St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

For the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s 2018/2019 season — a transitional season between music directors — the musicians co-curated the pieces they will perform. It’s not difficult to imagine why musicians would want to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major early in the season, particularly during such a stormy time in our national life. The “Pastoral,” as Beethoven referred to it, is a feel-good crowd-pleaser by one of the world’s best known and most beloved composers, one of those big names who puts butts in concert hall seats.

With the first performance of the “Pastoral” coming as the season’s first Friday morning Coffee Concert, catered by Krispy Kreme, on October 5, perhaps the musicians also imagined striking up the band in early fall with a glance back at the summer; Beethoven wrote the “Pastoral” in the summer of 1808 (he directed the first performance just before Christmas of that year), and the nature he summons in song is recognizably summery and floral. The musicians, living in this troubled world with its disturbed climate like the rest of us, might have expected that October 5, 2018 would be a summery fall day; it turned out to be a burner that touched 90 degrees, with a high temperature 20 degrees higher than the average high for the date.

With that performance also coming almost a month to the day before the midterm elections with Donald J. Trump in the White House, perhaps the musicians envisioned the “Pastoral” as something of a tranquilizer. However, they could not have predicted that the most disruptive U.S. Supreme Court nomination in a generation would transfix the nation this morning, with concertgoers turning off their phones for the first notes of the symphony knowing that Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination could be sealed – or killed – during the next 40 minutes of live Beethoven. Indeed, when the orchestra reached the symphony’s brash fourth movement, “Thunderstorm (Allegro),” for the first time in the program the orchestra was playing in the conflicted mood of the audience. Heard in this setting, the storm sounded more convincing than the “happy and grateful feelings after the storm” of the final movement, but that was through no fault of the orchestra, which, under the steady direction of Bramwell Tovey, brought the symphony home without flaw.

The second half of the program – Hector Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy” – was different from the “Pastoral” in every way. It is a far less familiar work, last performed by SLSO in 1983 when Leonard Slatkin was music director and the most recent Supreme Court appointee was Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the court who also was the subject of the first televised nomination proceedings. Many conservatives opposed her because she was not rabidly anti-choice. The comparison to Kavanaugh is particularly painful because she decried “nakedly partisan reasoning,” whereas Kavanaugh all but pledged to seek revenge against Democrats if he is confirmed to the bench. She may have been a prophet of our democracy’s doom when she said that “the degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship” begins with compromising the independence of the courts.

It’s understandable that “Harold in Italy” remains relatively obscure. It requires a vast orchestra yet features an instrument that does not take many solos, the viola, which at times carries the melody alone while all those flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani, strings and piccolo sit hushed. Beth Gutterman Chu, the symphony’s principal viola, took the solo and owned this quirky, meandering, frequently noisy piece of music. Berlioz scored the viola as a wanderer – named after Childe Harold, the original Byronic hero – and the unsettled character of the composition was a good fit for the mood of the audience.

It begs to be said that the Byronic hero is a moody, at times raging figure who left behind a wasted youth, not unlike the Brett Kavanaugh of the Senate Judicial Subcommittee hearings. The name of the final movement of the piece – “Orgy of the Brigands” – sounds like something out Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook. As Byron wrote in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”: “Youth wasted, minds degraded, honour lost …”

By the time SLSO performs this program again, at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 6, Kavanaugh’s fate on the bench may have been decided. Whatever goes down, and whether that leaves you blissed out or disturbed, in need of a little rhythmic disruption or a musical tranquilizer, the two halves of this program have whatever you will need.

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