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Preview: Symphony offers Purcell, Berio, Bruckner

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov 17, 2011 - This weekend's St. Louis Symphony concerts come to the audience at Powell Hall much in the way three teens arrive for their first day of school: One approaches with slow, luxurious, ever-graceful steps, sporting classic attire born of privilege; but her stained checks and deep sorrowful eyes betray her confidence and offer a window into a world wrought with passion, rebellion and angst.

Then comes a thin, jaunty wisp of a girl, dallying at a hauntingly disjointed staccato clip. Against the tide of students, her impossible virtuosity, exhibits the frantic flutter of bee's wings and her dissonant attitude toward others. Finally, we see the slow and meandering gate of the lovely, yet timid ingenue, a girl from a more rural setting, who has everything she needs to be a star, save self-confidence. She arrives slowly and methodically, her anticipation growing with the presence.

Such are images from the Symphony's playbill for this weekend.


First up is English Baroque composer Henry Purcell's "Chacony in G minor," which offers a sense of conscious breath and passion with each pass of the bow. It is in turns reminiscent of a courtly dance and the opening notes of the rock opera "Tommy" by The Who.

In fact, in a BBC radio interview in July, rock star-songwriter-composer Pete Townshend acknowledged that much of his inspiration for his music came from Purcell.

"Shakespeare was one of the first to express the depth and the ironies of the human experience," Townshend told the BBC. "Purcell did it for me as a composer."

Townshend said he viewed Purcell as a "complete and utter genius" who "certainly broke the rules of harmony. And it was in breaking the rules or testing the rules, pushing at the rules of harmony, it was that technique, that bravery, that courage -- it seemed to me to have a very, very easy way of kind of interpolating that into my rock and roll method."


And while Purcell speaks to Who lovers everywhere, the symphony's young and amazingly talented assistant concertmaster, Erin Schreiber finds the rapid fire dissonance of the violin solo in Luciano Berio's haunting and technically challenging Corale on Sequenza VIII of particular interest.

"Erin played the Corale at Pulitzer in the fall of 2010," said Erika Ebsworth-Goold, publicist with the St. Louis Symphony. Conductor David Robertson, "who selects the works that play at the Pulitzer said, 'I knew I wanted her to play Corale with the orchestra'."

Unlike Purcell, Berio is a contemporary composer, born in Imperia in 1925 who died in 2003. He composed this piece in 1976, more than 10 years before Schreiber was born.

A local protege from the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, Schreiber enjoys playing Berio, seeing it for the challenge and complexity of the piece.

In turns flitting and haunting, a la the music that accompanied the shower scene in "Psycho," the piece came in the middle of Berio's career and near the beginning for Schreiber.

Berio created this piece as well as others for individual instruments and vocals, all called Sequenzas. In Sequenza VIII, Berio challenges not only the musician; but within the piece, he creates a sort of dance between the notes that flies at an amazing pace.

"Erin is really a star," Ebsworth-Goold said, "and a local one at that."


The star of the final piece of the evening may not be a musician, the conductor or the composer, but a little used instrument created by German composer Richard Wagner for his music-drama "Das Rheingold," which premiered in 1869 at Munich's National Theatre.

According to Symphony Principal Horn Roger Kaza, Wagner created the Wagner tuba after failing to find the sound he sought to depict Valhalla, a mythical Norse Hall where dead soldiers were sent. No brass instrument met his expectation, Kaza said.

"Wagner ... went on a holy-grail-like quest for an altogether new brass instrument, one with a tone halfway between the mellow French horns and the declamatory trombones," Kaza noted in his radio program for the University of Houston. "The Wagner tuba was born -- at least in the mind of a composer."

Unfortunately, the instrument, which comes in two sizes, the tenor in B-flat and bass in F, proved to be unpopular.

However, Anton Bruckner, a 19th Century Austrian composer, who revered Wagner, used the instruments in his compositions, particularly in his Symphony No. 7, which is the piece slated as the finale on Saturday.

"Indeed, the Wagner tuba is unwieldy," Kaza noted, "looking, as it does, like a sawed-off, underfed euphonium. It curls tentatively forward like a mini-Sousaphone. Truth be told, it is a tuba in name only, and plays more in the tenor range of the orchestra. But its strange, almost otherworldly tone was perfect for the gloomy nether-regions of the Nibelung saga."

Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer. 

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