Last Saturday, November 12, former music director Leonard Slatkin conducted the St. Louis Symphony in a highly entertaining program of works by American composers. Ironically, given the outcome of our recent election, the evening was a celebration of our nation's diversity, with music informed by African-American and Jewish-American culture, as well as two major works by gay composers: Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto and Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid ballet suite.
Commissioned in 1959 by the piano manufacturer G. Schirmer as a vehicle for John Browning, the Barber concerto is heavily influenced by the big, muscular sound for which the late American pianist was famous. Resplendent in a shimmering turquoise gown, soloist Elizabeth Joy Roe -- a late substitute for the scheduled Olga Kern -- proved to be more than equal to the work's technical challenges, tearing the place up with a display of steely power that belied her diminutive appearance. You could hear that most obviously in her pristine rendering of the fire hose of notes that Barber pours out in the first movement cadenzas, as well as in the rapid-fire virtuoso flourishes of the last movement.
In a review for Classical Source, Colin Anderson called Ms. Roe's recording of the Barber concerto last year with the London Symphony "full of power and crusade and with no shortage of subtlety." I couldn't agree more. Her encore, a Rachmaninoff-esque arrangement of Gershwin's "The Man I Love," was an ideal choice, melding virtuosity to lyricism. This was a very promising local debut for the young Chicago-born pianist. I hope to see more of her here in the future.
Mr. Slatkin and the orchestra haven't played the concerto since 1992, when Mr. Browning was the soloist, but they sounded entirely comfortable with it Saturday night.
The second half of the concert opened with the suite from the 1938 ballet Billy the Kid by our second gay composer, Aaron Copland. Composed to a scenario by Lincoln Kirsten for Ballet Caravan, Billy the Kid was the first of Copland's two "cowboy" ballets (the other one is the popular Rodeo) and the first major work to display the popular "open" sound that would come to characterize his most often-played pieces.
Mr. Slatkin and the SLSO recorded the entire ballet for EMI back in 1985, and it was interesting to compare the two performances. His tempi are more brisk than they were back then, but otherwise the grandeur, drama, and the flashes of droll humor in the score came through with the same clarity. The orchestra sounded great in the many solo and small ensemble moments Copland sprinkles throughout the work, and the percussion section deserves a shout-out for the "Gun Battle" sequence.
The concerts closed with Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture for Orchestra by the noted composer and arranger Robert Russell Bennett. It's a work featuring African-American musical ideas translated for the stage by a Jewish-American composer and then arranged by a native Missourian who would go on to work with some of the biggest names in Broadway and Hollywood -- a quintessential example our nation's rich, multicultural heritage.
Bennett includes pretty much all of the "greatest hits" from Gershwin's original score, although the fact that they're out of sequence can feel a bit disconcerting if you know the opera well. Still, he intelligently expands on Gershwin's orchestrations while still respecting the composer's intent, and Mr. Slatkin conducted the musicians in a smartly turned out performance that did full justice to all of Gershwin's and Bennett's colors.
There was excellent work here by Cally Banham on English horn and Karin Bliznik on offstage trumpet in the opening sequence, and by the four additional sax players in the grand seduction of "There's A Boat that's Leavin' Soon for New York." "It Ain't Necessarily So" had real sinuous ease, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" had true heart and soul, and the finale ("Lord, I'm on My Way") had the same mix of triumph and tragedy as the operatic original. I still love Gershwin's own Catfish Row suite, but Mr. Slatkin and the SLSO musicians made a fine case for the Bennett suite as well.
Mr. Slatkin followed the Gershwin up with an unexpected encore: an American folk music pastiche by his father, Felix Slatkin, titled "Devil's Dream." The original is from the 1962 LP Hoedown! The Fantastic Fiddles of Felix Slatkin that I still remember with fondness (it includes a truly memorable "Orange Blossom Special"). All of the original arrangements have been lost, but Leonard Slatkin's wife, composer Cindy McTee, has been painstakingly reconstructing them from the master recordings. If "Devil's Dream" was any indication, she's doing one hell of a job.
Speaking of Felix Slatkin, the concerts open with Kinah (Hebrew for "elegy") written by Leonard Slatkin and first performed by him last December with the Detroit Symphony, where he is currently Music Director. It's a memorial to his late father, who died at the tragically young age of 47 the day before he and his wife, the cellist Eleanor Aller, were scheduled to perform the Brahms Double Concerto in public for the first time.
Written in a style that is both obviously contemporary and deeply romantic, Kinah struck me, from the very first notes, with a sense of delicate beauty, longing, and loss. The work is based on a four-note motif drawn from the second movement of the Brahms concerto, but that actual passage isn't heard in its original form until the very end, after a vast wall of sound that could have come straight from the pen of Alan Hovhaness. In the ensuing hush, an offstage violin and cello try, but always fail, to complete the phrase, just as the elder Slatkin and Ms. Aller never completed their performance. It was profound and heartbreaking and beautifully done.
In an added personal touch, the offstage cellist was the man who played the part at the work's Detroit premiere, Mr. Slatkin's brother Frederick Zlotkin. The violinist was SLSO Associate Concertmaster Heidi Harris.
Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the orchestra and chorus with soloists Caitlin Lynch, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and Kevin Thompson, bass in Mozart's Requiem and John Adam's On the Transmigration of Souls, along with The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 18-20, at Powell Hall in Grand Center.