Monday, February 4, 2008

Rossini Weekend

This weekend the full St. Louis Symphony Chorus sang for only the second time this season, after an unusually long mid-season hiatus (since October!). That's just the way the schedule shakes down, this year.

Friday and Saturday night, two reluctant audiences got an earful of music that has never been performed by the St. Louis Symphony before - and went away ecstatic.

The first number was the ominously titled Rendering by Luciano Berio, a once notorious avante garde composer. But it turned out to be a beautiful piece, fleshing out fragmentary sketches for a "Tenth Symphony in D Major" set down by Franz Schubert during the final month of his short life. I snuck into the hall to hear this piece both nights, greedily drinking in the sounds of a symphony that, but for Berio's work 150 years after Schubert's death, might never have been performed. Berio likened his task to an art restorer, preserving and enhancing the surviving sections of a crumbling mural, and filling in the irreparable bits with something durable but unobtrusive. He realized counterpoint, filled in harmonies, and from a few minimal orchestral cues he extrapolated an orchestration similar to what Schubert used in his late symphonies. It really, really sounded like a Schubert Symphony - which it fundamentally was.

Unlike many modern completions of unfinished works, however, Berio did not fill in the gaps between Schubert's fragments with his own "realization" or "artist's conception" of what Schubert may have intended to do. Instead, he fills in the blank spaces with gentle, dreamlike sounds, in which fragments of thematic ideas float around like disembodied ideas. The spacing seems to be proportionate to the time that ought to have elapsed between the extant sketches, but Berio taxed neither his imagination, nor our credulity, with an attempt to guess quite what would have filled that time.

The result is a torso of a gorgeous symphony, combined with a palpable sense of loss. The fact that the world will never hear what Schubert really had in mind - will never hear this work in its fully finished form - is tied into the tragedy of the greatest musical genius between Beethoven and Brahms dying in obscurity at age 31 - the touching spectacle of a mind still active while the body around it failed - and the frustrating reality that we can't run time in rapid-reverse for a handy do-over. If I had a time machine, I think the first person I would visit - for more than one reason - would be Schubert.

After the break, the chorus came onstage, along with soprano Twyla Robinson, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, tenor Gordon Gietz, bass-baritone John Relyea, and the Symphony Orchestra with its music director David Robertson conducting. We then sang the most amazing, movingly beautiful, perfect-from-start-to-finish piece of fine-art music St. Louisans had never heard before: Rossini's Stabat Mater.

This is one of a small handful of well-known settings of a 13th-century liturgical text addressing Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she stands at the foot of the cross. Certainly as a Protestant I can criticize the theology of praying to Mary for help of any kind, but as a Christian and as a human being I can't help being moved by the poem's - and the music's - deep sympathy for the suffering of others.

There are 10 movements in Rossini's setting. In the first movement, the chorus and soloists enter together, then swap phrases back and forth, in a solemn movement that sets the scene on the gloomy hill outside Jerusalem where Mary watched her Son die for all mankind. In the second movement, the tenor sings a slightly marchlike aria that, from the first time I heard it, instantly became one of my favorite pieces in the world. It expresses an elusive mix of admiration for a great lady, and deep pity for her sorrows; and, of course, it ends with a cadenza whose high D-flat became one of Pavarotti's "money shots."

The third movement is a soprano-alto duet that could very easily get stuck in your brain for days afterward (I am listening to it inside my head right now). Movement 4 is a dramatic bass aria; the bass then joins the chorus in the poignant, a capella fifth movement, Eja Mater. Movement 6, an ensemble piece for all four soloists, is now officially my favorite movement. Everyone looked like they were having so much fun performing it, and it was such a delight to hear! Then, in seventh place, the alto sang a slow, sensitive aria. Movement 8, Inflammatus, was an appropriately fiery soprano aria with the chorus acting as "backup singers." Then the soloists themselves became part of the appreciative audience as the chorus wrapped things up, first with another a capella movement (No. 9, Quando corpus) covering an enormous expressive range from loud exultation to almost tongue-tied murmuring; then, with a grand fugue (In sempiterna secula, Amen) which combines sophisticated counterpoint with a thrilling dramatic form, then ends with a devastating return of the music from the opening movement.

Robertson remarked, during Friday's pre-concert talk, that people don't take Rossini as seriously as he deserves to be taken. Why? Because he is such an amazingly good communicator that he makes it seem effortless, the work of a shallow, facile craftsman who could never be mistaken for a true artist. This Stabat Mater puts the lie to that myth once and for all, with music of tremendous tragic power, astonishing breadth of imagination, and such a mastery of harmonic, orchestral, and structural technicalities that you hardly notice the artistry and are pulled right into the story he tells.

The loss I felt at the end of each concert, especially the last one, was not only due to the unlikelihood of my ever encountering the Schubert/Berio Rendering again, live or otherwise. I have fallen deeply in love with Rossini's Stabat Mater, and I am sad to be separated from it - or at least, forced to content myself with recordings of it - when I feel ready to spend more time living inside it. My enjoyment was exquisite, and over too soon. But now that the SLSO owns a set of the scores, I expect that we will be singing it again one of these years.

IMAGES from the top: Schubert, Berio, Robinson, Gietz, Rossini, Maultsby, Robertson, Relyea. Not pictured (but she deserves a big hand): Amy Kaiser, director of the Chorus.

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