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.
It’s curious to ask St. Louis Symphony musicians to find their inner Brando. Although the goal was to approximate the famous “I coulda been a contender” line from On the Waterfront, I heard Streetcar Named Desire Brandos, Godfather Brandos and a few personally imagined Brandos. Whether these impersonations conform within the ideals of method acting or not probably doesn’t matter. You can find the real deal–Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger sharing ultimate truths in a car–via YouTube and compare, or just appreciate these brave contenders all on their own. And the best thing is you can hear the gorgeous Leonard Bernstein Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront at Powell Hall this weekend.
Music is abstract. Igor Stravinsky said that music was “essentially powerless to express anything at all.” Leonard Bernstein instructed millions watching his Young People’s Concerts on television, “Music is never about anything. Music just is.”
Any yet, and yet, and yet, music, as with Edward Hopper paintings (see previous post) invites meaning, invites interpretation and narrative. Beethoven’s “Eroica” may not be about anything, but it sure seems like it does. We cloak the music in composer biographies, in its historical moment. We add imagery, as the St. Louis Symphony will for Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars this season. We supply dancers or even a circus to the musical experience. Somehow, as do Hopper’s solitary women, the music maintains its integrity. It just is. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has remained inviolable, even after it was used to choreograph dinosaur battles in Disney’s Fantasia.
To allow the music to just be, to allow it no past or future, suspension rather than resolution, as Marks Strand puts it in relation to Hopper’s paintings, is an unnerving proposition. “…For many of us this is intolerable,” Strand writes, “…this unpleasant erasure of narrative.”
Ye we may realize the shattering poignancy of art.