From Brett Kostrzewski, the host of “This Week at the Symphony” on KSLU:
Music commonly conveys familiar emotions such as the triumph of Mahler’s second symphony or the heart-wrenching sadness of Tchaikovsky’s sixth. Less commonly, however, music can become a dream based on a famous tale, containing both sleep’s intrinsic darkness and the constant rumble of reality. This is Salvatore Sciarrino’s opera Lohengrin, performed by musicians of the St. Louis Symphony and David Robertson at the Pulitzer this past Wednesday.
“It’s a bit unusual,” said bassoon player Felicia Foland. This may be the understatement of the year, as the bassoonists were tapping the reed with their tongues, the flutists were blowing through the instrument without pitch, the strings glissed like I’ve never heard before, and the percussionist gently rumbled thunder on a large bent piece of steel. A daunting and confusing score was visible over the Maestro’s shoulder, demanding such difficult and unusual sounds. It was executed with surreal mastery by his musicians.
Yet the most unique sounds and the most energy came from soprano Marianne Pousseur, and if any emotional connection could be made with this piece, it would have to be with her performance. Dreams occur in the brain, but somehow our logic escapes us as the impossible seems routine, and even the inexplicable images can leave us with a sense of loss or love when we awake. Pousseur served as this bridge to the heart, pouring energy into her “singing” that one could feel across the small space.
The libretto was based on the story of Lohengrin, made so famous by Wagner’s epic opera. But in this rendition, like in a dream, it is just a shadow. The text is less important than the sounds and the experience, felt both by audience and ensemble. Sciarrino clearly assumes that the story is known; like a dream, it is confusingly told out of order. Lohengrin is sailing away on his swan in the beginning, but arriving on his swan at the end. His bride Elsa watches from the open window in both scenes.
The concert was paired with Dreamscapes, the Pulitzer’s current art exhibition. The work defines this word, and Robertson’s selection of it was completely appropriate. It was mostly a very quiet piece, Pousseur rarely rising above a whisper (when she wasn’t clicking her teeth or popping her lips) and the orchestra rarely playing tutti and at full volume. My favorite spots were the ever-present reminders of reality, a harsh one revealed upon Elsa’s awakening. The horns sounded like an alarm at one point, and Pousseur ticked like the clock in her character’s bedroom at another.
For Elsa, the awakening is a horrible jolt of reality, going from Lohengrin’s arms to the harsh bed of a mental hospital. But for us, after the unusual and disturbing sounds stop emanating from the musicians, we are able to return to a world that makes sense, and revel in reality.–Brett Kostrzewski
Brett Kostrzewski is a senior aerospace engineering student at Saint Louis Unversity and studies piano, voice, and conducting as well. He has been a tenor in the St. Louis Symphony Chorus for two seasons. His symphony preview radio show, “This Week at the Symphony,” can be heard Thursday nights at 9pm on http://kslu.slu.edu.