Music makes history come alive. The November 6 performance of the Metropolitan Orchestra of Saint Louis presented three works by composers who all shared common Germanic roots but who collectively portrayed a panorama of the evolution of thought and culture. Once again we see the value of music and the arts as both a reflection and sculptor of humanity.

Throughout his career, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) worked in the service of the nobility and the church. His station did not prevent him from achieving international fame, but his style of composition was influenced by the formal elegance and austerity of the Classical period. Deeply creative, he nevertheless adhered to the rules of systematic composition laid down by the European traditions of harmony and form. His Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat Major for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon was written during his triumphant tour of London in the 1790s. The work is a well-crafted showcase for the contrasting capacities of each instrument. Hearing two woodwind instruments juxtaposed against two string instruments demonstrates the beauty of each family of instruments.  

MOSL players Ann Homann, oboe; Donita Bauer, bassoon; Cathie Lehr Ramos, cello; and Marilyn Park Ellington, violin, joined forces as a quartet of soloists. Together, they formed a tight, solid group of able performers. They seemed united in their conceptual approach to phrasing and dynamics, and all displayed well-honed technical command. Once again, the orchestra, led by Music Director Wendy Lea, provided a firm backup without overpowering the quartet.

The Sinfonia Concertante was composed during the period of the French Revolution, whose course and aftermath changed the course of European history forever. Scarcely twenty years later, Ludwig van Beethoven penned his Symphony No. 8 in F Major in 1812. Yet this ebullient work marks an amazing departure from the style of Haydn. The Eighth Symphony shows Beethoven at his jolliest and most uninhibited best; the melodies seem to fly about the hall as they are chased by the instruments of the orchestra. The brass and percussion add constant emphasis and punctuation to the melodic lines. Unlike Haydn, it becomes clear that Beethoven is throwing off the old and declaring his independence. Whereas Haydn employs a formal and stylized elegance, Beethoven builds on the traditional framework of harmony and form to express his own uniqueness. The juxtaposition of these two works is an almost startling illustration of how quickly the tides of history can alter a people and their tastes.  

By 1870 the Classical period in music had long given way to the Romantic era, ignited by the fire of Beethoven and characterized by increasing individualism and a willingness to explore new styles. It was then that Richard Wagner composed his Siegfried Idyll, the opening work on this program, for his lover Cosima von Bulow. In marked contrast to the Haydn and Beethoven pieces, it is a meandering work of tremendous inner contemplation, dreamlike in character. The listener feels like a wanderer in a mythic forest created from Wagner's own poetic and fertile imagination. Some have argued that the work is repetitive and perhaps too long, but the melodies are hauntingly beautiful, filled with the sounds of bird calls, wind and running water. Listening to the three works on this program, one can hear a succession from the more impersonal style of the 1700s to the deeply personal style of the 1800s and beyond. Each composition is beautiful and unique in its own way, yet each depicts a different time, viewpoint and way of life.

Conductor Wendy Lea continues her fine work as Music Director of the Metropolitan Orchestra. Over time, listeners have come to see the various sections of the orchestra develop a refined sheen under her guidance and that of Conductor Laureate Allen Carl Larson. The woodwind section stood out in particular with its crystal clear intonation and bright flowing tone. The brass and percussion sections of the orchestra play with a youthful exuberance that occasionally overpowers the other sections, but yet in so doing enriches the excitement and stimulation of the live performance. As the largest section, and the very essence of what defines an orchestra, the strings face a special challenge. Although there were a few intonation problems at the beginning of the program, the MOSL strings have likewise shown an increasing confidence and unity in their performance. Without doubt, audiences will continue to support and clamor for this fine ensemble.

 

 

In a laudatory review of Han-Na Chang's Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64, with the Oslo Philharmonic earlier this year, critic Lars O. Fyldal called her "one of this generation's most exciting conductors." Having heard her interpretation of the Fifth with the St. Louis Symphony this past Friday, November 5, I'm inclined to agree.

Like the symphonies that bracket it, the Fifth deals with the composer's obsession with fate and his attempt to find happiness despite his depression and the stress of being gay in Czarist Russia. It's less structurally coherent than the sixth or (especially) the fourth symphonies, but its triumphant final pages have a power that can't be denied. Under Ms. Chang's baton, this familiar music came to vibrant and electrifying life.

Ms. Chang, who made her SLSO debut this weekend, seems to be particularly fond of the Fifth, having often performed it in the past. She conducted without a score and had clearly internalized the music so thoroughly that she was able to bring out nuances that I hadn't heard before, starting with the opening andante statement of the "fate" motif on the clarinets, played with great sensitivity by Scott Andrews and Tina Ward. Ms. Chang had held the opening downbeat for a moment or two in order for the audience to settle in and become almost completely silent, so the melody began in a slow, reverential hush. When the allegro con anima of the movement kicked in, the marked contrast generated real excitement.

In fact, "real excitement" effectively describes the entire performance. Ms. Chang knows how to build Tchaikovsky's big climaxes effectively, making them feel more inevitable and less episodic than they sometimes do. She also allowed some of the more lyrical moments to really "breathe" -- the second subject of the first movement was a good example -- which heightened the sense of drama overall.

Her second movement, with the famous horn solo gracefully rendered by Thomas Jöstlein, was expertly paced. The third movement waltz was beautifully fluid. And the allegro vivace of the final movement dashed along with exhilarating speed. Tchaikovsky concludes the movement by playing "can you top this" with himself multiple times, but Ms. Chang made each big moment feel both necessary and inexorable. The standing ovation that followed the final chords was immediate and entirely justified.

If you missed her Tchaikovsky Fifth this weekend, by the way, you can catch her complete 2014 performance with the Qatar Philharmonic at the 2014 Proms on YouTube.

The other big piece on the program this past weekend was Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19. The soloist was another newcomer to the Powell Hall stage, the young Czech violinist Jan Mráček. Like Ms. Chang, he also made a very strong impression, with an intelligent and fiercely committed performance of this technically and artistically challenging music.

You could hear that commitment immediately in the gentle, singing tone he brought to the opening of the first movement. Marked sognando (literally "dreaming") it has the soloist playing softly over tremolo strings, and both Mr. Mráček and Ms. Chang gave it a properly haunting feel. The vivacissimo second movement was both fierce and controlled, and the tricky ascending trills at the very end of the piece came off flawlessly. Mr. Mráček threw himself into this music with complete abandon, with very satisfying results.

The concerts opened with brisk and energizing romp through the overture to Mikhail Glinka'a 1842 fairy tale opera Ruslan and Lyudmila. The opera itself hasn't gotten much traction outside of Russia but the overture is one of those pieces that used to crop up often as "filler" on classical LPs -- a function it still serves on classical radio stations today. Its alluring melodies and neat little solo tympani part are irresistible.

Ms. Chang's tempo was snappy and the orchestra's playing was clear and precise all the way through, with Shannon Wood doing the honors on the tympani. Here, as in the rest of the program, Ms. Chang's podium style was fascinating to watch, combining big gestures with precisely executed individual cues and a very neat and eloquent use of the baton.

It's always fascinating to see new performers on the Powell Hall stage and watch how the audience responds to them. If the warm response at Friday night's concert is any indication, we have not seen the last of Ms. Chang here. I certainly look forward to her return.

Next at Powell Hall: Leonard Slatkin conducts the orchestra with piano soloist Olga Kern in Barber's Piano Concerto, Copland's Billy the Kid Suite, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: Symphonic Picture for Orchestra, and Slatkin's own composition Kinah. Performances are Friday at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 11-13.

 

The St. Louis Symphony gave us an appropriately autumnal concert this weekend, October 21 - 23, 2016, featuring Rachmaninoff's nocturnal Symphonic Dances in a finely nuanced interpretation by guest conductor Christian Măcelaru and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with Orli Shaham is that delivered both power and poetry at the keyboard.

Friday night's concert opened with a spectacular performance of Sergey Lyapunov's HD Technicolor orchestration of Balakirev's 1869 Islamey: An Oriental Fantasy. Originally written for solo piano and regarded as one of the most technically difficult works for that instrument, Islamey is essentially a series of restatements of two tunes: a dance the composer heard while traveling in the Caucasian mountains and a lyrical Armenian folk song.

In the piano original, the musical interest is largely generated by the increasingly elaborate ornamentation of these melodies and the sheer thrill of watching a pianist navigate Balakirev's musical thicket--something the composer himself couldn't do, despite being a formidable pianist. In the orchestration, it comes from hearing the melodies tossed among the instruments in a kind of musical tennis match. That requires an exacting attention to detail from both the conductor and the musicians.

We definitely got that Friday night, with virtuoso playing all the way around. Mr. Măcelaru took the lively outer sections of the piece at an almost alarmingly brisk tempo, which contrasted nicely with the intense romanticism of the middle. He found poetic nuances in this showpiece that made it more than just flashy.

The Beethoven Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 that followed also had its share of poetry. This was especially true in the unusual second movement in which dramatic pronouncements by the orchestra are met with more subdued and expressive material by the soloist. Ms. Shaham's playing was intensely poignant here, which made the quick transition to the jolly, Haydnesque Rondo finale that much more effective.

Decked out in an elegant and shimmering blue gown Ms. Shaham cut a very striking figure at the keyboard. As usual, she was strongly focused on the music, completely "in the moment" as we say in the theatre biz. This was true even when she wasn't playing but just listening to the orchestra or watching Mr. Măcelaru. Reacting to your performing partners is as important in music as it is in theatre, and Ms. Shaham excels at this.

Her keyboard technique was impeccable as it always has been in my experience, as was her sensitivity to the changing moods of the most remarkable of all the Beethoven concerti. She brought out all the lyricism in the score and added some of her own. It was a masterful performance that received a standing ovation. She followed it up with an encore by the composer whose music would take up the last half of the program, Serge Rachmaninoff: a pristine reading of his haunting Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 21 No. 12.

"Haunting" is also a word that describes much of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. Written in 1940 and first performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941, this would prove to be the last completed orchestral work by the composer, and there's a sense throughout the piece of a life approaching its conclusion.

I have always been struck by the "late night" feel of this music--and not just because of the chimes in the last movement. Indeed, Rachmaninoff originally titled the three sections "Noon," "Twilight," and "Midnight." The composer later dropped the titles, but they still effectively describe the emotional progression of this music from light to a darkness which is not entirely dispelled by the vigorous final pages of the last dance.

The Symphonic Dances is filled with evidence of Rachmaninoff's genius as an orchestrator. The elaborate and complex string writing, inventive use of brasses and winds, and an effective but never overwhelming use of the large percussion battery all demand a great deal from the musicians, and the members of the SLSO definitely rose to the challenge.

To pick just a few examples: the long pastoral interlude for woodwinds in the first dance, with its poignant alto sax solo by Nathan Nabb, was especially effective. The brass section had real bite in the second movement's spectral waltz. And Roger Kaza's horns were impeccable throughout. There was fine work as well from harpist Allegra Lilly and from all the members of the percussion section.

On the podium, Mr. Măcelaru demonstrated that same combination of drama, subtlety, and control that made his debut with orchestra back in 2014 so impressive. He got a lot of sound out of the band, but it was never overwhelming or distorted, just beautifully balanced.

Next at Powell Hall: Jun Märkl conducts the orchestra with piano soloist Jeremy Denk in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, Liszt's symphonic poem Prometheus, and an orchestral transcription of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor. Performances are Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., October 28 and 29 at Powell Hall in Grand Center.


 

As the St. Louis Symphony concerts this past weekend demonstrated, the familiar can still feel fresh and new, especially in the hands of inventive and skilled performers like conductor Jun Märkl and pianist Jeremy Denk.

The concerts of October 28 and 29 opened with a work which, while probably familiar to many classical music lovers, was nevertheless new to the Powell Hall stage: Liszt's symphonic poem Prometheus. Originally written as the overture for Johann Gottfried Herder's play Prometheus Unbound in 1850 and then reworked five years later as a concise orchestral essay, the piece was inspired by the Greek myth of the god who gave humanity the secret of fire and was horribly punished for it.

For Liszt, it was a story of suffering and glorious redemption -- a theme that runs thorough many of Liszt's baker's dozen of symphonic poems (most famously in Les Preludes from 1854). In Prometheus the struggle plays out in an elaborate fugue, culminating in a short but triumphant coda. It's all a bit episodic, but Mr. Märkl gave it a sense of discipline that was very persuasive. The orchestra responded beautifully. The brass section sounded especially polished when we attended on Saturday night.

Next up was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, the tenth of a set of twelve remarkable concerti the composer premiered in Vienna between 1784 and 1786. It's a work filled with many surprising touches, including a first movement cadenza that anticipates the harmonic developments of the Romantic era and an elegiac adagio second movement that hints at tragic depths without actually plumbing them.

In a 2013 interview for San Francisco Classical Voice, soloist Jeremy Denk observed that "a very important part of playing a Mozart concerto is the wonder of each moment." His impressively nuanced and sensitive performance certainly made the most of the work's many innovative moments while never losing sight of the concerto's structure overall. And like last week's soloist, Orli Shaham, Mr. Denk was always fully engaged with both the both the music and with Mr. Märkl's equally thoughtful interpretation.

His encore, the andante second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16, showed that same intense concentration. It's not a technically challenging piece -- Mozart himself described the sonata as being "for beginners" -- but Mr. Denk found real depth in it nevertheless.

The concert concluded with Arnold Schoenberg's remarkable 1937 orchestration of Brahms's 1961 Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor. Dark, dramatic and arresting in its original form, this music becomes in Schoenberg's radical re-imagining a stunning symphonic essay that sounds both old and new simultaneously.

Schoenberg uses a large orchestra with instruments that Brahms would never have employed, such as the bass clarinet and a sizeable percussion battery including a xylophone, resulting in a somewhat schizophrenic feel at times. The string quartet peeks out of this great mass of sound occasionally -- mostly notably in the final movement subtitled "Rondo alla zingarese" or "Gypsy Rondo," which also included a nice solo by concertmaster David Halen -- but for the most part this is music of Wagnerian intensity. Conducting without a score, Mr. Märkl brought out all of this work's wild variety, including the drama of the first movement, the agitation of the second, and the good-humored excess of the finale.

In an interview in the program book, SLSO bassist Sarah Hogan Kaiser says that Mr. Märkl is a favorite conductor with the musicians because "he has a way of expressing his love of music through his conducting in a very sincere and humble way. Everything he does makes the music better, it's not about anything except the music." I certainly heard that dedication to score Saturday night and the symphony musicians responded with virtuoso performances all the way around.

Next at Powell Hall: Han-Na Chang conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Jan Mráček in Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., November 4 and 5.

 

Although Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B Minor, dating from 1895, stands as one of the Romantic warhorses, it defies narrow definition into time, place or style. It is a work that bespeaks the natural world, with reverberant bird calls, forest whispers and tranquil reveries; yet the work also portrays the solo instrument as a dramatic and inspiring heroic figure poised on the stage of one's own imagination. Last weekend, two outstanding musicians, cellist Alban Gerhardt and conductor Hannu Lintu, joined forces with the St. Louis Symphony in one of the finest performances of this masterpiece in recent memory.  

It is always remarkable when a guest conductor is able to bring out the very best from an orchestra he only occasionally works with, but Lintu played the SLSO as one magnificent instrument. Rarely has a conductor seemed so much at ease with such a large ensemble. His careful attentiveness to the soloist enabled Gerhardt to perform with an impassioned pathos at times, an almost playful sense here and there, both tinged with a certain rubato that allowed the concerto to seemingly break free of the constraints of rhythm and meter.

For his part, Alban Gerhardt is a consummate musician who plays without ego or excessive flash, allowing the music to sing through his hands. He elicits a resonant and refined tone from his Matteo Gofriller cello constructed in 1710 but at the same time imparts a baritone richness that somehow seems almost bigger than the instrument. His octave passages were impeccable, as was his eloquent phrasing of Dvorak's outpouring of melody. Notably, he was able to always project above the orchestra just the right amount to be heard without eclipsing the warmth of their accompaniment.

Following the intermission, Lintu turned to a vastly different work, the  score to Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, about a marionette clown, magically brought to life along with a marionette ballerina and Moor. Petrushka, the clown, falls in love with the ballerina, but his love is ill-fated as she finds herself drawn to the more dashing Moor. Stravinsky's style is brash and poundingly rhythmic; still, both his music and the Dvorak concerto bear a certain similarity in that they are both works of the heart. Both embody an emotional earnestness that makes each of these works tug at the listener. Dvorak captures the majesty of nature, whereas Stravinsky captures the fervency of human feeling.  

It is always difficult to single out individual musicians within the SLSO, since all are performers of the highest rank. However, it is necessary to highlight the lyrical and technical expressiveness of principal flutist Mark Sparks in both the Dvorak and Stravinsky works. Additionally, pianist Peter Henderson also demonstrated rhythmic and technical mastery in the solo passages in Petrushka.

The program opened with Chain 3 by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. The piece derives its name from the fact that it is third in a series of pieces based on overlapping "chains" of musical thoughts. Unlike the Dvorak and Stravinsky works, Lutosławski's music is driven more by intellect than the heart. Although the various links of the chain he constructs are varied in terms of timbre, dynamics and rhythm, they share in common the atonality (avoidance of keys or tonal centers) that characterized much of the music of the late 20th century.

 

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