Revisiting Adès, Rediscovering Rimsky-Korsakov by Cec
When I first glanced over the schedule for the SLSO’s 2010-2011 season, sometime this past summer I think, I found myself with plenty to be excited about, and two things in particular. First, the symphony was devoting its entire season to the celebration of Russian music. Yes! Given that my classical (used throughout in the very broadest sense of the word; forgive me) passion is strongest for music either Russian or new, the second thrill was that Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Thomas Adès’s violin concerto Concentric Paths were to be on the same bill.
Unlike the majority of my KWUR comrades, I grew up here in St. Louis (…fine, St. Charles), so I admit I’m no stranger to Powell Hall and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, or as my dad likes to call it, “the best band in town.” As soon as it became clear that music was my “thing,” my parents began tacking me onto their Sunday concert series and toting me along to Opera Theater every June. Still, my familiarity hasn’t led me to take for granted sharing my town with one of the greatest orchestras in the nation, and when I received the invitation to take the all-important Bloggers’ Night helm this time, and for this ticket, I readily accepted.
First on the program was Sergey Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, commonly known as his “Classical” Symphony. Written in 1917, the piece contains no trace of reference to the political turmoil that was rocking Russia that year, instead bouncing and laughing in a spritely neoclassical homage to Haydn and Mozart. It’s a quick one, clocking in at just around 15 minutes, and does sound like it could be of another era if not for its decidedly modern harmonic style.
Next up was Concentric Paths. The music of Adès came to my attention in May of 2009 with the SLSO’s performance of Asyla, a work that retained notoriety in my mind for its orchestral interpretation of a drug-addled rave in its aptly named “Ecstasio” movement. That memory clued me in that I was in for something good with the concerto, as did the knowledge that the orchestra’s taking this one to Carnegie Hall in March.
Ever since David Robertson took over directorship in 2005, the SLSO has been forging a reputation for championing new music, and it’s clear that the maestro wants to make sure that contemporary pieces are not only heard, but also understood and appreciated by their likely more traditional audiences. After the customary shift of seats and players that followed the Prokofiev, Robertson took several moments to explain some of the circular motifs we would hear, pointing out the work’s remarkable symmetry and patterns of oscillation. He insisted that hummable tunes could be picked out, especially from the third movement, and went even so far as to have soloist Leila Josefowicz demonstrate a few passages as a bit of an amuse-bouche before teaming up with the orchestra. The performance was stellar. Josefowicz floated elegantly to her place at the front of the stage, then transformed as the band started up, grounding herself for the grueling demands of the composition and meeting them with sensitive virtuosity. And, as promised, I was able to hum my way out to the hallway for intermission.
I have to admit, with no small amount of sheepishness, that it was the prospect of Scheherezade, Rimsky-Korsakov’s much beloved suite based upon The Book of a Thousand and One Nights, that really revved my excitement for the night.
During his pre-concert talk, characteristically excellent, the maestro articulated my feelings about the work almost exactly. Just like him, I came upon the work at about the age of 11 or 12, and now I feel the need to reconcile my love for this work I’ve known so long with some pressure to stick up my nose at what’s surely the definition of classical mainstream. Anyone with even a passing interest in symphonic music is likely to know it. A show of hands by the pre-concert-talk audience, though probably not an unbiased sample, indicated that just about everyone present was familiar with it. So should I be ashamed of my love? Am I betraying my mediocrity of taste? I know I’ve played it on KWUR before, but I distinctly remember feeling itchingly guilty about it.
(*plug* Although no classical work can be too mainstream now for KWUR, St. Louis’s only remaining source for locally programmed classical music! *plug*)
Let me relay a little bit about my personal history with this work. It was a recording of the Israeli Philharmonic under the direction of Zubin Mehta, dated 1989 (older than me!) that I found in my dad’s CD collection way back when. I latched onto it in that indulgent way we’re prone to do with out favorites, genre regardless. These days, the tracks I find myself setting on repeat tend to be three or four minutes, maybe pushing six every now and then. Usually not forty-five. But so it was, and over the years I’ve internalized every note, every passage. My strangest memory associated with Scheherazade is of whiling away hours one summer spinning that old, weathered disc in my boom box stereo while reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and now the two works have a strange, inextricable association in my mind. The subconscious pairing of Mark Twain’s token Americana and R-K’s orientalism through intensely Russian-colored glasses is pretty bizarre, but in hindsight it seems to make some sense. Don’t the common threads of adventure, romance, and intrigue bind the episodic narratives of St. Petersburg, Russia, to those of St. Petersburg, Missouri?
But I digress. The fact is that Scheherazade has been a staple of my listening repertoire for a comparably long time, yet something about Friday night’s performance made me to feel as though I were hearing it for the very first time. Perhaps my intimate familiarity with just one recording heightens my attention to any variation, but I heard it performed by the SLSO as recently as 2007. Something felt different this time. Again I feel the need to cite Robertson’s pre-concert remarks, in which he drew attention to the expansive, sea-like space of Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition. Subverting Western expectations that music shall be in fours, fours, fours, fours, the sweeping first movement is organized in a pattern of five, rocking gently out onto Sinbad’s ship on the open sea. The maestro’s approach seemed much concerned with opening up that space in the music even further. Each soloist, not least of all concertmaster David Halen, milked the limelight for all its worth, taking on the role of the immortal storyteller in sensuous, languorous cadenzas as the orchestra paused to accommodate.
Whatever the reason, my go-to background music of years and years held my undivided attention with unexpected nuances on Friday evening, and the orchestra’s commitment to freshening it up have made me finally ready to reaffirm my love unabashed.
Many, many thanks to Eddie Silva and the SLSO for the opportunity.
Ceci is a DJ at Washington University’s student radio station, KWUR 90.3 FM. Catch her show “Theology and Geometry” on Thursday evenings from 7 to 8 pm.