Last weekend was the season premiere of the St. Louis Symphony, and I was in it. The Symphony Chorus joined four vocal soloists (plus one soloist from the chorus), four pianists, seven percussionists, and music director David Robertson to perform the amazingly underplayed 1923 ballet Les Noces, a.k.a. Svadebka, a.k.a. "The Wedding."
For the chorus, this piece meant months of preparation. In its 25 minutes of music, unfamiliar to nearly everyone in the group, there are only a handful of bars without singing and most of them are right at the end. Its four tableaux form one continuous movement of almost relentless energy. Its tunes and lyrics, loosely based on Russian folk songs, dramatize the surprising customs and emotions surrounding a Russian peasant wedding, and more to the point, they comprise yards of tricky-to-pronounce Russian text, declaimed at times in a breathless rush. The bride mourns her girlish freedom, the mothers mourn their lost children, the groom poses as a warrior marching to victory, and the wedding party alternates between bawdy humor and invocations of the saints, while (according to Stravinsky's disciple Robert Craft) the real message has to do with Russia's loss of innocence in the communist revolution.
Also on the program were three other pieces by Igor Stravinsky: his 1941 arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner," his ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring (for orchestra alone). Unfortunately I did not get to hear the latter, though I did hear Petrushka on Saturday night. It was wonderful to watch David Robertson conduct it, or rather dance it, with his big expressive gestures and his relish of rhythmic challenges. Projected above the stage were stage directions and scenery from early productions of Petrushka, including images of Vaclav Nijinsky in the role that defined his career (see his tombstone, pictured here).
I didn't get to see so much of Robertson when I was facing him on the stage because, frankly, I had a lot to keep track of in the score of Les Noces and for several long passages, I had to rely on peripheral vision to pick up his gesture. But the chorus came through heroically, in spite of a multitude of tricky entrances in a piece in which the meter changes every third bar, on the average, and in which the tempo was liable to change suddenly at the exact moment the chorus was to come in. Somehow we made all our entrances (or at least, we didn't mess up in the same place both nights), and in spite of a few rough spots we sold the audience on a piece that one chorus member said would be the perfect piece to take to Carnegie Hall.
Plus, there is something uniquely gorgeous about an orchestra consisting of four Steinways fanned out across the middle of the stage, backed up by an arc of percussion instruments ranging from bass drum, timpani, and xylophone to snare, toms, triangle, and crotales. The piece ends with a sound like church bells ringing while everyone else waits in silence, their seemingly boundless energy for once held back.I regret missing The Rite of Spring, but after a traffic jam made me late for Friday's performance (so that I missed Petrushka) I decided to go home after Les Noces, during the second of the evening's two intermissions(!); while on Saturday, I was overcome by a physical weakness during Les Noces and only just managed to get through the whole piece without collapsing. So I decided, I think wisely, to take myself home immediately afterward. It's a bitter disappointment, because if I could only choose to hear one piece conducted by David Robertson, it would be The Rite of Spring. I was also interested in it because the piece opens with a famous bassoon solo that would have been a terrific icebreaker for the orchestra's new principal bassoonist. Thousands of listeners in radioland were blessed to hear what I, a participant in the concert, ironically missed. But perhaps the broadcast will be repeated one of these days!
This focus on Stravinsky made for a daring opening-weekend program, but also sets the theme for the year: dance. The next piece the chorus takes part in, for example, is Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloe...