This past Thursday and Friday were a couple of "wild nights" for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. It was exciting to be part of it, up in the third row of the chorus, facing the conductor and looking over the shoulders of the musicians and experiencing such a rich musical experience from right on stage!
The program opened with Richard Wagner's Prelude and Bacchanale from Tannhaeuser. This was the composer's second version of the opera's opening, which he wrote specially for its Paris premiere, and which has pretty much "stuck" in place of the original overture. A long instrumental piece, rather like a tone poem, it begins with music of awesome nobility and religious virtue, then bursts into a thrilling romp with nymphs and satyrs before coming to a gentle close. I've only listened to a little Wagner because, frankly, his operas require a big investment in time and money. But this piece was so powerful that I may just have to dig deeper to meet the challenge of hearing more of Wagner's music.
The next piece, in which the chorus performed with full-frontal exposure of our Hungarian diction, was the Cantata Profana (The Nine Magical Stags) by Bela Bartok, with supertitles to help the audience understand the text. I've blogged about it before. An important scholar of middle-European folk music, Bartok collected a Romanian folk tale about a father who went hunting for his nine missing sons and found they had turned into nine stags. Just as he is about to shoot one of the stags, he hears it speaking to him with his oldest son's voice, telling him that the young men can never come home again, but must live in the forest and drink from clear mountain streams, etc. It's a very mysterious and strangely moving story, and Bartok clothes it with music that magically paints the text.
It's the kind of modern music I would once have dismissed as pointlessly ugly, but now I find that I "get it" - its precise, delicate structures, its expressive textures and instrumental colors, its weird scales and clashing tonalities that fit perfectly in a story in which the familiar appears in an alien form. The performance was enhanced by the sensational singing of an promising young tenor named Nicholas Phan (pictured at left), of whom I expect great things, as long as he doesn't burn himself out singing stuff like this! The bass soloist, singing the father's lines in the story, was Ian Greenlaw (top picture). Perhaps because of where I was seated, directly behind him, I didn't hear him to his best advantage. The only part of the Bartok piece I didn't care for was the duet between the two soloists, which struck me as an problematic "point of relaxation" in the middle of an otherwise intense piece of musical storytelling. However, the ending is absolutely breathtaking, with the soloist and the chorus together tenderly echoing the young stag's parting words about drinking from clear streams.
After the intermission came three pieces by Richard Strauss. First, featuring world-class opera star Deborah Voigt, was the aria "Ich kann nicht sitzen" from the opera Elektra, in which the title character's sister declares that she cannot spend the best years of her life marinating in hatred and revenge; she passionately yearns to be a wife and mother and experience a woman's joys. Then, sans Voigt, the orchestra performed the once-scandalous, still-sensual "Dance of the Seven Veils" from the same composer's opera Salome, before Voigt came onstage again (wearing an entirely different outfit with more of a bad-girl look) and acted the heck out Salome's final scene, in which the stepdaughter of King Herod serenades the severed head of John the Baptist and, ultimately, loses her mind completely. For an idea of the twistedness of this scene, feel free to read Oscar Wilde's original English play on which the opera was based. Strauss knew what he was doing when he wrote this music, at that brash early point in his career; towards the end especially, one really seems to hear the sounds of madness.
Clearly this is a world away from programs the orchestra and chorus have done before, such as Handel's Messiah. This past weekend was a celebration of the Dionysian spirit in music - sensualistic, to the point of being lewd - painted on a big canvas with bold strokes of harmony, text, and instrumentation. And though I'm not an impartial enough spectator to comment on the chorus's performance, I really must say we in St. Louis are blessed to have such brilliant musicians, such a tremendous musical leadership (such as David Robertson and Amy Kaiser), and access to such breathtaking guest artists. If you've been missing this stuff, cut it out!