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Music of Richard Strauss, Chopin, Michael Daugherty and Ravel

St. Louis Symphony, 9/27/2003

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A quick glance at Michael Daugherty’s catalog of compositions reveals an apparent fascination with American pop culture, musical and otherwise. Representative titles include Philadelphia Stories (2001), Hell’s Angels (1998 – 99), Sunset Strip (1999), Spaghetti Western (1998), UFO (1998 – 99, for solo percussion with either band or orchestral accompaniment) and a his Superman-inspired Metropolis Symphony (1988-93). If ever a composer were ideally suited to the task of paying homage to the late Wladziu Valentino Liberace, that composer would be Michael Daugherty.

Daugherty’s homage to “Mr. Showmanship” is Le tombeau de Liberace. Written in 1996 on commission from the London Sinfonietta, it’s a brief (roughly 16 minutes) four-movement mini-concerto for piano and orchestra that, in it’s tribute to and send-up of the kind of pop-music glitz that characterized Liberace’s act, is rather reminiscent of the work of Peter Schickele’s fictional alter-ego P.D.Q. Bach. Indeed the title itself (a tongue-in-cheek reference to more straightforward tribute works such as Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin) is only the first in succession of musical jokes in this witty and yet complex piece.

Saturday night’s performance of Le tombeau was right on target. Pianist Christopher O’Riley (no stranger to pop crossovers himself) set the tone by placing Liberace’s trademark candelabra on the piano and periodically flashing a classic Liberace smile to punctuate an arpeggio. Happily his virtuosity matched his theatrics, and a good thing, too; Le tombeau is crammed with difficult and showy writing for both the piano (Liberace’s own keyboard technique was formidable, after all) and the orchestra as well, which is often asked to play in an unbuttoned, Las Vegas show band style that is not often heard in Powell Symphony Hall.

All of this makes conductor JoAnn Falletta’s performance on the podium that much more impressive, since she was pulled in as a last-minute replacement for Patrick Summers due to the latter’s illness. Falletta led the SLSO through Daugherty’s sometimes-tricky score with precision and grace, allowing the comedy in the music to speak for itself. It’s a reminder that the one basic truth about the great musical satirists such as Spike Jones, Jo Stafford and Paul Weston (in their “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards” personae) and Peter Schickele is that they had to be skilled musicians first before they could be skilled musical comics.

The rest of the program was a bit more conventional, but presented with no less skill. Conducting without a score, Falletta opened the concert with a spirited and thoroughly sympathetic reading of Richard StraussTill Eilenspiegels Lustige Streiche (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks’), a youthfully exuberant work (Strauss was 30 when he wrote it) based on the exploits of the popular “trickster” character from German folklore. Falletta seems especially good at bringing out some orchestral details that could easily be lost in Strauss’ large and often boisterous orchestra without losing the sense of momentum that is so important in this piece.

The same could be said, in fact, of her interpretation of Ravel’s “choreographic poem” La Valse, also conducted from memory. Originally titled “Vien” (“Vienna”) and intended as a loving tribute to the Viennese waltz along the lines of the 1911 Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, La Valse was set aside until 1919, by which time Ravel’s experiences as an ambulance driver in World War I had transformed the work into a somewhat macabre essay in which the waltz was linked, in the composer’s works, “with an impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny leading to death”. Here, as in the Strauss, Falletta’s dramatic and physically active style on the podium (conducting is something of an aerobic workout for her) was combined with fine ear for musical detail solid control of massive orchestral forces to deliver a completely convincing performance.

Also on the program this weekend was Chopin’s rather slight Opus 22, the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise – two pieces that, while published together and now usually performed as a unit, actually have little in common. Christopher O’Riley played both in a fluid and graceful style that was thoroughly idiomatic and radically different from his more aggressive approach to the Daugherty work and Falletta’s conducting backed him up splendidly. She and O’Riley seemed to be in close communication throughout the Grand Polonaise and the results were impressive.

Next at Powell Hall: Jun Märkl conducts a program of Brahms (the Symphony No. 1) and Brahms as arranged by Schönberg (the Piano Quartet in D Minor), with piano soloist Hèléne Grimaud on Thursday and Friday [October 2, 3] at 8 PM. Call 314-534-1700 for ticket information.

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Copyright 2003 Chuck Lavazzi

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