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In 136th season, St. Louis Symphony evokes characters, settings, stories

St. Louis Symphony music director David Robertson spoke about the 2015-16 season with "Cityscape" host Steve Potter.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

This season at the St. Louis Symphony, “music tells the stories,” said music director David Robertson.

Robertson joined “Cityscape” host Steve Potter to discuss the Symphony’s 136th season, which begins this weekend and runs through June of next year.

This season, the symphony explores the many ways in which music is expressive, Robertson explained—in concrete narrative and in abstract emotion.  “There are times where the music is very specifically about a story, and then there are times where it’s more generally about the story of our emotions,” he said. “And each audience member has a way of being able to, in a sense, create their own narrative, their own dramatic persona within the context of the works.”

Some of the storytelling is obvious: Shakespeare gets a fair bit of play this season for his 400th anniversary, including Sibelius’ “The Tempest” and Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And Strauss’ “Don Quixote” tells the story of the man of La Mancha.

But perhaps the greatest source of narrative music is children’s stories, Robertson said. The symphony will be playing several, including Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

The symphony also plays several popular stories of the classical repertoire, including Janáček’s adaptation of Gogol’s “Taras Bulba,” the story of Cossack conflict against Poland, and Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály’s “Háry János Suite.” The suite is an extraction of music from the eponymous folk opera, telling the story of a soldier in the Austrian army in the time of Napoleon.

“It’s absolutely amazing music in the way that it can conjure up all of these different spaces,” Robertson said.

Violinist Joshua Bell opens the season with Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole”—a work, Robertson said, that evokes a sense of story without actually providing one. “The way the movements work, it actually feels almost as though it’s like the opera ‘Carmen.’ But we don’t know what the story is. And so this is kind of the portal into the whole season,” he said.

There are several premieres to look forward to: the U.S. premiere of Tan Dun’s concerto for bass, contrabass, and orchestra, “The Wolf,” and the St. Louis premiere of Messiaen’s “Des canyons aux étoiles,” or ‘From the canyons to the stars,’ a celebration of the national parks of the American West.

Robertson said one of the concerts he most looks forward to is December’s ‘Music of John Williams.’ “It’s one of my favorite concerts to do. I love the music and I love John, as a person,” he said. “It’s impossible to imagine movies since about 1970 without the music that he’s written. Even if it’s not his music, there are now so many people who strive for that kind of incredible sound that he really brought back into the music of films and, for that matter, television as well.”

Selections from Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are “on the menu,” Robertson said, as is Williams’ complete score of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in April.

Further engaging the non-traditional symphony-goer, this season features three Friday nights of ‘Music You Know,’ a series that premiered last season. “People often think of the atmosphere at a symphony concert as being stuffy, and it’s not,” Robertson explained. “The sense of ‘Music You Know’ is that there are so many works of the classical repertoire that have become so well known in popular culture—through films or through commercials or through television usage—and…people are not often aware of what they are.

“But it also gives us a chance to really look at the fantastic repertoire that’s out there,” he continued. “I kind of describe it as a meal of tapas”—small samplings of famous and familiar works.

Other concerts of note include St. Louis Symphony timpanist Shannon Wood’s performance of William Kraft’s “Timpani Concerto No. 2,” a unique piece both musically and visually; and world-class soprano and St. Louis native Christine Brewer closes out the season. But even this list, host Steve Potter noted, is only the “tip of the iceberg”—the season is jam-packed with stories and feeling and the music that expresses both.

See the full season here.

This will also be the 6th symphony season broadcast live by St. Louis Public Radio. See the broadcast schedule here.  

Cityscape is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex HeuerThe show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.

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