Orchestras are heading into the home stretch as the season winds down. Fortunately, I have had enough downtime to continue my work on some projects that do not involve standing on the podium, and this will be the case for most of the summer. At the end of September, I hope to be able to inform you of what I think are a couple exciting pieces of news.
In the meantime, I wrapped up this season’s concert appearances in Europe with a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Warsaw. This was my third outing with the work, and it has not lost any of its power or difficulty. When I was around twenty years old, I played viola for a performance at UCLA conducted by Roger Wagner. Some of you will remember the recordings made by his Chorale.
Wagner was prone to frequent tirades, but for this piece, I remember him demonstrating intense focus and utmost clarity. Very few experiences were as memorable, and I can still hear his words about “Christ rising on a jet” during the Et resurrexit. My brother was in the orchestra as well, as was a second oboist named Michael Tilson Thomas. The young Marilyn Horne was the alto soloist.
Returning to works I have not performed in a long time can be a challenge. I spent more time than usual pouring over the score, reading essays and articles about the work, and trying to place it in history, especially in relation to the work that would come two opuses later, the Ninth Symphony.
The Missa is not to everyone’s taste. It is long and impossibly difficult to sing, and it requires constant concentration from all the performers as well as the audience. But with an excellent choir from Krakow, wonderful soloists, and the outstanding Warsaw Philharmonic, we were all engaged from the start. The performance included many memorable moments, not least the Benedictus, with its literally heavenly violin solo. Afterward, I was exhausted, and it took me two days to recover, both physically and mentally.
We stayed in Warsaw a few extra days to attend another concert featuring one of Cindy’s works, Timepiece, excellently led by John Axelrod. At that point, Timepiece was the only orchestral work of Cindy’s that I had never conducted. So, it was with pleasure that I sat back and enjoyed it simply as a listener.
But that would change a week later. For the final program at the Manhattan School of Music, I chose a particularly difficult set of works for the students. The Rite of Spring was, in a way, the easiest piece on the concert, despite its potential rhythmic pitfalls, which today’s students seem to handle with ease. It was a terrific performance with outstanding solos from the bassoon, alto flute, and English horn players.
Can Sacre still be shocking? That student orchestras all over the world now play it probably tells us that familiarity has diminished that factor. We worked hard to bring out some of the Russian roots implicit in the piece. This meant that the lyrical aspects came to the fore, hopefully making the barbaric moments more ferocious. Everyone on the stage felt proud of what was accomplished.
The rarely heard Concerto for Seven Winds, Timpani, and Strings by Swiss composer Frank Martin made a fine showcase for some of the individual talents at the school. Why did Martin pretty much disappear off the concert map? This piece is wonderful, and in my view, should be a repertoire work for those music directors looking to show off their musicians in a group setting. All the young soloists distinguished themselves and were cheered on by their colleagues both onstage and in the audience.
Timepiece, the work by Cindy I mentioned earlier, was great fun to do. It follows a path similar to some of her other short, vigorous pieces. Now I have completed the cycle of all her orchestral music. Time to start doing the band versions.
Returning home was slightly bittersweet in terms of the music-making. Throughout my entire career, all my major performances in St. Louis have been at Powell Hall. It used to be an old movie palace that was converted into a concert hall in 1967. I missed the opening, as my tenure started the following year.
In all this time, there has never been a major renovation. That is changing. The hall itself will have approximately 700 fewer seats, there will be an addition for rehearsal and dressing room facilities, and the overall look of the building will be different. The construction process will keep the hall shuttered for about two years, during which time the orchestra will perform in various other venues around the city. It makes me wonder when I will next step foot onto the stage, and what it will look, feel, and sound like.
My program with the SLSO was complex. Two large-scale works, both requiring extra forces, made the stage look like a forest of instruments and stands. Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote has always been one of my favorite pieces to conduct, even though it does not come up too often. The sheer inventiveness and manipulation of the main material is extraordinary.
Our soloist was the young cellist Joshua Roman, who brought a dignified sensibility to the title character. Principal violist Beth Guterman Chu played the sidekick, Pancho Sanza, bringing out all the moods necessary, and Concertmaster David Halen provided commentary from Dulcinea. The orchestra was splendid, and it was truly wonderful to be back in Powell Hall playing music that was almost designed for the building.
The same could be said of the other big piece on the program, Mason Bates’s Anthology of Fantastic Zoology. I began championing Mason’s music near the start of his career—between a couple world premieres that I gave as well as performances of his existing pieces—and he has distinguished himself as a unique voice in the orchestral landscape. His largest work to date, the opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, was met with widespread audience enthusiasm.
Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, written for the Chicago Symphony in 2015, is an 11-movement, half-hour-long orchestral tour de force. It is a kind of “Young Person’s Guide” to strange creatures. This work does not include any electronic elements, a usual hallmark of his writing. But what Mason does is create a truly magical world filled with sounds and colors that expand the orchestral palette. It is very difficult to play, especially for an orchestra that has not encountered any of his music before. Nevertheless, the St. Louisans really dug into it, and I am certain that they will be playing more of his music in the future.
We opened with the delightful bon-bon Espanã, by Emmanuel Chabrier. The idea was to bookend the Bates with two Spanish-inspired works. When you have a really great orchestra, this piece is plain old fun.
I have been conducting in Powell Hall for 55 years. Very few seasons have gone by that I did not lead the orchestra on that stage. The grand dame is now going to get a much-needed facelift. So, for the time being, it is adieu to the place that shaped my entire professional life. I can only wish the renovation team well and hope that they finish on time, within budget, and without sacrificing the sound that made this orchestra one of America’s musical treasures.
See you next month,