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Symphony's 'Heroic Strauss' offers even more than German tone poems

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 29, 2012 - Few pieces of music require the physical endurance and virtuosity of those the St. Louis Symphony will perform this weekend.

Among them is one of the most notably challenging works for pianists, which is only one of its many virtues. The music is “In Seven Days,” by British composer/conductor/pianist Thomas Adès.

And the musician performing this modern marathon of a concerto with the symphony is renowned pianist Kirill Gerstein.

“It is really, really incredibly challenging,” Gerstein concedes. “It is also really fascinating. It translates into a beautiful sound impression for the audience.”

The piece is a part of a series of stories and legends the St. Louis Symphony will conjure this weekend. Audiences will hear music that will evoke vivid imagery of the brazen, the beautiful and the bucolic. “Heroic Strauss,” offers symphonic stories to tone poems for two performances: one at 10:30 a.m. Friday and the other at 8 p.m. Saturday.

“This performance shows off a major 20th century piece that is too hard for a lot of orchestras,” Music Director David Robertson said. “To use a sports metaphor, this is an all-star game. You will be blown away by the sheer passion and virtuosity of the St. Louis Symphony.”

“In Seven Days” was composed for piano, orchestra, and six video screens. It was first performed by the London Sinfonietta and conducted by Adès, himself. British videographer and artist Tal Rosner, who is also Adès’ partner, created the video segments for the piece.

What: Heroic Strauss

David Robertson, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano
R. Strauss Don Juan
Ades In Seven Days (Piano Concerto)
R. Strauss Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks
Hindemith Mathis der Maler Symphony

Musically, the piece is as elaborate as it is ambitious. It has a reputation as being a true tour de force, and rightfully so, because of its large scale and impressive and complicated musical imagery.

When it was performed in New York City in 2011, The New York Times characterized it as “riveting, restless and kaleidoscopically colorful.”

Adès penned the piece in 2008. The result is a 30-minute musical illustration of the seven days of creation in Genesis. Its seven dynamic parts progressively build as the story advances. The creative, and at times disparate, elements of the whole make it both distinctive and diverse in its layering of sound and connection of chords.

As The Times, suggests, “Even when the music heaves on the surface, the inner textures and voices are a riot of activity. It has long been hard to pigeonhole Mr. Adès’ musical language, and so it was with this piece.

“For music of such audacious modernism, the overall sound was wondrously strange and somehow elemental. Hints of ancient modal harmony combine with jazzy chords and fractured rhythms.”

These complexities and currents are exactly what have drawn musicians and listeners, alike, to the piece, Gerstein notes.

The 33-year-old Russian musician has previously performed the concerto with Adès and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Having the composer conduct the work makes the performance interesting and somewhat daunting, Gerstein said.

Every collaboration has its own benefits and challenges, he said, adding that he is very pleased to be returning to St. Louis. “This is my first time collaborating with David Robertson,” he said. “I am very excited about the piece that has been chosen and looking forward to working together.”

Along with Adès, the evening will be filled with bold pieces of music. The concert, dubbed “Heroic Strauss,” provides two very different tone poems from Richard Strauss, the German Romantic composer and contemporary of Gustav Mahler.

“Don Juan,” which Strauss composed in 1888 when he was young, has all of the saucy allure of its subject. It is the provocative Las Vegas showgirl of the concert with its musical plumage and voluptuously bold composition.

And where “Don Juan” evokes the Rolling Stones mantra with its showy, even lurid style, its companion piece, “Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks,” has the innocence of a Disney classic. Strauss created the latter piece seven years later in 1895, offering a true flight of fancy.

With all of the quaint imagery of a fairytale, the story unfolds with playful abandon. Based on a folktale of carefree country boy named Till Eulenspiegel, the music relates his flirtations and capricious enterprises.

Rounding out the concert is 20th-century German composer Paul Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler Symphony.”

As with the others on the programs, Hindemith’s piece conveys a story, this one is based on an opera he was writing inspired by the painter, Matthias Grünewald, whose works were considered to reflect Reformation themes. The symphony was composed in the early 1930s in Germany, and ran into severe criticism from the Nazi Party, which saw the work as opposing its positions.

Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer.

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