Sunday, January 13, 2008

Winter Pass

Tonight I made my first use of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra "Winter Pass" that I purchased last week. It's a slick little card that enables me to attend all the SLSO concerts I care to, through the first weekend of March. I got it for $99, which even with my chorus member's discount is a considerable savings - or at least, an incentive to go to the symphony every weekend!

This weekend, popular guest conductor Nic McGegan presented two of J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (Nos. 2 and 5), the Concerto Grosso No. 3 by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, and the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos.

The first piece on the program was Brandenburg 2, with a string orchestra of about 24 players, harpsichordist Maryse Carlin, the high "trumpet in F" played by L.A.-based David Washburn, and symphony members David Halen, Mark Sparks, and Philip Ross playing solo violin, flute, and trumpet respectively. The four soloists commanded the piece with a complex, interwoven texture and brilliant color combinations. In spite of the spectacular sound of the F trumpet, the true heart of the piece was the slow movement, in which the flute, oboe, and violin soloists paired up in every possible combination in a series of yearning phrases, against a spare accompaniment of harpsichord and solo cello.

The Schnittke piece closed the first half of the program, with Kristin Ahlstrom and Emily Ho of the symphony playing solo violins in a combative concerto that at times resembled a musical catfight. It began with a wry joke, a somewhat Bach-like concerto collapsing like a machine run down; this was followed by a movement full of demonic energy, then a long slow movement full of contrasting moods and ending with the violin soloists scraping away so softly that all you could hear was a faint wind blowing. For this piece the strings were augmented by a percussionist (playing tubular bells, sometimes just a single note per movement, sometimes the famous "B-A-C-H" note-pattern), and Carlin again playing harpsichord as well as piano and celesta.

After the intermission, the concert continued with eight cellos on stage - and no one else except McGegan. Somehow this combination of instruments provided enough tone color to sustain a three-movement piece by Villa-Lobos, haunted by tango rhythms and the memories of Bach and the Romantic composers. It's an attractive piece and, I was surprised to hear, probably the first time Villa-Lobos has been played in Powell Hall.

The Brandenburg 5 brought down the curtain with an even smaller string orchestra than before, but a more prominent part for harpsichordist Carlin. Sparks and Halen soloed again, and this time the middle movement was simply a trio between the three featured players. But what really stopped the show was Carlin's brilliant playing in what is evidently the first concerto showcasing the clavier.

In spite of all this, I have to confess that the true star of the evening was the Winter Pass, which entitled me to the best available seat at the time I arrived at the box office. Tonight I saw and heard everything from "Row A" of the gallery, right behind the dress circle boxes, front and center. It was a terrific spot, with a good angle for seeing everything on stage without being too far away to make out the details. Plus, my neighbors made interesting conversation during the break.

Next week Nic comes back with another couple of Brandenburg Concertos, plus two more modern concertos inspired by Bach.

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