Early Wednesday morning the sounds of tabla and sitar came through the office speakers. Shalimar the Clown, Jack Perla’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel, is receiving its world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis this month. So with India as the setting for Rushdie’s story, the Red split (see previous blog post “Red & Green”) is joined by tabla player Javad and sitarist Arjun.
I think I can accurately report that the last time the St. Louis Symphony had tabla on stage was for George Benjamin’s Sudden Time, which also traveled to Carnegie in March 2007.
My guess for sitar: when Ravi Shankar played Powell. I didn’t know for certain that he did, but figured there was no way the most renowned sitar player of modern times would not have played here. Sure enough, November 1, 1970, for an event titled the “Sunday Festival of Music.” Leonard Slatkin conducted the orchestra in the first half of the program, which included Vivaldi’s “Winter” from The Four Seasons and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tale of the Prince Kalendar” from Scheherazade. After intermission Shankar played a group of ragas with Alla Rakha on tabla and Kamala Chakravarty on tamboura.
Tuesday during a rehearsal break for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of Strauss’ Ariadne on Naxos, I took a few photos on the Powell Hall stage. You can find the most curious things when the orchestra is at rest.
“The Cuckoo Song” goes “sumer is acumen in.” The Green and Red split blog has been written and posted. Now it’s time for the e.e. cummings’ quotation: “Damn everything but the circus.”
Circus Flora takes up the parking lot east of Powell Hall for its 30th-anniversary season, “Pastime.” The rain will pass. The twitchy strains of Verdi’s Macbeth will move from Powell Hall rehearsals to the Opera Theatre stage.
The Symphony staff will take time to pet the circus horses once in a while. “Sumer is acumen in.”
At this time of year each season the orchestra splits. And it is at this time each season I try to explain it.
The St. Louis Symphony is the pit orchestra for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. I won’t offer any Tales from the Pit–they are too numerous and too harrowing–but suffice to say the space is tight. You try and get the above percussion in there, plus the percussionists and the rest of the Green “split.” Our stagehands manage it every year. (We call the two orchestras “splits,” Green split or Red split.)
So the orchestra must divide to conquer the opera rep. Director of Orchestra Personnel Beth Paine coordinates with musicians and with Opera Theatre as to who goes on which split. Let’s say a conductor wants a certain principal player for his or her production. Beth tries to make that work. Or let’s say a couple in the orchestra wants to be in the same split, or maybe they don’t because one needs to get the kids while the other is playing Strauss. What are the orchestral needs of each production? As you can guess, they usually don’t break down evenly. And then who plays David Bowie and who plays Paul McCartney for the Live at Powell Hall shows? How to make this all work, fairly and artistically, is one of the many things Beth does.
The Link Up concerts this week featured the Red split. Those same musicians rehearsed Verdi’s Macbeth with Stephen Lord the next day. The Greens were in the hall Friday afternoon rehearsing Puccini’s La boheme with Emanuele Andrizzi conducting, and with vocalists Hae Ji Chang (Mimi), Lauren Michelle (Musetta), Anthony Clark Evans (Marcello), and Andrew Haji (Rodolfo). The sound was as full of life as a story of poverty and tragic death can be.
The full St. Louis Symphony gets back together for the last time this season for the Pokemon concerts on Saturday and Sunday. Then it’s Splitsville.
I have proposed previously that there is a direct corollary between the difficulty of music to be rehearsed and the time of arrival of musicians on stage for rehearsal. If my theory has any validity, Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, which opens at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis June 13, has the Red orchestra on its collective toes–just about everyone was on stage long before the five-minute call. Conductor George Manahan fielded numerous questions from individual musicians before it was time to give the downbeat.
Lucky for you and me, we don’t have to play the music, just enjoy the beauties the orchestra and vocalists create out of all those struggles. And the beauties are many, as one Symphony musician expressed, there are hints of Benjamin Britten in the score, and then, somewhat surprisingly, Aaron Copland. “Rock of Ages” comes surging in, but is distressed by a mad violin solo (tap your foot for Heidi Harris when you hear this writhe from the Opera Theatre pit). You might imagine Charles Ives tapping or stomping his own foot in appreciation for the musical disturbances Picker has devised.
You leave work for a few days and look what happens.
The Circus Flora big top went up lickety-split a couple weeks ago, so now the back windows of Powell Hall afford us views of dogs and horses and circus folk. Shows begin this week. The music of Handel’s Richard the Lionheart made a nice accompaniment to our views of circus world. Opera Theatre rehearsal on the Powell Stage, acrobats on the back lot. “Damn everything but the circus!” said e.e. cummings.
Principal Timpani Shannon Wood was on stage taking pictures of a brand-new set of timpani Thursday morning prior to rehearsal of Puccini’s La Rondine. I wouldn’t say he was as excited as a child on Christmas morning, but he seemed pretty happy.
He was taking photos so the maker could see them on the Powell Hall stage (see caption). Proof! Shannon told me the previous timpani, played on by the late Richard Holmes, were from the 1960s. Although this sounded as if they were prehistoric to me, Shannon explained that he had a set from the 1950s. He pointed to the pedals on the new set, a Dresden pedal, he explained, which timpanists can adjust with a flex of the ankle. Another set of timpani were placed center stage for the Puccini, which Shannon told me were used by the Youth Orchestra and by Associate Principal Tom Stubbs. Those have a Berlin pedal, Shannon said, which require a musician to raise his or her whole leg to adjust. “Not bad,” Shannon told me, “just different.”
The new timpani were fixed with plastic drum heads, rather than calf skin. Shannon said he used both types of drum head, and chose between the two “mostly due to weather.” The calf skin absorbs moisture more, and so will tend to drop or sag if the humidity is high; or rise when the humidity is low. “Calf is not so good in the orchestra pit” at Opera Theatre, he said.
Powell Hall has improved climate control on stage. Shannon shook his head imagining the logistical conundrums Rick Holmes faced during his 40 years on the job.
A visit to the dress rehearsal of Barber of Seville got me to thinking about perspective. Rossini’s entertaining romp is the season opener for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. The folks making the music from the pit are members of the St. Louis Symphony. (The Symphony is roughly divided in half through opera season, the Red and the Green, and the two groups rotate between operas and Live at Powell Hall concerts–see previous “Red and Green” blog posts over the last ten years or so for more in-depth explanations.)
This Barber is delightfully colorful with touches of absurdist comedy akin to the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, and the camp classics of Pedro Almodovar–the opera does take place in Seville, after all.
But as to perspective, all the stage bits, Figaro’s deep blue long-coat, the row of cocks at the base of a curtain, a swaying rump–the musicians see none of it. So, since no one I talked with sounded in the mood for a photo during rehearsal break, I thought, how about the backs of heads as metaphor for the musician’s experience in the opera pit? The audience sees the show; the musicians see their music and the conductor’s baton. The face; the faceless.
And let’s make a game of it. Let’s see how well you know your Symphony musicians. I provide the list of five. You match with photos.
1) Helen Kim 2) Xiaoxiao Qiang 3) Eva Kozma 4) Born Ranheim 5) Shawn Weil
This week Opera Theatre of Saint Louis opens its production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, with the St. Louis Symphony in the Loretto-Hilton pit. Principal Harp Allegra Lilly has a notable performance in this production. As she describes it: “I am hilariously under-involved in the Donizetti. I play just a single aria: Una furtiva lagrima, which is just two pages of music for me. I come in and tune at intermission, play my 2-3 minutes of material about 15 minutes before the end of the opera, and quietly duck out.
“I will add, however, that the aria is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s such a lovely moment to drop in and play, particularly because of the sublime singing and playing, respectively, of [tenor] René Barbera and [Principal Bassoon] Andrew Cuneo.”
Such drop-in-and-play activity is a far cry from Allegra’s initiation into the St. Louis Symphony. Last fall, in her first couple months in her first season with the orchestra, she played just about every heavy-duty harp part there is, plus demanding–and exquisite–performances of Peter Grimes at Powell Hall and Carnegie Hall.
With this in mind, I went back to a video I shot in March. When we think of harp, we think of its beautiful cascade of sound, but not the rigors that produce it–the pedals, the tuning, or the schlepping. Here is documentation of just one harp schlepp.