Childhood is not always as simple as it might seem; we all know that. Composers certainly know that, whether they idealize a child's evolvement, as did Robert Schumann, or whether they ruminate on a tragically somber unfolding, as did Canadian composer Claude Vivier (1948-1983), whose Lonely Child describes much of his own childhood spent in orphanages, foster homes and Catholic seminaries.
Susanna Phillips was soloist in the St. Louis Symphony concerts of April 2-3 in which Lonely Child was performed. Her voice adds sheen and brilliance to any performance. Vivier's score is indeed dark and foreboding, but he is also an imaginative composer, much more so than many of his colleagues of the latter 20th century. Rather than following the atonal avant-garde rhythms and intervals of that era that quickly grew stale and predictable, his choice of mood, dynamics, timbre and pitch was a bit more varied. Initially the orchestra seemed to overpower Phillips' voice, but balance improved greatly as the piece progressed.
Vivier's untimely death in 1983 as a homicide victim of a male prostitute brought a tragic end to a sad life. He died at 34. One wonders what he might have produced today. Like Franz Schubert, though, who died of natural causes at the age of 31, his output is larger than one might expect.
The concert opened with a much broader -- and, interestingly, dramatic -- look at childhood, the Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose) suite by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Originally conceived for piano four-hands, these pieces exude all the excitement that youngsters expect from fairy tales, only here clothed in a slightly more sophisticated tonal impressionist garb for adults as well. Indeed, these pieces are more reflective of actual fairy tales than of nursery rhymes. They are haunting and redolent of our childhood imaginations. The austerity of Ravel's orchestration and harmonies only adds to their effect.
Both the Lonely Child and Ma mère l'oye seemed a bit stiff and mechanical; perhaps this was a result of conductor David Robertson's desire to make sure every musical detail was attended to, which is certainly a laudable goal. Or perhaps the smaller number of players used in these works made their contours more evident. This somewhat hindered the smooth flow of the music. However, the opposite was true in the closing work on the program, the Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), a piece composed around an earlier song of Mahler's, "Das himmlische Leben," which offers a view of heavenly from a child's perspective. Robertson was at his best in this work, and so was the orchestra. The melodies soared with giant wings -- even in the softer moments. Each section of the orchestra (and each individual performer) seemed to sing with a commanding voice, yet each melded into a brilliant whole. Throughout, Robertson seemed relaxed yet solidly in place at the helm.
Susanna Phillips returned for the closing movement of the symphony, which depicts a child's vision of heaven. Her pure and crystalline tone seemed particularly well-suited for this work, although many different sopranos have given varied yet valid interpretations of Mahler's soulful and tuneful treatment of the text. Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to Phillips is that hers is a voice that shines on its own, yet enhances and is enhanced by the orchestra.
This program was a remarkable and thoughtful look at the vagaries of childhood. Once again, the St. Louis Symphony brilliantly demonstrates that its value to our community is both artistic and educational.
Of all the Beethoven repertoire, the Violin Concerto in D Major occupies a unique place. It was not designed for sheer virtuosity, although that is required, but exudes an elegant simplicity and refined melodic line that approach the sublime. Like the Ninth Symphony, its basic melodies can be hummed by children, yet they soar to lofty heights under Beethoven's careful development.
Concertmaster David Halen, long a favorite of St. Louis audiences, performed the Violin Concerto on the weekend concerts of the SLSO of March 18-20, led by guest conductor Jun Märkl, who has established a distinguished reputation as an interpreter of German music. Märkl opted for a smaller ensemble of musicians for both the concerto and the Overture to "Fidelio" that opened the program. A smaller orchestra means that all musicians must articulate very carefully, being more tonally exposed, but it also ensures a level of good balance between the orchestra and soloist. Although the resulting effect seemed a bit tightly held, both Halen and the orchestra turned in a clean and well-sculpted performance. Halen's stage presence was particularly well-suited for this concerto, since he seemed intent on remaining part of a team, striving not to be the center of attention, but rather the voice of Beethoven.
Both Beethoven works were solidly performed, with careful attention to detail. Halen clearly knew the concerto well and understood the phrasing. However, both seemed to lack a spirit of spontaneity. Beethoven is known for his ebullience and ingenuousness. Those qualities were certainly not lost, but were not as fully expressed as one might have hoped.
Interestingly, however, the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major by Robert Schumann, known as the "Rhenish," sparkled with spontaneity. A listener could easily imagine sailing up the Rhine River near Dusseldorf amidst splashing waves and bright sunlight. Schumann had characterized the river as a "majestic father" and "a German god," and its iconic status is undeniable. Hearing Schumann's bold and youthful portrayal of the Rhine, it is sobering and difficult to realize that in 1854 Schumann, in the throes of mental illness, would attempt to end his life by plunging into the river's icy winters during winter. But in 1850, when he first conceived of the symphony, the Rhine was Schumann's friend and muse.
Jun Märkl and the orchestra delivered a shining and rhythmically vivacious outpouring of Schumann's music. Listeners seemed to be captivated, and the symphony's half-hour or so of length seemed to fly by. Märkl conducted from memory, and it was evident that he knew every inch of this work. Perhaps the balance between the magnificent brass sections and the strings and woodwinds was not as carefully weighed as in the Beethoven works, but that didn't seem to matter; this symphony pealed across the hall like bells ringing from cathedrals along the Rhine.
The works presented on this program spanned scarcely 45 years of music history, all emanating from the Germanic tradition, and yet they demonstrated just how rich and original that tradition is.