The Flight of Lindbergh was originally conceived for radio. Composer Kurt Weill and librettist Bertolt Brecht wanted to reach the masses with their Lindbergh tale, so they wrote for the most popular, and intimate, mass medium of the 1920s. Singers, an orchestra, right in your home.
To provide the feel of a live broadcast from a previous age of technological wonders, David Robertson has plotted some unique stage directions. KMOX radio’s Charlie Brennan will serve as narrator, and he’ll be situated near center stage at an old desk and at much older vintage microphone.
The St. Louis Symphony performed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to packed houses this past weekend.
But the musicians give their all to SRO audiences or in the most intimate settings. Last Wednesday, prior to the concert in Rolla, Missouri, members of the orchestra taught master classes to soldiers from the 399th Army Band, who drove over from Ft. Leonard Wood.
Gemma New, fresh from her debut with the STL Symphony in Rolla, was in the music room at Clayton High for the first St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra rehearsal of the season on Saturday.
On Wednesday night there will be more than 10,000 on Art Hill in Forest Park listening to the St. Louis Symphony, led by David Robertson. The atmosphere will be as intense as in a small studio in Rolla, or a music room in Clayton, or a capacity Powell Hall.
Now that the Top Hot 5 has been charted, it’s good to be reminded that every concert with the St. Louis Symphony is a hot pick, for you and for the musicians. The music that matters most to us does so for many reasons, and our feelings for music changes, sometimes inexplicably. I was indifferent to Bartok when I started working for the Symphony, then David Robertson came and led the orchestra in The Wooden Prince and Cantata profana and the Second Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos and what a fool I’d been. I’m looking ahead to the Concerto for Orchestra (April 21-23) with muffled impatience. We change and we respond to the world differently as we change, sensibility shifts.
And there is memory, which is a place where music resides. It haunts us, even shocks us at its power when suddenly a tune passes through and we find ourselves in another place, another time feeling emotions we thought were forgotten. Music can be a trigger that propels us. It can take us where we need to go.
I thought of this after re-reading first violinist Angie Smart’s remembrance of singing Belshazzar’s Feast (February 24-25) as a schoolgirl. The powerful weight of homesickness lifted by song. Here’s her story:
“When I turned 13, I auditioned for a place at a prestigious music school in Manchester, England and won a scholarship to attend that fall. It was a boarding school and so I lived there for five years before leaving to study in the U.S. Since I am from a very large family—I have seven siblings—my parents could not afford to bring me home very often, and in that first year I was frequently very homesick. If you have not experienced this then consider yourself lucky, but it is a dull sickness in your stomach that takes days to subside.
“In my first year at music school we put on a performance of Belshazzar’s Feast. Every pupil in the school was involved in this production. I was neither old enough nor good enough to play in the orchestra, but I sang in the choir! When it came time to perform, I sang my heart out. It was quite simply the most powerful musical and emotional experience of my life, to be in the heart of such a phenomenal piece of music. I said goodbye to homesickness and never looked back. This piece propelled me into a ferociously committed passion for music, and choral music with orchestra remains my favourite musical experience today.”
We resume the St. Louis Symphony musicians’ Top Five Hot Picks countdown. More than half of the musicians participated in selecting their most anticipated programs for the upcoming 16/17 season.
Mozart Requiem (November 18-20) receives its high ranking not only because of the program’s centerpiece, which cellist Alvin McCall refers to as “this glorious, beautiful work,” but because of the 19th and 21st century masterworks that accompany it. Not surprisingly this is a David Robertson program–expect the marvelous.
With Ives’ The Unanswered Question and John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, musicians, chorus, children’s choir, and audiences, have a lot to get excited about. Principal Trumpet Karin Bliznik highlights the off-stage trumpet solos in both the Ives and the Adams. Second violinist Andrea Jarrett gets a chance to play a work she’s been drawn to since she was a teenager: “I studied On the Transmigration of Souls thoroughly in my AP Music Theory class back in my sophomore year of high school. I believe it is the first piece of Adams I had ever heard–I was so moved by his composition style and the message of the piece. I was able to hear a performance of it by the Detroit Symphony later that year, and I remember thinking ‘how cool would it be if I got to play this someday?’ I guess dreams do come true!”
Mozart’s ultimate musical statement touches many of the musicians personally through their own histories with the piece and through their associations with those they’ll be sharing the stage with. Principal Violist Beth Guterman Chu recalls, “In another lifetime I was a singer and soloed in the soprano part of this piece…. Also, Nick Phan, the tenor soloist, is one of my best friends and favorite people and I am so excited for him to come back to sing with our orchestra again.”
The full Requiem quartet: Caitlin Lynch, Michelle DeYoung, Nicholas Phan and Kevin Thompson, with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus led by Amy Kaiser. The St. Louis Children’s Choirs, led by Barbara Berner, join chorus and orchestra for On the Transmigration of Souls.
A program deep in the American grain: John Adams’ The Chairman Dances, Korngold’s Violin Concerto, and Dvorak’s “From the New World” Symphony. It’s a program the Symphony musicians love from top to bottom. “I love Adams’ Chairman Dances,” says first violinist Dana Edson Myers, “and really enjoy David Robertson’s electric interpretations.”
“I am really looking forward to having Gil Shaham play the Korngold Concerto with us,” says Associate Principal Cello Melissa Brooks. “He plays it better than anyone.” Double bassist Sarah Hogan Kaiser is also looking forward to playing with Shaham, “To me, [the Korngold] sounds like sweeping movie music. Gil is one of my favorite soloists that comes to town because I just love his playing, but he also seems like such a down-to-earth person and we have a great time making music with him.” The St. Louis Symphony has quite a history with Korngold’s Violin Concerto. The orchestra played the world premiere of the work with Jascha Heifetz at Kiel Opera House in 1947, the eminent Vladimir Golschmann conducting.
David Robertson conducts this New World Symphony weekend, January 13-15, 2017, which concludes with Dvorak’s musical response to his late 19th-century American sojourn, which included time the Bohemian composer spent in a Czech community in Iowa. Many American audiences hear the voices of their nation interpreted through a foreigner’s sensibility. Others may hear a foreigner’s longing for his homeland. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to describe the symphony’s famous “Goin’ Home” theme, often referred to as a “Negro spiritual,” as “a nice Czech melody by Dvorak.”
However you hear Dvorak’s Ninth, it is an evocative sonic message written from our soil and from our air. Cally Banham plays the enigmatc theme, and calls the “New World” Symphony “a piece I hold closely to my heart, as it contains the most iconic solo written for my instrument, the English horn. Finding the right nuances in the solo is a challenge that lasts a whole career, and each performance is fulfilling in a different way.”
Flutist Jennifer Nitchman adds that it “has lots of second flute solos” too.
Thursday: A break from the Hot Pick Top 5 countdown because it’s Postcard Thursday with Celeste Golden Boyer.
The votes are in. I asked the St. Louis Symphony musicians to send me their Hot Picks for the 16/17 season. More than half of the musicians participated, and this week I’ll present the Top 5. I’ll begin with No. 5: Brahms Violin Concerto, featuring Augustin Hadelich, April 29-30, 2017.
First violinist Jessica Cheng writes: “He’s probably one of my top three violinists out there right now. I can’t wait to hear him play one of my favorite violin concerti and what encore he’ll slay.” (Editor’s note: encores are not guaranteed.)
Alison Harney, Principal Second Violin: “He is an exquisite violinist beyond all measure.”
David Robertson conducts. This concert is hot, as chosen by the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony.
Tuesday: Hot Pick No. 4. Another solo string work matched with an early 20th century masterpiece.
The 16/17 season begins in mid-September with the turning of a propeller, the whir of an engine, a human gasp as the machine rises from the earth, and the exhalation of breath when the one-man craft makes it over the tree line and heads toward the Atlantic.
From the moment Lindbergh touched down in France in The Spirit of St. Louis, the world could not get enough of the stoic Midwesterner. It was as if his form and his personality were sculpted to be the new, modern hero. A man who tamed the elements with his wits, his courage, and his technology. He closed the great distances of the earth. He was a leader of humankind in a century of progress.
Lindbergh was the first world celebrity. And so he was the first to experience, in full view of a world audience, fame’s inevitable–and in Lindbergh’s case tragic–rise and fall. The glow of the man attracted the attention of the world, leading to his success and his despair, to his genius and to his infamy.
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, like everyone else, were drawn to Lindbergh after his singular feat. They worked on a radio cantata together, The Flight of Lindbergh. Brecht drew the composer Paul Hindemith into the collaboration as well, creating a work that displeased Weill. “With our differing artistic natures,” Weill explained, “no artistic unity could come about.” So he was delighted when Otto Klemperer chose to conduct a concert performance of his own version. A man alone in the night sky deserves music written by a solitary artist confronting his own hopes and fears.
It’s this Flight of Lindbergh David Robertson will conduct on Opening Weekend. A story of the solo pilot Lindbergh battling darkness, fog, snow and sleep. The blinding flashbulbs are yet to be imagined.
One of the highlights of the season for both the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony is the annual side-by-side rehearsal. Video intern Nicola Muscroft and I were there capturing images and conducting interviews with YO harpist Caroline Robinson, STL Symphony Principal Harp Allegra Lilly and Music Director David Robertson.