Last night at Powell Symphony Hall, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra opened its program with three pieces that create a timeless mood. First was Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, arguably the single piece that launched the modern period in fine-art music. Inspired by a poem by symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the Prelude uses exotic tone colors and lush, indefinite harmony to create a haze of sensual vagueness.
Next on the programme was Clocks and Clouds, a 1972-73 piece by Hungarian composer György Ligeti, whose early experiments in weird sound combinations were immortalized in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sounds in Clocks and Clouds were also quite weird, and the piece did little more than create an atmosphere even more vague and "timeless" (in the sense of "no sense of sequence at all") than the Debussy. The most intriguing thing about it was the use of twelve solo, female voices - members of the Symphony Chorus who, I know, have worked very hard to prepare for this performance. They sang neutral syllables in a dense, polyphonic texture, sometimes seeming to be part of the overall color-mix of the orchestra, and sometimes popping out of it like a chorus of ribbiting frogs. Can I use the word "weird" three times in one paragraph?
Closing out the top half of the program was Henri Dutilleux's piece Shadows of Time, a big-orchestra number with bizarrely titled "episodes," of which the central one is dedicated to Anne Frank and other children who have suffered oppression. The piece was evidently inspired by the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, which led Dutilleux to realize that some memories are always immediately present even after decades have passed. This probably explains the brief passage in which three children (members of the St. Louis Children's Choir) sang the French words "Porquois nous? Porquois l'etoiles?" ("Why us? Why the stars?"), referring to the gold stars the Nazis made Jews wear on their clothing.
Knowing this beforehand, thanks to David Robertson's informative pre-concert talk, I was perhaps predisposed to hear the menacing passages of this piece as a depiction of wartime memories of fear and brutality. As harsh as these passages were, and as unique as Dutilleux's mode of musical expression is, I found myself enjoying Shadows of Time, and realizing that it was beautiful. The preceding piece may have been nothing but sound effects, but (I thought) this was music.
And how did conductor and music director Robertson manage to get all this daring and risky music into the first half of one program? By wrapping it all up, after the intermission, with Mitsuko Uchida (!!!) playing the 4th Piano Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven. I have her Schubert CDs and they are marvelous. And now I have seen her in person - from a second-row seat in the dress circle boxes, no less - an angle that is as much like being right on stage as any seat in Powell can afford - and heard her powerful, brilliant, and above all sensitive playing at first-hand. Ye stars, what she can do with a phrase! Ye oceans, what she can do at pianissimo! And when she hauls off and slams the keyboard with all her strength, you can see her arms shaking as if she is determined to milk a vibrato out of that instrument!
The concerto itself is a remarkable piece. I read in the programme that Beethoven never played it again after its disastrous premiere, in which a hatchet-faced mob of unruly and unprepared musicians took a dump on it as well as his fifth and sixth symphonies (which also premiered at that concert). They could not have understood how much the piece meant to Beethoven, and how every idiosyncratic bit of it - from its counterintuitively lowkey opening, to the middle movement's dialogue in which the softspoken piano gradually calms the hysterical orchestra, to the exquisite jubilation of the finale - was a harbinger of things to come. At the beginning I overheard myself thinking: "Beethoven is making use of Mozart here." By the end it was: "Brahms used this."
And when the audience stood as one body and clapped Mitsuko Uchida on and off the stage three or four times, she blessed us with a beautiful encore which I must guiltily admit I couldn't identify, though it sounded familiar and (here I risk making a fool of myself) Beethovenish. Believe it or not, you don't get encores every week - in three years going to the SLSO I think this was only the second or third encore that I have heard - but the audience wanted it, and got it, Hallelujah. And so with great relish I add Mitsuko Uchida to my growing list of art-music idols I have heard in concert. I hope you get to hear her sometime.