Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Sensational Symphony

Tonight, I went to Powell Symphony Hall on the first of my set of season tickets for this year. Regrettably, my subscription had not included Joshua Bell playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto the previous weekend. To make up for it, however, I got to experience what may have been the most sensational performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony I have ever heard.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, which lately has it that only a Russian-born conductor can do justice to a Russian masterpiece like this, the conductor that night was Frenchman Louis Langree, making his St. Louis Symphony debut. On my way out of the hall I caught the eye of the Symphony's VP in charge of programming as he leaned smoking against the wall and said, "Sensational." I hope he remembers to book this guy again next season.

The Fifth came across with clear lines, massive power, sweeping passion, and blazing energy. The only blemish on the performance came in the opening of the second movement, when the first note of the lyrical horn solo was flubbed. I have heard so many wonderful horn solos flubbed by so many different, high-level horn players that I can only conclude (having never attempted to play one) that there must be something about the initial attack of an exposed horn solo that makes it a matter of chance, or luck, whether it comes out right or not. To his credit, Maestro Langree went on unfazed and drove the orchestra to a performance of vast dramatic and emotional scope.

Earlier on the program was a Mozart violin concerto (No. 3) with Anne Akiko Myers, a young virtuosa(?) who has been concertizing since age 11. She brought with her two cadenzas composed specifically for her by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis--who, besides playing a mean trumpet, is also a Pulitzer-winning composer. Reasoning that Marsalis would know something about improvisation, I think Myers chose well. The cadenzas stood out, not in the sense of being inappropriate, but as explosions of beautiful and thoughtful virtuosity in the midst of the orchestra's climactic pause.

The evening opened with another piece involving Mozart and a modern composer: Moz-Art à la Haydn by the late, short-lived, 20th century Russian composer of German extraction, Alfred Schnittke (his grave marker pictured below). Schnittke styled his art "polystylism." Hence the fragmentary quotations of as many as 30 pieces by Mozart, as well as one or two themes by Haydn, in a 12-minute chamber piece for two solo violins and a double string ensemble. This use of recognizable themes from tonal, classical works, floating within a matrix of 20th-century musical thought, results in a piece that somewhat reminded me of a dream I might have during a Symphony Chorus performance week. Added to this was the stage business, partly borrowed from Haydn's "Farewell Symphony" and partly Schnittke's own whimsy. The piece began and ended with the stage in near-total darkness. At certain points when the music seemed to lose control, like a clockwork machine coming unsprung, the musicians ran around the stage for a bit before returning to their places. And the sound faded away at the end as most of the musicians walked offstage, leaving only two cellists and a double-bass player behind...

It was an interesting novelty. Even more interesting, I think, would be to hear the sensationally "polystylistic" cadenzas Schnittke wrote for Beethoven's Violin Concerto.... Maybe when they bring back Langree and Myers next year, they can plan for that!

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