Sunday, November 14, 2010

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra - Live 2010.11.12 (review)

Following up from yesterday's semi-nonsensical post about the fifth Blogger's Night at the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, this is my review in my normal style of writing and structure.

Event: Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, part of the Russian Festival, conducted by David Robertson
Venue: Powell Hall
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: November 12, 2010

Program:
1. Symphony No. 1 in D major, op. 25, "Classical", composed by Sergei Prokofiev, 1916-17
2. Violin Concerto (Concentric Paths), composed by Thomas Adès, 2005, featuring Leila Josefowicz on violin
3. Scheherazade, op. 35, composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, 1888

Review:
The night opened up with a relatively small set of musicians – plenty of strings, but just one percussionist on the timpani. Prokofiev began his "Classical" symphony in a traditional style, starting with a big, dramatic, triumphant allegro part before bringing in a slower, softer, more serene larghetto section. While the allegro part hurled by quickly, the larghetto sprawled out and let the musicians descend in and out of a fairytale scene. David Robertson appeared to float through the misty fog of violin strings rather than merely conduct it. He urged the musicians to a dance in the woods, a bit of light, casual fun.

But then – ! Suddenly the the third segment, the gavotte, rushed to the scene. The picture sharpened, the cellists tapped their strings, and suddenly the orchestra was running through the woods and dancing on the air. With hardly a trace of a transition, the finale rocked hard and brought a surprise ending. Lulled by the enthusiasm and spirited vigor of the orchestra, I didn't even see it coming. Fifteen minutes had just flown by.

Leave it David to stick a contemporary English composition smack in the middle of two traditional, very classical Russian works. And yet, he succeeds. Adès' Concentric Paths appears otherworldly, much unlike the Russians that remain grounded in this one, even if they might recall times long past. Adès invokes the darker side of the traditional works for his rhythmic base, but he uses their forms as a springboard to jump into the unknown. The piece starts with something akin to a synthesizer, probably affected by the woodwinds. Led by Leila Josefowicz (whom I previously saw two years ago perform Steven Mackey's Beautiful Passing), the violins flew wildly across the room. Leila jerked around and convulsed, caught in the passion of performance, while the other strings players jabbed and plucked with all their might.

Weird warbles, perhaps emitted by the scaling violins, evoked a theremin, and by extension, a 50s sci-fi flick. The high-tension strings and dark accompaniment set the mood of a spooky planet in some other solar system: an enemy alien has been spotted, it crawls and lurches, and it might just attack. Moments of respite came with flutes and peaceful violins, but deep, thick rhythms exposed the inner anxiety, should the alien being reemerge. By the time the third and final segment, "Rounds", began, Leila appeared as if ready for a challenge. Some other weird tone emerged, sounding like a didgeridoo, before a drumset kicked in and the orchestra began to move. The strange time signatures and dark tones that finished the piece sounded almost familiar by then – something cool was happening, but it was something we'd seen before, so the excitement and tension weren't quite the same.

The final work of the night was the more traditional Scheherazade. (At David's Pre-Concert Perspectives before the actual performance, almost the entire present crowd raised their hand at the question of if they'd heard the work before.) After the raw, intense nervousness and anxious curiosity of Concentric Paths, this work felt staler, entrenched firmly in the past. Some segments felt surprisingly similar – the jabs and punches, the occasional subtle tension, the sweet plucking – but much of the first half felt too methodical, predictable, or premeditated. It felt directed, perhaps too ordered, but yet that makes some sort of sense, since the whole concept is that the eponym of the piece tells a long series of stories (the 1001 Arabian Nights) to try to prevent the Sultan from murdering her. Perhaps Rimsky-Korsakov intended such a deterministic structure.

Consistent throughout the piece was a fugue of just the first violin and a harp. The rest of the large-scale orchestra would drop out and let just the two instruments spin their pretty little bit before the story would continue. The third part, "The Young Prince and Princess", felt appropriately very courtly and stately, in contrast with the charging knights and feudal heralds of the previous parts. This part was perhaps the tamest and least interesting, but this led into the final segment, a series of shorter tales that jumped around wantonly and rashly. Grand rushes and big percussion devolved into a more cacophonous jam, but the musicians remained united and descended slowly before running up and down, back upwards and further upwards and the feelings rose higher and higher to a harmony that felt impossibly good for its towering position.

And then the night was over. For a 45-minute piece, Scheherazade feels long, but not that long. In its own context, the work is adventuresome and complex, but that just can't compare to Concentric Paths, which reached another whole level of exploration and development. Neither of the Russian works offered much of a surprise, but the performances were beautiful. It was easy to become lost in the waves of melody and start dreaming of other places and scenes. In that sense, the performance can only be described as a success: this was probably the first classical concert that I've attended in which my mind was alight with such wondrous imagery. Just as David floated and danced with the music, my imagination transcended the seat and the city I was sitting in.

Score: A-

Thanks to Eddie, Dale, and Shannon.

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