Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Big Night Music

The words popped out of my mouth last (Wednesday) night when I opened it to gasp at the end of Movement 2, "On the Beach at Night Alone," of Ralph Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony. I said, "That's a big night music," a whimsical title which someone seated behind me promptly translated into German. Where was I? On stage at St. Louis's Powell Symphony Hall, participating in the first chorus-and-orchestra rehearsal of this underrated masterpiece under the baton of Robert Spano.

We had another rehearsal on Thursday, then performed the piece on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before large, enthusiastic audiences. The first half of the program was Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, with special guest Horacio Gutiérrez playing the solo. I heard him all three nights, and was enchanted by his flawless playing. Gutiérrez brought not only superhuman accuracy to the difficult piano part, but also tremendous power, delicate lyricism, and every other expressive nuance. Any member of the Symphony Chorus can testify to Gutiérrez's meticulous preparation, as (from our pre-concert hideout backstage) we could hear part of his daily, two-hour regimen of warmups and slow, detailed rehearsal of his part. It paid off.

In Amy Kaiser's pre-concert lecture, she mentioned asking Gutiérrez how often he had played the Rach 2. He surprised her, and everyone Amy told about it. Gutiérrez said he doesn't play Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto nearly as often as the Third and Fourth, which are highly virtuosic, pyrotechnic displays that the soloist can pretty much carry by himself, regardless of the orchestra. As to the Second, he only plays it with groups he can trust to handle their side of the piano-orchestra dialogue. With Robert Spano at the wheel, the St. Louis Symphony amply repaid Gutiérrez's trust. The orchestra's melodies were gorgeous, well-balanced with the piano, and fully controlled. Gutiérrez reportedly told Amy that he would like to ask Rachmaninoff, "Do you like the way I play your music?" I, for one, like it; I like the way the orchestra led by Spano plays with him; and I like the fact that a piece that I have always thought of as vague and muddy sounded perfectly clear and yet emotionally convincing.

The Vaughan Williams came off well, for the most part. It's a staggeringly beautiful piece, plundering the works of American poet Walt Whitman to create a quintessentially British, four-movement symphony wherein the chorus performs almost continuously, like an extension of the orchestra. I won't spoil it for you, except to say that it has some very challenging choral parts in it, some gorgeous solos for baritone and soprano, and a huge orchestra that RVW uses less for the colossal power of its tutti (though there is some of that) than to paint vivid, multi-hued pictures of the sea in motion, of the planets spinning in space, and of the passions of the creative soul.

It is a symphony that encompasses sea chanties, hymns, pictorial representations of steamships, glorious triumphs, funerary honors, flying flecks of foam, and vast distances. There are breath-catching moments of a capella whispering at words like "Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee," and viscerally thrilling moments like "A vast similitude spans them, and always has spanned, and shall forever span them and shall compactly hold and enclose them." And, of course, there's that "big night music" that I mentioned before, where the orchestra turns over the ideas that the baritone and chorus have sung, like the mind of a man struck speechless by the scale of the universe, lying open to a glittering procession of unspeakable thoughts.

We of St. Louis were blessed to team up with the conductor and soloits (Christine Goerke and Brett Polegato) whose 2003 recording of A Sea Symphony won the Grammy for best classical album. They sang with strength, beauty, and assurance, and Spano conducted with one of the clearest gestures I have ever seen -- yet, as one member of the chorus commented, "very emotively." And, by sheer luck, we also got to experience a program identical to the world premiere of A Sea Symphony in 1910, a hundred years ago, when Rachmaninoff himself opened the program as the soloist in his Second Concerto. At times like this it's kind of hard not to agree with Whitman when he declares that "a vast similitude interlocks all."

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