Sunday, September 23, 2007

Opening Night at Powell

Last night I had a free ticket to hear the Symphony Orchestra its opening weekend. They kicked off their 40th season at Powell Symphony Hall with a piece they played at the first symphony concert in Powell in 1968.

The concert began with a relatively new work by Christopher Rouse, titled Rapture. As conductor and music director David Robertson pointed out in his pre-concert "perspectives" talk, this piece is a long way from the "vinegar and ground grass" type of modern music Robertson has become famous for programming. In fact it didn't sound particularly dissonant or strange or ungrateful to the orchestra. It was a joyful piece that built up steadily to an ecstatic finish.

The next number was Sibelius's Violin Concerto, with Novosibirsk-born Vadim Repin playing the solo part. It's a gorgeous, exciting piece and Repin nailed it. He acknowledged the audience's appreciation with an encore, a set of apparently improvised variations so whimsical that at several points in the piece, people laughed.

Finally, after the intermission came the number that closed the orchestra's first concert in Powell Hall: Stravinsky's Petrushka, a ballet about the sufferings of a puppet brought to life and given human feelings through the mischief of an old magician. The stage directions were projected above the stage on the new screen that the orchestra is so happy to introduce this year; clearly they are going to make a lot of imaginative use of it.

The key note of the whole concert was joy. There are a lot of reasons to be joyful at Powell Hall. Robertson himself - I had a good profile view from only a few rows away from the stage - seemed to be having trouble containing his own joy, though being the father of week-old twins might have something to do with that. It was an infectious joy that worked its way through the sound of the orchestra and into the hearts of the listeners. What happy people we are in St. Louis - and I use the word "happy" in the sense of "fortunate" - to have such an orchestra with such a creative leader. Their programming is more diverse, and the public face of the symphony is far more welcoming and committed to outreach and education, than (for example) the New York Philharmonic, which I heard a year and a half ago on their home turf. To be able to hear Robertson himself talk about the pieces he is about to conduct, in the hall itself, without buying a ticket in addition to the concert ticket, is priceless. And I believe his excitement about broadening the musical horizons of St. Louis is beginning to spread.

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