The weekend before Thanksgiving was a musical weekend for me. Friday night, I accepted a last-minute invitation from some friends to attend the St. Louis Philharmonic; while, for Saturday night, I had a subscription ticket to the St. Louis Symphony!
On Friday's Philharmonic program were the tequila-soused debauchery of Aaron Copland's El Salon Mexico, the romantic charm and rhythmic musical palindromes of Zoltan Kodaly's Hary Janos Suite, the brooding melodrama of Giuseppe Verdi's overture to La Forza del Destino, and the scintillating LOUDNESS of Ottorino Respighi's Feste Romane. All these were conducted by the Philharmonic's longtime music director, Robert Hart Baker.
The Philharmonic, a semi-amateur campus/community band, only performs four programs a year. This is only my second time going to it. Having looked at their program for the season, I'm sad to have missed them doing Haydn's "Miracle" Symphony in October—I'm partial to anything Haydn wrote in D major. (Yeah, OK. I'm weird.) I should try to plan to go to their concerts later this season. In March they are doing Beethoven's 9th and Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer. In May they have a piece by Walton, Hindemith's Metamorphoses, and Shostakovich's 6th. I love all of these pieces (except the Walton, which I haven't heard; though after getting to know his symphonies, I am excited to learn more of his works).
As for this particular concert, I liked the pieces. The performances had some effective touches, and it's obvious that the Philharmonic is a well-liked community group that loves to play. Nevertheless I would be a dishonest reviewer if I didn't note that at times the players' lack of precision and unity created an occasional "blurring" effect around the edges of the musical lines. Since my ticket was a gift I have nothing to complain about. So please don't take it as bitchiness when I add that I what made me most happy about the Philharmonic concert was the sense that the Symphony was really going to sound awesome the following night. The latter, strictly professional group has the advantage of being under the hot lights every weekend—among other things. Nevertheless, my final impression of Friday's concert was to be struck by the genius of its programming. It really came full circle as both the beginning and the end depicted drunken revelry in a Latin culture.
Tonight at the Symphony, Maestro David Robertson revealed the baroque beauty of Henry Purcell (Chacony in G minor), the virtuosity of a local young artist playing a Luciano Berio violin showpiece (Corale), and the all-around awesomeness of Anton Bruckner's 7th Symphony. I have never heard a Bruckner symphony performed live before. It was easy to get swept up in the passion, yet the performance was amazingly detailed, bringing out lines and facets that can so easily be obscured by the massive blocks of brass and the sheer, overwhelming proportions of the piece.
I have also never knowingly been in the presence of Wagner tubas before, but Movement II of the Bruckner most effectively ended with the sound of four of them, combined with four French horns and otherwise accompanied only by the sketchiest of strings, in a musical postscript inspired by news of the death of Richard Wagner. Wow.
A Bruckner orchestra both looks and sounds different from any other, with the brass "in stereo"—horns and Wagner tubas at stage right; trombones, tubas, and trumpets stage left, and the woodwinds in a block between them—and the 1st and 2nd violins at opposite ends of the stage, violins and cellos clutched between them, and the basses in a long row against the upstage wall.
I could almost have been mesmerized just watching the orchestra perform in this configuration, even without the tremendous piles of harmony and far-flung themes that Bruckner gave them. Every moment was my favorite. The SLSO really DID sound great, and not just in contrast to last night's Philharmonic... though I was impressed enough by their performance of the "cock-a-doodle" Scherzo to note that, in spite of the persistent dotted rhythms that must grow exponentially harder to keep together as the movement goes on and on, I sensed absolutely no blurring or fuzziness around the edges of the sound. The orchestra's precision was superhuman!
To explain why the orchestra's configuration impressed me... usually, in the States at least, the strings are fanned out from stage right to stage left in order from 1st Violins to 2nd Violins to Violas to Cellos, with the basses bunched up at far stage left, the woodwinds stretched out in one or two rows just upstage of the strings & the brass against the upstage wall, with timpani & percussion fitted into whatever space is left. Any deviation from that must be done with some serious acoustic considerations in mind.
Another noteable feature of the Bruckner orchestra is the sheer weight of brass in proportion to other sections. 4 Wagner tubas & 5 French horns, 4 trombones, 1 bass tuba & 3 trumpets are HUGE when, pinched between them, the woodwind choir consists of 1 pair each of oboes, bassoons, flutes, and clarinets. Another acoustic distinctive is the fact that there were fully eight (8) string basses up there, an enormous congregation of that instrument given that the other string sections were in proportion to an average-sized romantic orchestra.
Also, I didn't mention the timpani, which are important in Bruckner's 7th because of the numerous "general pauses" in which the only thing happening is a quiet throb on a kettledrum. Three of these drums were wedged into the corner at stage left between the trumpets and the 2nd violins.
This big orchestra contrasts greatly with what was on stage at the top of the program, when Robertson plus a five-part string orchestra made up exactly 30 bodies on stage, for Purcell's Chacony. The Berio piece added a few additional string players, plus three French horns who—in another acoustic novelty—were divided onto opposite sides of the stage, two at stage left and one at stage right.