strauss than I could express in the allotted space, and I think I’m going to start adding “extra” content to my blog posts. Why not? But not right now because other deadlines are nigh.

Anyway, here is a link to this weekend’s fantastic concert. If you didn’t manage to score tickets, you can listen to the live radio broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio beginning at 8:00 Central Time TONIGHT (Saturday, 9/26). It will be streaming on the St. Louis Public Radio website if you don’t live within the broadcast region of FM 90.7.

Here are my program notes for the concert:

Romantic Projections


The St. Louis Symphony performs Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Glanert’s Frenesia (in its U.S. premiere!), and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (with pianist Emanuel Ax) on Saturday, April 25, and Sunday, April 26, 2015. My program notes start on p. 26.


Notes for “Joshua Bell Returns” (Smetana, Sibelius, Dvorák, Rautavaara)


My program notes for “Joshua Bell Returns,” St. Louis Symphony, November 29, November 30, and December 1 (Smetana, Sibelius, Dvorák, Rautavaara). I have a very good feeling that this concert will be extraordinary.


Kabalevsky, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Shostakovich


Here is a link to my program notes for the final St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra performance of the season:


The concert takes place at Powell Hall on Saturday, May 18, at 7:00 p.m.

Tickets are free, with a $1 service charge. Ordering information is here:


There were last-minute space constraints with the YO program notes, which often happens, so the introduction to the Debussy piece got cut. (I understand why–it was the longest essay, even though it is by no means the longest work on the program–so this was the most logical paragraph to remove, and one I probably would have chosen myself if I’d been told to cut for space.) In the interest of completion, though, I’m pasting it here:

Like so many composers before and after him, Claude Debussy turned to literature for musical ideas, and the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé was a particularly rich source. The men were not only friends; they were kindred spirits in their respective art forms. Both were preoccupied with the liminal, with elusive thresholds and ineffable states, with spaces and silences. Mallarmé’s irreducible, intentionally ambiguous verse jump-started postmodernism, anticipating the linguistic theories of Derrida, Kristeva, and Lacan. Debussy, for his part, revolutionized concert music with his setting of Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune (“The Afternoon of a Faun”), expanding the limits of tonality and symphonic structure. As the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez observed, the flute of the titular faun “brought new breath to the art of music.”

Christine Brewer with the SLSO tonight!

Sorry for the short notice, but in just under an hour (8:00 CT) anyone who isn’t fortunate enough to be at Powell Hall tonight can listen to the live broadcast of the world-renowned soprano Christine Brewer performing with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Here is a link about the program:


Here is where you can tune in if you’re not within the broadcast range of KWMU 90.7, St. Louis Public Radio:



And here is a link to the program notes (not written by me):


Happy birthday, Bartolomeo Cristofori, Piano Man


Happy birthday to Bartolomeo Cristofori, who invented the piano we know today,  more or less.

No one knows much about his early life, and no one knows how many pianos he built for his extremely wealthy and (I’m guessing) rather eccentric patrons. Only three of Cristofori’s original piano fortes survive today, all from the 1720s.

  • A 1720 instrument in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. This one was extensively altered by later builders. It’s still playable, but it probably sounds nothing like it did when new.
  • A 1722 instrument in the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome, ravaged by worms and no longer playable.
  • A 1726 instrument in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University, no longer playable, although recordings of it exist.

All three of these instruments have the same Latin inscription:


Translation: “Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, inventor, made [this] in Florence in [date].”


1722 version (see above).

In your honor, Signore Cristofori (may I call you Bart?), I’m going to listen to lots and lots of piano music today: Bach, Beethoven, Ligeti, Schubert, Chopin, Franck, Brahms, Debussy, possibly Prokofiev. Maybe some Monk and some Vijay Ayer, too. Oh, and why not throw in some Nicky Taylor and Johnnie Johnson while I’m at it?

And I will dust my beautiful 1926 Knabe parlor grand and rue my faithlessness.

Today’s soundtrack

The perfect soundtrack/antidote to a dreary, chilly day spent inside copy editing.Image


I imagine that it would be a wonderful soundtrack for other purposes, too, but  that’s its purpose today, chez René.

I know I haven’t been updating the blog in a few days. Real life intrudes obnoxiously sometimes.

The most recursive Carol Channing story you’ll probably ever read


The first time I ever visited New York City was sometime in the mid-90s. I’m not exactly sure of the year, but I went there to see my darling friend Gavin, who was living in Brooklyn and studying art at Pratt Institute. He is among the most fascinating people I’ve ever been lucky enough to have as as a friend, and his life story is a blog post in itself, even a multi-volumed biography, but it’s a book he would probably prefer to write himself. He certainly wouldn’t want me to write it, knowing me as long as he has and as well as he has, from the time I was sixteen through the decades onward, through numerous boyfriends and breakups and marriage and major changes in career plans. In sickness and in health, for sure. He also knew me as someone who hadn’t managed to complete a single poem, much less a multi-volume book, since the beginning of graduate school. He would never want to entrust this important task to me, the woman he sometimes calls Blabbermouth Spencer, so I will refrain from describing him in the great detail he deserves, as tempted as I am.

Anyway, Gavin is a man from Granite City, a former steelworker who, at least the first time I saw him, insisted on wearing his industrial factory glasses inside our mutual friends’ apartment. They were more like prescription goggles, really, the kind of eyewear that keeps the wearer from being blinded by flying bolts of molten steel at the steel factory where he was working, back in the faraway times when work like that was still something people did. At that moment, though, he was not working, just sitting on a couch in a South St. Louis apartment, but hey: You never know when molten steel is going to start hurtling toward your eyeballs. The first time we met, we talked about the band Kiss (Gavin was the first guy I knew back then who admitted to loving Kiss who was also older than 25). Almost immediately, Gavin went from being a weird Kiss-loving stranger in goggles to a man I loved and counted among my very closest friends. That is, until he up and left me for a much fancier life  as a big-city artist. In that city where famous people abound. He has come to know a few of them, in the almost 20 years that have elapsed since his move, including at various times the sculptor/visual artist Carl André, Pia Lindstrom, Isabella Rosselini, and one of the guys in Battles.

When he invited me to visit him, I did something I had hardly ever done before and categorically never do now. I went ahead and did it. I flew on a plane by myself, booked the flight and everything. This in spite of the fact that I was feeling tragic about a situation that now seems like a crappy comedy. Anyway, before I got to NYC I told myself that if I saw somebody famous during my trip (as residents of NYC always seem to be doing, at all times) I would have good luck for the year. And no, I don’t know where I came up with this idiodic  superstition. I don’t believe in God, or ghosts, or witches, so why I am compelled to invent superstitions?

It worked out perfectly, though, because I was barely in New York City an hour before I saw Carol Channing. Variously known as CAROL FUCKING CHANNING. If one person in New York City epitomizes that New-York-celebrity thing it has to be CFC. Never mind that I saw her for only a precious few seconds—from a stalled cab’s window, I think it must have been—it was her, and not just her, as a regular person, but her all dolled-up. You know: dolled up like CAROL FUCKING CHANNING. At least in my memory of her, she is wearing what looks almost precisely like one of her costumes in Hello, Dolly. She looks like she might break into song at any second, a bunch of strong-shouldered guys holding her aloft.

When I saw her emerge from the canopied entryway of a large and lavishly appointed building, possibly an expensive hotel or even a theater, CFC, all bedizened with glitter, sequins, and, I swear I can’t possibly be embellishing this memory, a fancy flouncy hat, mincing grandly  down the stairs like the fairy queen of goddamn New York City, I thought, of course. Of course Gavin needs  to be living in New York City right now. What a miracle to live someplace where you might run into CFC at any time, right when you need her the most, right when you know your luck will have to turn around. That’s the “New York, New York” Frank Sinatra promised us. Never mind that when I first saw Hello, Dolly, as a little kid, it was Barbra Streisand’s portrayal, in the 1969 movie. My mom loved Barbra Streisand, and so did I, but everybody, including little kids, knew CFC owned that role.

Although I’m transfixed by this photo, which I swiped from the website Dangerous Minds, it doesn’t fit the theme of this post. In this shot she looks sad, and she doesn’t look sad in my memory of her. There she is permanently glowing with vitality and hope. She looks shiny and new, even though she was, even at that point, very old indeed. It is magical, how very much she looks like the CFC who came to mind when I thought about CFC, all those years before I had actually  seen her in real life. Miraculously,  she is the very apotheosis of herself. She looks like a rare iris blossom suffused with pinky dawn light. She looks like an advertisement for optimism.

This photo conveys a CFC I have never considered, an anti-CFC  even. The fact that both CFCs exist, seemingly within the same woman’s body, seriously fucks with my assumptions about CFC. It also makes me wonder if we really were lucky, as lucky as it felt at the time, to lay eyes on her on my very first day. What if the real CFC was the anti-CFC?

I won’t think about this too much because CFC is, like all humans, allowed to have facets. Here she looks like a Fellini heroine. Maybe not Giulietta Masina, exactly, but someone who could pull off that kind of role. Her mouth droops down naturally, maybe more so now, when the photographer captures the image. The mouth of CFC is tired of smiling just so people will quit ordering it to cheer up. The mouth of CFC would rather be quoting Nietzsche and making depressing pronouncements about the suicidal idiocy of our species. Instead, the mouth of CFC is drooping  in a way that the photographer probably thought was sultry and for CFC was probably just sort of sad. Sad, maybe, or just tired  of being the hoop-skirted, tooth-baring, unfuckingstoppable CFC, and it’s only what, 1956? She’s going to have to do that joy-rictus for the next half-century, she just knows it.

She may have been easing into her role as the incarnation of optimism at that point, or maybe the photographer just told her to just be real, or however Carl Van Vechten would have expressed this request in the middle of the previous century. He has her wearing a scarf over her head like some sad peasant, like some incognito grocery-shopping housewife with a wet-set. She seems only mildly despondent, mostly sardonic. Who knows what she’s really thinking?  Maybe she’s wishing she is dead, right at that moment. Maybe she’s thinking about her dinner. But she’s not thinking about all the hordes of singing and dancing admirers welcoming her back to the Greatest City in the World.  The Place Where She Belongs. She’s not thinking about Louis Armstrong. She’s certainly not thinking  how she’s still glowin’, still crowin’, and still goin’ strong.

Recently on NPR I heard Sandra Bernhard, also known as Sandra Fucking Bernhard, tell her own tale of a formative Channing sighting. This encounter inspired SFB to pursue show business. She wound up getting to meet CFC, even (or so Bernhard seemed to claim in the NPR interview) one day earning her endorsement as her logical successor in a particular kind of song-and-dance variety act, the kind of drag performance that is usually enacted by men but is sometimes mastered by women.

I am sad to tell you that my own CFC encounter did not change the trajectory of my career (you know where to put the scare quotes). But it did change my luck for the better. After my CFC sighting I stopped crying  so much, although I did a lot of bitching, of course, for years to come. I still bitch a lot. But I have to admit that things definitely started looking up for me in my post-CFC life. I don’t even mind that I’m not a fantastic Mick Jagger mimic or an internationally known comedian who made Scorsese’s The King of Comedy at least 75% better than it would have been otherwise.

Maybe I need to go back to New York City and hope to run into SFB. How lucky would that be? Alas, I have been there several times since my CFC sighting, and the only celebrities I saw were the actor Richard Thomas, who will always be John Boy to me (in an elevator in a nice apartment building near the Russian Tea Room, staring  modestly at his sensible footwear), and the late news anchor Peter Jennings, who was wearing a fisherman’s sweater and holding the door open for people at a Damien Hirst exhibit in Chelsea as if to say, “I am a friendly and regular guy who is cool enough to scope out Damien Hirst openings. In a warehouse in Chelsea.” He had no doubt predicted that exactly no one at a Damien Hirst show would give the slightest shit about having Peter Jennings in their midst (Peter Greenaway, maybe), and Peter Jennings was right. He looked delighted to be holding doors open for people who didn’t ask for his autograph or even say, “I know this must seem like a weird question, but are you Peter Jennings? Like on the news?”. He just smiled affably in his oatmeal-colored sweater and casual slacks, surrounded by some highly ironic art and a bunch of people with piercings and chipped black nail polish who couldn’t care less about him, and pretended to be a very casually dressed doorman for a minute or two.

CFC would have caused a fucking riot.