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Symphony preview: Notes that speak

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2012 - Of all the offerings the St. Louis Symphony has presented this season, this week's concert belongs to the poets.

From Richard Wagner's "Parsifal" to Sibelius's "Violin Concerto in D Minor" to John Adam's "Harmonium," every element of this concert, literally (pun intended) speaks to the audience.

Though each piece reflects a specific composer and his signature in the world of classical music, together these works create a sort of dialog with the audience that celebrates and reflects the written word in song and symphonic rendering.

Each piece has a connection to poetry, to words -- even when none is present in the performance. At the same time, all bring energy and emotion that offer a comment on specific humanist themes.

The performance will open with the prelude to act 1 of "Parsifal," one of Wagner's most noted operas, which is based on the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail and offers an allegorical lesson that encourages all to live compassionately.

"Parsifal" has inspired countless musicians of every nationality. Jean Sibelius was no exception. After attending a performance of the opera, Sibelius wrote to his wife, "Nothing in the world has made such an impression on me; it moves the very strings in my heart."

This concerto was the composer's only contribution to that genre of music. Sibelius preferred to focus his efforts on opera and choral pieces, as well as music for the entire symphony.

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff will perform Sibelius' "Violin Concerto in D Minor." Though only in his 40s, Tetzlaff's performance history is extensive. The Hamburg native has been playing the violin since he was 6 and performing in concerts since he was 14. One of the most sought-after soloists in the world, Tetzlaff last performed here in 2010.

His experience has established him as an outstanding musician who is not afraid to buck tradition and define his own way of approaching music. Even his choice of instrument moves him away from convention. Departing from the legendary Stradivarius, Tetzlaff prefers a contemporary violin, made by Stefan-Peter Greiner, which he began using in concert about a decade ago. His style, his accomplishments and his ability bring fresh and finely tuned interpretations to well-known pieces, such as this concerto endear him to his audiences.

The third piece on the symphony program will feature the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, under the guidance of Director Amy Kaiser, performing John Adams' "Harmonium." Adams' considerable virtuosity becomes apparent in this work as he tapped the rich pool of John Dunne's luminous "Negative Love, "as well as Emily Dickinson's reflective "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" and her impassioned "Wild Nights!"

In his own explanation of "Harmonium," Adams describes his efforts to develop his vision:

"'Harmonium' was composed in 1980 in a small studio on the third floor of an old Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Those of my friends who knew both the room and the piece of music were amused that a piece of such spaciousness should emerge from such cramped quarters. . . . I cast far and wide for a text to satisfy a musical image that I had in mind. That image was one of human voices -- many of them -- riding upon waves of rippling sound."

Each of the Dickinson poems has its own tone, focus and measure, Adams noted, and both are famous in their own right: "Because . . ." speaks just above a whisper, while "Wild Nights!" explodes with passion.

In 1936, then U.S. Poet Laureate Allen Tate said "'Because . . .' is flawless to the last detail. The rhythm charges with movement the pattern of suspended action back of the poem. Every image is precise and, moreover, not merely beautiful, but inextricably fused with the central idea."

Adams explores the depths of "Because. . ." as the second movement of "Harmonium." He chose these poems because each addresses very human experiences in decidedly different voices.

Donne's poem "examines the qualities of various forms of love, ascending in the manner of Plato's 'Symposium,' from the carnal to the divine," Adams wrote. "I viewed this 'ascent' as a kind of vector, having both velocity and direction. Musically, this meant a formal shape that began with a single, pulsing note . . . [that] becomes a tone cluster, then a chord, and eventually a huge, calmly rippling current of sound that takes on energy and mass until it eventually crests on an immense cataract of sound some ten minutes later. To date, I still consider 'Negative Love' one of the most satisfying architectural experiments in all my work."

'Harmonium' Inspiration

Negative Love

I never stoop'd so low, as they
Which on an eye, cheek, lip can prey.
Seldom to them, which soar no higher
Than virtue or the mind to admire.
For sense, and understanding may
Know what gives fuel to their fire:
My love, though silly, is more brave,
For may I miss, when'er I crave,
If I know yet, what I would have.
If that be simply perfectest
Which can by no way be express'd
But Negatives, my love is so.
To All, which all love, I say no.
If any who deciphers best,
What we know not, our selves, can know,
Let him teach me that nothing; this
As yet my ease and comfort is,
Though I speed not, I cannot miss.
-- John Donne

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground:
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.
-- Emily Dickinson

Wild Nights--“Wild Nights!

Wild Nights--“Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our Luxury!
Futile -- the winds --
To a Heart in port --
Done with the Compass --
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden --
Ah, the sea!
Might I but moor -- Tonight --
In thee!
- Emily Dickinson

Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer.