St. Louis Symphony's "Music You Know" Series Draws Inspiration From the Familiar

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Music director David Robertson leads the St. Louis Symphony. - DILIP VISHWANAT
  • Dilip Vishwanat
  • Music director David Robertson leads the St. Louis Symphony.

Have you ever really thought about where you hear classical music? No, really thought about it? Once you know what to listen for, you'll notice that orchestral pieces are everywhere, from video games to cartoons to presidential inaugurations. It's kind of scary how often we're surrounded by beautiful scores, and it's even scarier how often our brains take them for granted.

A new program from the St. Louis Symphony aims to change that, though. Through a series dubbed "Music You Know," the symphony will lead music lovers through famous classical pieces they may have heard outside of a traditional concert event. Music director and conductor David Robertson will further enhance the audience's surprise by explaining the historical and cultural origins of the music and why the pieces lend themselves so well to everyday use.

"We have a huge repertoire of pieces that the audience isn't necessarily going to know by the title," Robertson says. "That's part of the fun of these concerts — the joy of actually discovering, 'Oh, that's what that is!' and saying, 'Wow, that's really cool!'"

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The "Music You Know" series, which has multiple installments over the next year, kicks off Friday, November 21, at Powell Hall with a concert dedicated to what the symphony bills as "Showstoppers." These are the tunes audience members are sure to recognize from major pop-culture works, including composer Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, which famously was featured during the "Devil segment" in Disney's Fantasia.

"Night on Bald Mountain is the scariest part of Fantasia," insists Beth Guterman Chu, principal viola for the St. Louis Symphony. "When I was little, I couldn't even watch it; the music is terrifying. It's awesome."

Chu says that the combination of music and commentary during "Music You Know" will help audience members process the tunes their ears are familiar with in a completely different way.

"I think it's going to be really cool for people to learn about a piece and then to get to hear it," Chu says. "Night on Bald Mountain was written as a witches' Sabbath dance. To know that about the piece and then hear it — it really does sound like that!"

Likewise, listeners may be surprised to learn that the song from the "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" commercials of the '90s actually was composed for a 1942 ballet. This "Hoe-Down" section from Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" has been used in additional works over the years, including by progressive rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Robertson even recalls hearing "Hoe-Down" on an incessant loop in a Cleveland shopping center.

"I feel like inviting people who work at that shopping center down [to "Music You Know"] so they can go, 'Oh, that's what it really sounds like when it's not over cruddy speakers!'" Robertson laughs.

On page two, see where "Tom & Jerry" fits into the symphony's musical landscape.

Like many of us, musicians are stirred by melodies they've both consciously and subconsciously processed over the years. That's something the "Music You Know" series wants to build upon.

"Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry — those were such awesome cartoons. The music just was so good," Chu says. "[In Edvard Grieg's] In the Hall of the Mountain King, the music is sort of demonic and gets faster and faster and faster, so it's almost impossible not to be brought along on the journey during the piece. For a cartoon, that's perfect, because it paints such a vivid picture."

Robertson agrees that he's been moved by a number of pieces during his lifetime, likening some of these melodies to a person's mother tongue, where they don't remember when or how a connection was formed. But he also says that it's never too late for a piece of music to become a powerful totem for a person.

"I remember becoming aware of listening to music when we got a reel-to-reel tape recorder when I was seven or eight years old," Robertson says. "We had Boléro [a 1928 piece by Maurice Ravel], and I can remember being aware of the act of listening, of following, 'Now this is happening in the beats.'

"I'd loved music since my earliest years, but this was a major shift of awareness," Robertson continues. "And this kind of thing can happen to anybody, at any point and at any age."

Robertson especially is excited about the educational aspect of the symphony's new series.

"The idea of the 'Music You Know' concerts is that learning can go on, but it's not something that needs to feel didactic," Robertson says. "I think most adults who come to a concert hall already have such a vast experience of life, which is individual to them.

"What's fascinating is to then see how they personally plug their own experiences into what it is they're hearing. And if we can figure out a way to help them feel more confidence in their own personal experience, that's a great thing."

Music You Know: Encore 8 p.m. Friday, November 21. Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard. $30 to $85. 314-534-1700.

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