Symphony preview: Brewer comes home with Strauss
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2012 - Of any concert the St. Louis Symphony will play this season, none could be more authentically St. Louis than this weekend's performances.
For although Christine Brewer hails from Illinois, her love of classical music was born and, in essence, raised at Powell Hall.
"I grew up so close -- we weren't too far from Cape Girardeau, and St. Louis was the closest city," she said.
It is also the place where her music career began.
"The St. Louis Symphony Chorus was where I got my first couple of breaks," Brewer said. "I was a student, and we were doing 'Messiah.' I auditioned and got a solo. My husband took off school that day, got my parents and sent me roses."
For Brewer, every time she performs at Powell is meaningful.
"It is very special for me," she said, "To sing on that stage where I had heard Heather Harper sing."
In fact, that concert -- when she heard Harper sing Strauss' "Four Last Songs" -- was when she knew she wanted to sing those lieder. Harper performed with St. Louis Symphony Maestro Leonard Slatkin, and the drama of the songs ignited Brewer's passion.
After all, these were the last four songs Strauss composed, and though he did not likely know that these would be literally his swan songs, he did know he was dying.
"The Four Last Songs" marry poetry with melody, and frame each piece in nature, providing a rich tapestry of birds and landscape.
"They are celebratory of life," Brewer noted. "They evoke a lot of emotion."
After seeing Harper, Brewer bought a recording and the sheet music. Despite her enthusiasm, Glenn Freiner, her mentor and vocal teacher at McKendree University discouraged her from attempting Strauss then.
"I was 18 at the time, and the music requires vocal maturity and life experiences," Brewer said. "He was kind and didn't laugh at me. He suggested I study the poems for 10 to 20 years first."
Though she was a bit disappointed, Brewer heeded Freiner's advice and waited, eventually performing the songs in 1993. Since then, she has sung them 80 times with 30 orchestras around the world and under the direction of 33 conductors, including Slatkin and David Robertson, the St. Louis Symphony's current music director.
Brewer finally recorded them in Atlanta in 2006. Looking back, she understands her mentor's advice in different terms than she did at 18.
"My mother died in 1998 of Lou Gehrig's Disease. One of the things we talked about was seeing birds. We put a bird feeder on the windowsill of her bedroom," Brewer said. "There is a part in one of the songs in which a lark is flying and a piccolo is playing. It is some of the most beautiful and some of the best music Strauss ever wrote. The setting in these is just stunning.
"Now I think my approach to the text is what makes these songs special," she said. "I interpret these songs each time I read them, and each time, something new jumps out at me or I see something in a different way than I had before. That makes it exciting."
What makes this Saturday's concert particularly poignant is that it is dedicated to the life and music of St. Louis Symphony's own timpanist Richard E. Holmes, a renowned figure among the city's music community.
His 41 years as the symphony's principal timpanist and the decade he conducted the Young People's Symphony at the Community Music School made Holmes legendary. He died June 5, 2011, after a long illness.
Holmes was revered as a musician and an educator by former Conductor Leonard Slatkin and current Music Director David Robertson.
"Rick Holmes brought a musicality and clarity, which articulated the best that the St. Louis Symphony has done," Robertson said. "His legacy was to teach us all the value of pure music-making and the immense joy that can be gained while listening to your colleagues."
The concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7, KWMU and streamed live at www.stlpublicradio.org.
Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer.