Sunday, March 29, 2009

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra - Live 2009.03.27

So it happened again: the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra offered me a ticket to a concert of great import under the guise of "Blogger's Night 2". Who am I to say no? Last time was so much fun, and it was an engaging new challenge for me to write about classical music. This time, after checked out an exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum curated by a classmate of mine, I took along my film-reviewer brother along for the ride to the symphony.

Event: Transformations, performed by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson
Venue: Powell Hall
Location: Saint Louis, Missouri
Date: March 29, 2009

Program:
1. Good Friday Music from
Parsifal, composed by Richard Wagner (1882)
2.
Canto di speranza, for cello and orchestra, composed by Bernd Alois Zimmerman (1952-53, revised 1957), featuring cellist Anssi Karttunen
3.
Luonnotar, op. 70, composed by Jean Sibelius (1910-13), featuring soprano Karita Mattila
4.
Mirage, composed by Kaija Saariaho (2007), featuring soprano Karita Mattila and cellist Anssi Karttunen
5. Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, op. 82, composed by Jean Sibelius (1915-19)

Review:
As conductor David Robertson took his place on stage, he started by responding to a resounding walkie-talkie message that echoed through the silent building with, "We're the only orchestra with Richard Wagner on the walkie-talkie." It was humorous, but it reminded me of what sort of acoustics we're dealing with at Powell Hall: the microphones dangling from the ceiling are only for recording purposes; there is no sound reinforcement whatsoever (unless I'm totally missing something, that is). Robertson spoke his line with his back halfway turned to the audience and yet he was loud and clear (as was the original walkie-talkie sentence). I'm amazed by the clarity of the unamplified sound in the hall.

The performance opened with Good Friday Music from Parsifal, which began with a standard arrangement of sweet-sounding strings, but the piece built up into a grand crescendo before slow flutes and the string section dominated a mellower section. A sudden change to a minor key heralded a softer section led by the woodwinds. As the piece went on, it continued to vacillate between longer, brighter, fuller segments and short, dark parts, usually accented by some strong but minimalist bass and timpani parts. It finished with a bevy of descending lines slowing down quietly into a final resounding note. My favorite part might have been that the timeline in the concert program that noted that the most important event of 1882 (other than this piece's composition) was Friedrich Nietzsche's proposition that God is dead. I find the relationship between the piece and Nietzsche to be tenuous at best.

Canto di speranza, composed by a German but carrying an Italian title, translates to Song of Hope. Where the hope comes in is beyond me, but this was probably my favorite piece of the evening. The performers rearranged themselves significantly; there were no violins and fewer other strings and brass. The piece began with an abstract, discombobulated arrangement of percussion splashes: a bass drum, bongos, and quad tom-toms laid out a wildly syncopated pseudo-rhythm with piano strikes thrown in at odd moments. Plucked violas and strange brass and harp parts filled in the sound spectrum while solo cellist Karttunen grew more active in his part. A sudden breakout into a briefly recognizable beat with strong horn blasts withdrew into a more disconnected but still dramatic section that only loosely felt in key. (As it turns out, the piece was composed in twelve-tone serialism, meaning that there truly is no key.) The pianist turned and reached over to a conveniently-placed celesta to add in a few small parts of relatively low volume. A mad dash of trills and notes in the highest registers dropped down back into the "normal" weirdness of the opening of the piece before ending in cello slides, squeaks, and a low dragging close.

Luonnater was composed by a famed Finn for a solo soprano, performed here by well-regarded Marita Mattila. The lyrics were in Finnish, so a large projector displayed the translation. The tale is a creation myth sourced from the Finnish epic Kalevala. A faint string bed opened, and Mattila began almost immediately thereafter. As she sung of a lonely woman of the heavens complaining of her empty life and descending into the ethereal sea, the tense but pretty string and harp parts entered a darker segment. The woman remained unhappy until a duck came, heralding a build-up of strings and brass. A loud and dramatic section began as the duck couldn't find a place to nest, until the woman, described now as the mother of waters, granted it a place on her knee. The music quieted and then grew again darker as the woman was bothered by the warmth of the growing eggs. The nest eventually rolled off and broke apart, and although beauty emerged, the music remained dark and uncertain. The piece ended on a slightly upward happier note as the eggs became the sky, moon, stars, and earth.

Mirage is a contemporary Finnish piece with English lyrics, just two years old. Featuring solo cellist Karttunen and soprano Mattila now together, I had high hopes. Weird squeaks, squalls, and glissandos made for a really cool dark opening. A percussionist did a weird thing on the cymbals at several points in the work: he had a long (wooden?) shaft that he drew across the edge of the cymbal while using his other hand to perhaps steady the cymbal. It generated an unusual high pitch. Mittali, now clad in a wide yellow gown, began singing about flying, calling herself a "sacred eagle woman", and later, a shooting star and a "sacred clown". The piece is based on the effects of a hallucinogenic mushroom, and the psychedelia thereof was clearly borne out through Mittali's strange vocal stylisms and the strange noises and crashes of the accompanying music. The solo cello played a less important role; Karttunen almost seemed overlooked by the intense vocals until about two-thirds through during the craziest parts before Mittali sang, "I am! I am the shooting star! Because... I can fly!" The music became louder and more dramatic until the end of her pronouncement, where the strings began to make descending wails. Slow glides downward, much like a siren, brought the resolution, perhaps revealing that her drug-induced vision must eventually end; she must come down and return to normalcy.

The final piece, Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, was a more traditional work, again by the Finnish Sibelius. After the stranger middle three pieces, this brought us back to the more familiar ground established in Good Friday Music from Parsifal. This work was a much longer piece than the others, lasting over half an hour. Timpani and brass opened, with woodwinds and strings following, eventually crescendoing into a big swing. The brass and woodwinds began a bold interchange of lines, which led into an intense and dramatic rising string part that resolved into a bigger and lusher segment. This fell into a softer part that quickly became tenser before a bassoon took a pretty lead segment. As the music swelled louder and bolder again, the tempo rose along with the tension. This fell into nicer territory before the strings began to prance all over the place, with different parts appearing to rise out of a different part of the stage at each second. A large build-up into a loud section was dominated by clear brass parts and big chords. The timpani grew stronger before everything halted for just a beat. Light woodwinds, brass, and pizzicato strings picked up again. Eventually, after another brief pause, the strings picked up to an incredible pace, wavering and flying about until settling into what sounded like a section borrowed from a classical movie score. It sounded celebratory or especially epic, but then collapsed into a much quieter part. Speedy violins led into a darker, sadder section. More familiar bold brass lines brought a dark drone from the strings, concluding in big timpani rolls and a final series of quick string jabs.

I found that Good Friday Music from Parsifal was fairly tame and calm. It isn't a bad work, nor was it poorly performed; but it just seemed rather plain, especially in comparison to the other works of the night. Canto di speranza ended up as my favorite – Karttunen is a fantastic cellist and he really held down the piece. The obtuse percussion was cool, but could have been aimless and distracting had it not been for the superb cello work acting as a sort of counterpoint. Luonnator was certainly interesting, but the context of the epic tale was a bit difficult. Mattila is clearly a talented vocalist; she has complete control over her voice, and she wrought that power well in the work. In Mirage, however, I felt like she was perhaps too intense and overdramatic. It may be that in a classical context that shouldn't even be a concern, but I felt distracted and removed from the piece. The intention of the piece was solid, and the music worked, but Mattila's stylisms were a detraction for me, and Karttunen seemed occasionally underutilized. Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major was fairly good; the work neared the point of being too traditional to be interesting, but it branched out well and had several really cool parts, especially with the brass sections. I liked that it was big and varied, but it was a bit too long and overdrawn, almost too big in scope.

Since this concert was a preview for a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City (on April 4th), I'm sure a lot of work was put into this production. It was a long and varied program, and the best parts were truly excellent. However, there were parts that I felt dragged a bit, or where my interest faded some. Mattila is intensely skilled, but I found her actual performance to be hit-and-miss; Karttunen was similarly excellent but occasionally lost in the forest of sounds. The symphony as a whole performed quite well and I was pleased with the endeavor as a whole.

Score: B+

[Edit 4.8.09: Also check out my follow-up report here.]

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