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Monday, 27 February 2012 20:47

Concert review: Back to Brahms at Powell Hall, Friday through Sunday, February 24-26

Concert review: Back to Brahms at Powell Hall, Friday through Sunday, February 24-26
Written by Gary Liam Scott
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The recent performance by the St. Louis Symphony of Brahms' monumental "Symphony No. 4" marked not just a performance event, but proved once again that the SLSO is perhaps the most cogent and vital music educator in our community.

Guest conductor Jaap van Zweden directed a rather traditional program, yet layered with surprising freshness.

A few years ago when I was teaching music appreciation in a large public high school, we were presented with large glossy textbooks full of pictures and hands-on activities.  At a workshop to present the textbook, one of the authors, a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory, casually remarked that the text did not include Johannes Brahms, one of the great composers of history.  Such a glaring omission speaks volumes about the decline of American education, but that moment made me realize the centrality of symphony orchestras to music education.  Fortunately, Brahms is alive and well at Powell Hall.

Zweden, conductor-designate of the Hong Kong Symphony and current music director of the Dallas Symphony, infused every note on the program with a shimmering brilliance that brought each work to radiant life.  His tempos were quick and energetic, yet well phrased, so the musical narrative was never compromised.  He conducts athletically, yet without ostentation.

The SLSO and Zweden were joined by 30-year old soloist Martin Helmchen, making his St. Louis debut with the "Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major", K. 503, by Mozart.  Although the size of the orchestra was appropriately reduced for this work, the sound from both soloist and orchestra was rich and full.  Of course, Mozart could not have imagined his music performed on a modern Steinway, or with modern flutes and modern tuning, but yet our modern instruments are the lenses through which we view the music of the past. 

Helmchen’s technique is elegant and florid, eminently suited for the dance-like gracefulness we associate with Mozart, yet, thankfully, not overdone as some pianists are wont to do.  Although we generally enthrone Mozart as the apotheosis of the Classical period, this concerto is remarkably Romantic in nature, almost reminiscent of the art songs of the Romantic period that came later.  Although here and there the ebullience of the performance throughout the evening resulted in an occasional off-balance moment within the orchestra, the balance between the orchestra and soloist was excellent.

The program opened with a rarely heard work by Dutch composer Johan Wagenaar, the Overture to Cyrano de Bergerac.  Although the melodies were not always memorable, this is still a fun and exciting piece, worthy of our attention.  Although the work dates from 1905, it is firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition.  The harmonic experimentation of the 20th century still would lie ahead.  Again, the SLSO was functioning as an educator, introducing us to a composer not generally known to most of us. 

The Brahms "Symphony No. 4 in E minor", a testament to human genius and creativity, is a work of profound craftsmanship.  The closing chaconne—a set of variations woven around a short repeated chord progression—demonstrates the power of Brahms to transform mere clay into shining sculpture.  Every student—every human—should have the opportunity to know this work.  Fortunately, Zweden and the SLSO never failed to deliver the promise held within this masterpiece.

Although this concert featured works of traditional Western harmony and instrumentation, it still spanned music of three centuries, with a wide variety of forms, rhythm and melodies.  Although many conductors today are eager to embrace contemporary music, lest they be considered merely guardians of the past, a program such as this lays a foundation too often lacking in today’s education.  Young people, and all of us, deserve this.  Hopefully, we will then be better prepared to hear and evaluate newer styles.

Thankfully, Powell Hall was largely filled for this concert, reversing a disturbing trend this year.  Listeners are hungry for great music of any era, and Brahms—and Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and all the others—shaped the tonal language that cradled everything that came after. 

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