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Saturday, 19 May 2012 15:29

Concert review: A lively invitation to the dance with Sarina Zhang, Ward Stare, and the St. Louis Symphony Friday, May 18

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Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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It was a lively and entertaining evening at Powell Hall last night with a dance-infused program that included three of Dvořák’s popular “Slavonic Dances”, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Bernstein’s still-amazing “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story”, and an appropriately hallucinatory reading of Ravel’s death knell for the 19th century, “La Valse”.

There was also a performance of the Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila” with a highly charged coda.

Pity it was only one night because it drew a large and (as far as I could tell) somewhat younger than usual crowd, at least some of whom apparently weren’t symphony regulars. That’s a good thing; maybe they’ll come back for the 2013 season.

Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances”, while popular on classical radio stations and in the record and CD collections of music lovers, aren’t heard all that often in live performances, in my experience. For Friday’s concert Mr. Stare chose a nice trio of them: a lively Serbian kolo (Op. 72, No. 7), a graceful sousedská (Op. 46, No. 4), and a brilliant furiant with an elegiac trio (Op. 46, No. 8). Mr. Stare’s reading was particularly effective at bringing out the lyrical side of these colorful works and reminded me once again of how effectively Dvořák turned these original dance tunes into little symphonic fragments. They’re filled with lovely bits of orchestral detail as well—all brought out nicely by the orchestra players.

There’s not a lot that needs to be said about the colorful “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saëns’s 1876 opera “Samson et Dalila,” except to note that the composer was a dedicated world traveler who took inspiration from the places he visited. How much of his 1874 trip to Algiers wound up in the lush exoticism of the Act III orgy scene in the Temple of Dagon is hard to say, but it certainly packs a great dramatic punch, especially when the performance is as intense as this one was. From Phil Ross’s polished opening oboe solo to the fierce tympani and horn duel of the finale, this was a winner.

The Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue” was, I expect, the big draw for the evening and it didn’t disappoint. Although she’s only fifteen, pianist Sarina Zhang nevertheless had her own unique take on the piece instead of the cookie-cutter approach one might expect from a young prodigy still learning her craft. Her technique was solid—not surprising, given the awards she has already earned as both a pianist and cellist—but so was her grasp of the jazzy inflections that are not fully spelled out. The same was true of Mr. Stare and his players, particularly in the famous opening clarinet and “wah-wah” trumpet solos (Scott Andrews and Tom Drake, respectively).

If your only exposure to the dance music from Bernstein’s “West Side Story” is via the film or touring productions of the show, you might not be aware of just how brilliantly scored it is. Theatrical pit bands rarely have enough players to do it justice, which may be why the composer created the “Symphonic Dances” in 1961. It’s a remarkable piece, filled with tricky polyrhythms, dissonance, flashy orchestration (including an expanded percussion battery), and a raft of other touches that remind us of how effectively Bernstein bridged the worlds of concert hall and Broadway theatre.

This is not easy stuff to perform and, in fact, the performance seemed a bit scrappy in places but overall it was really very solid.

The evening concluded with Ravel’s “La Valse”, a work that began in 1911 as (to quote the composer) “a piece in the style of the earlier Strauss, not Richard” entitled simply “Wein (Vienna)”. Before it could be completed, however, World War I (in which the composer served as a driver) intervened, and by the time “La Valse” was completed 1919, it had become “an impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny leading to death”. I can’t hear it without envisioning a huge, ornate machine spinning faster and faster until it hurls itself to pieces—as the complex structure of 19th-century Europe did in the so-called “war to end all wars”. Mr. Stare gave us a highly dramatic reading, complete with an appropriately hallucinatory finale.

The last time I saw Mr. Stare conduct a full program with the symphony (December 2nd of last year), I was impressed by the clarity of his communication with the orchestra and the intensity of his focus. This time around I was also struck by his very visceral style on the podium. He got quite an aerobic workout from this program and generated plenty of musical excitement in the process.

The post-season season at Powell Hall continues through June 22nd. Highlights include a James Bond film music program with vocalist Debbie Gravitte and conductor Michael Krazewski on June 2nd, and “Classical Mystery Tour: A Tribute to the Beatles” on the 22nd. For details on these and other “one of” events, you may visit stlsymphony.org.

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