Weekend concerts in St. Louis

This weekend was a great one for classical music lovers in St. Louis. On Friday I was a volunteer usher at the St. Louis Cathedral for a concert of the English choir Tenebrae. The program was largely music from the 20th and 21st centuries, with works by Poulenc, Taverner, and Durufle. It also included works on the second half  by the choir’s director, Nigel Short, and by living composer Joby Talbot. In addition to Tenebrae’s beautiful singing, another hallmark of their concert was that they performed by candlelight. While the singers had personal lights to see their music by, the room was largely lit by candles and luminaria placed throughout the cathedral. It was gorgeous to see the lights flickering off the mosaic tiles.

Hearing a cappella vocal music in a candle-lit church, I couldn’t help but think that this was how choral music began. Choirs of monks and choirboys, singing a cappella in churches and cathedrals, lit by candlelight; this was a scene that would have been familiar to any 12th or 13th century churchgoer. While the idea of having women sing the soprano parts instead of boys would shock a 13th century music lover, and our modern printing techniques make it much easier and cheaper for each singer to have her own part (early choirs often sang huddled around one giant choirbook), most of the scene before me on Lindell Avenue would have seemed eerily similar to that of a medieval church service.Giant Music Stand in Florence, Italy

I also couldn’t help but wonder about the strange parallels of the situation. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is a Byzantine style cathedral, modeled after San Marco in Venice and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I’m not sure why in 1907 they decided to build a Byzantine structure, rather than a modern one, but they did- and it cost them plenty! It’s so exhausting to imagine all of those tiny tiles being affixed to every inch of the walls. Humans have been investing this level of time, money, effort, and artistry into our religious buildings for centuries. It’s also interesting to note that most of the first written music was religious music. Early church music is also where we find the first polyphony (different notes being sung together, creating harmony). So we have a 20th century version of medieval buildings housing a concert of 20th (and 21st) century versions of medieval choral music. I guess there isn’t anything new under the sun? Or maybe we humans know a good thing when we see or hear it? Maybe we feel a connection to these very old arts, or maybe we seek out a feeling of connection with our medieval ancestors. I don’t know the answer to this, but I’d love to know what those early architects and composers would say if they saw us all sitting there, in the “new world” cathedral, listening to a choir in the dark.

Another concept that Tenebrae borrowed from the past was that of moving around the church during their performance. It was common for early choirs to “proceed” to their spot up front while singing chant. It also became the fashion at San Marco in Venice to place singers and instrumentalists in the various balconies for an early version of stereo or surround sound. (When Gabrieli did this it was called “cori spezzati” or split choirs.) Especially for those seated in the middle section of the cathedral, this is a very effective way to envelope your audience in some very beautiful sound. I thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s nothing like being so surrounded by sound that you can literally feel the air vibrating around you. (And for those of you who accomplish this with your home stereo system, it is 10 times better when produced by live performers- spend your money on some concert tickets!)

My only complaint about the program was that the music was all of a similar style, especially on the second half. So while it was very beautiful music, and very well performed, it could have used a bit more contrast of style. However, the music was all suited to the space and the voices, and I’m guessing the second half of the program was music that was mostly new to the audience. I was really impressed with how quiet and respectful the audience was, in a big echoey space like that, even a quiet sound can easily disrupt a performance. I’m looking forward to hearing more choirs in this space.

On Saturday, I decided that since I hold a doctorate in music, it was time I heard the world’s most famous living cellist play in person. So I put up the $50 for a standing room seat to hear Yo-Yo Ma play with the St. Louis Symphony. The program began with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony (which for once I was glad was only 2 movements, since my feet were already getting tired…) This work opens with a eerie melody in the cellos and basses, and the SLSO did a great job of this- really quiet and haunting. Kudos to the low strings! I was impressed with the dynamic range of the ensemble throughout the night, they were able to execute some beautiful pianos, and warm and strong fortes throughout the night. They also did a great job of bringing out the emotional contrasts in the music, from scary to triumphant, mellow to energetic. David Robertson did an excellent job of being accommodating (and possibly sarcastic?) when allowing the many late comers take their sweet time coming in between the movements.

Yo-Yo Ma is an artist I truly admire. He is a consummate cellist, with excellent technique and superb musicianship. But what I truly admire about him is that once he conquered the classical world, he branched out and has tried other things. Interesting collaborations with Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, and the choreographer Mark Morris have brought us some great music. He also started the Silk Road project, and recorded some other non-western music. So it was interesting to hear him play the warhorse of the cello repertoire- the Dvorak Concerto. I have to wonder what goes through his mind as he plays a piece I’m sure he’s performed hundreds, if not thousands, of times. That being said, it was not a dry or boring performance. His stage presence is so warm and inviting, I felt like I couldn’t help but go along with him and Dvorak on their journey through the Concerto. And like most great works, Dvorak really does take us on a journey with this work, traveling through several emotions and moods. Mr. Ma did an excellent job- he was relentlessly intense at times, and relaxed and ethereal at others. The orchestra was also in fine form, loud and full when called for, and able to play really soft and warm when accompanying.

The audience seemed to be as enthralled with the performance as I was. It was heartening to see so many young people in the hall, especially considering the ticket prices. (To be fair, this was a gala fundraising evening, and I’m sure the orchestra raised some badly needed funds. And it was worth $50 to stand through it.) David Robertson offered the audience a very sincere thank you, and reminded them that coming to hear an orchestra concert is celebrating what’s best about being human.

Let’s keep celebrating!

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3 Responses to “Weekend concerts in St. Louis”

  1. John Romeri says:

    Great article! So glad you came to the concert and took the time to write about it and post it on our FB fan page as well. It was just an amazing program of choral music, thanks for sharing your experience. I look forward to morecomments on more programs. Thanks for coming.

  2. I know this is really boring and you are skipping to the next comment, but I just wanted to throw you a big thanks – you cleared up some things for me!

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