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Symphony preview: Koh sees 'Four Seasons' as performance art

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2011 - Too often great pieces of music become so pervasive in our collective global culture that they go beyond the realm of iconic music and end up as background filler.

These are the waiting pieces, the ones that fill time and space as if our lives had a soundtrack. In modern nomenclature, these are the ones that have literally gone "viral."

Arguably the go-to piece of classical music used in such circumstances is Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."

Thus, it is hard to believe that he died poor and was buried in an unmarked grave.

The man known as the "Red Priest" for his auburn locks, suffered from asthma to the point that he could not perform Mass. And so he was assigned to work at an "orphanage," where he composed, taught, and nurtured girls in music. His work became quite popular, so much so that France's King Louis XV, insisted that Vivaldi's Spring concerto be played at his whim.

Nevertheless, Vivaldi's success faded after he encountered, composed music for, and traveled with, a contralto of dubious talent named Anna Giro. This relationship -- which no one has proven to be anything more than friendship -- was frowned upon by the Vatican and Vivaldi's fans, eventually costing him everything he had.

So how did the world come to appreciate this composer and his music after he had fallen so far out of favor almost 200 years ago?

His success is due in part to his genius but also to the discovery in the 1920s of a trunk that was packed with his music.

Fast-forward a few decades and now Vivaldi's music, particularly his "Four Seasons" can be heard -- at least in part -- everywhere.

It went from the symphony stage to numerous recordings to the classroom to childhood recitals to film to the mall. And with each incarnation, modern society has adopted Louis XV's approach to Vivaldi, playing it wherever and whenever.

The work has been used in films from "Tin Cup" to "What Lies Beneath" to "White Chicks."

In fact, in 1981 Alan Alda liked it so much that he actually used Vivaldi's premise as well as his music to frame his first feature film as a writer and director, calling it (or should I say, capitalizing on it as) "Four Seasons."

In March 2010, London's "Mirror" reported some little known facts about the composer, noting that rock guitarists use "Four Seasons" as a gage of virtuosity: "While Vivaldi had the violin in mind as the principle instrument for the 'Four Seasons,' it became something of a badge of honour for rock guitarists in the 1980s to be able to play its intricate passages."

Despite its popularity, it has been played rarely by the St. Louis Symphony, as noted by Eddie Silva, external affairs and publications manager for the Symphony. Its iconic nature and complex composition can be a challenge. And no one understands that more than soloist Jennifer Koh, who will take the stage with the St. Louis Symphony for four performances at Powell Hall this weekend.

"I think the thing that is incredible to me is that music that was written 200 and 300 years ago is so vital today," Koh said while awaiting her flight from New York to St. Louis. "It is something that interests me -- music is so human. ... these things are such a primal part of who we are."

Known for her virtuosity, Koh has created signature Bach recordings and encouraged contemporary composers to create new works. Her interest in contemporary composition does not deter her interest in standards, like Vivaldi's classic. Getting at the heart of a piece of such well-known music is the challenge for Koh.

"I am very faithful to the text of the music and the composer and what is important to interpret -- what the composer is trying to say. For me, it is a total immersion thing. It is alchemy where the music becomes a part of you, creatively. It becomes very liquid."

She describes the concerto from her perspective on the stage.

"It is one of the most dynamic thematic pieces," she noted. "It is performance art."

For Koh, performing this iconic piece brings its own specific challenges, which she obviously relishes.

"There is something incredibly touching to me that Vivaldi would be such an important part of our cultural reference today," she said.

She went on to explain that art, music and culture connect all of humanity.

"What we know of different time periods, we learn through art, music and literature -- that is how we know who these people could have been. That is how we know who we want to become. It is like seeing a kind of mountain in the horizon; we may not be there yet, but we encounter something that really elevates us."

Something like the "Four Seasons."

"It is like that with a piece like this," she said. "I hope it will be a wild ride."

The Basics

When: 10:30 a.m. & 8 p.m. Dec. 2; 8 p.m. Dec. 3; 3 p.m. Dec. 4

Where: Powell Hall,

What: SCHUBERT Symphony No. 5
           GOLIJOV Sidereus
           VIVALDI The Four Seasons

Cost: Tickets start a $25

Informationwww.slso.org

Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer.

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