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Saturday, 21 September 2013 15:55

Concert review: Bracing Ives and surprising Tchaikovsky highlight the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall Friday through Sunday, September 20-22

Kirill Gerstein Kirill Gerstein kirillgerstein.com
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The first concert of the new symphony season was a study in contrasts, to say the least. For many music lovers, I expect, the Big Event of the evening was probably Kirill Gerstein’s surprisingly lyrical approach to the massively popular Tchaikovsky “Piano Concerto No. 1”. For me, though, Charles Ives's “Three Places in New England”—still sounding fresh and radical over a century after it was first composed—was the star of the evening.

Orchestral showpieces are not, of course, uncommon at season openers (Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” last year being a classic example), and “Three Places” certainly qualifies. Written between 1903 and 1911 (or thereabouts; it’s sometimes hard to tell with Ives) the work was originally scored for a massive ensemble. However, Ives cut the orchestration back substantially in 1929—to chamber orchestra proportions, in fact—at the request of Nicolas Slonimsky.  Judging from the scoring described in the program for these concerts, though—piano, organ, celesta, and an impressive wind section—the symphony is using James Sinclair's fourth restored version from 1976. That’s probably as close as we’ll ever get to the 1914 original, which is lost to history. 

Ives employs his orchestral forces in ways that still, nearly a century later, sound novel and daring.  Iridescent, impressionistic harmonies; snatches of popular songs and hymns; the sound of clashing brass bands—they all come together in a psychedelic musical mélange that only Ives could pull off.  Sure, the conflicting time signatures (4/4 vs. 9/8, for example, in “Putnam’s Camp”), cheerful dissonance, and general organized pseudo-chaos that Ives loved so much can be challenging to audiences and (especially) performers, but it’s also tremendous fun. I dare anyone to listen to the colorful evocation of a July 4th picnic as seen and heard by a small child in “Putnam’s Camp” without cracking a smile.

It has been a decade since the symphony performed “Three Places,” but you wouldn’t know it from the brilliance and precision of the playing under maestro David Robertson’s baton Friday night. “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” shimmered in a chromatic mist, “The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common” conjured up ghostly images of the all-black Union regiment honored in the titular statue, and “Putnam’s Camp” was raucous but controlled fun. The many little solos Ives sprinkles throughout the piece were played with perfection.

The first half of the program concluded with one of the great works for narrator and orchestra, Aaron Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait".  Written in response to a commission from André Kostelanetz for a musical depiction of an “eminent American” after the Pearl Harbor attack, A Lincoln Portrait is a classic example of what the composer called his “vernacular style”: open harmonies, liberal quotations from folk sources, and general accessibility.

It premiered in Cincinnati in 1942 with Kostelanetz at the podium and local actor William Adams reading the narration.  Many of the voices taking on that role since then have come from places other than the stage, though, and this weekend's narrator is no exception: motivational speaker and education activist Wintley Phipps.  A commanding figure with palpable stage presence and a resonant bass voice, Mr. Phipps delivered the narration (drawn from Lincoln's speeches and other documents) with great feeling.  He read it from a teleprompter placed at floor level, unfortunately, instead of a music stand on stage, so his eyes were cast down much of the time—not a problem for patrons seated on the orchestra floor, but for those of us upstairs it meant we mostly just saw the top of his head. Still, it was a very effective performance that reminded me of how far the level of rhetoric has fallen among our elected officials over the years.

Tchaikovsky's familiar “Piano Concerto No. 1” brought the evening to happy conclusion.  Mr. Robertson and soloist Kirill Gerstein did some slightly unorthodox things with it, revealing aspects of delicacy and charm not always apparent in this popular old chestnut. The second subject of the first movement, for example (marked “allegro con spirito”), was played more slowly than usual, and the movement as a whole got more rubato and lyricism than I’m accustomed to hearing. The tempo contrasts in the second movement were more marked than they sometimes are and the “allegro con fuoco” first subject of the finale was as fiery as I’ve ever heard it. There were also lovely solo passages by (among others) Mark Sparks (flute), Danny Lee (Cello), and Phil Ross (oboe).

It was, in short, the sort of original take on this popular work that made me hear parts of it with new ears. Ives would have approved of that, I think.

Mr. Robertson seemed in especially good spirits Friday night, by the way. He gave a cheerful nod to Mr. Gerstein after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, for example, and then turned to the audience to congratulate us for not applauding between movements (one of those bits of concert etiquette that probably baffles newbies, but that’s another discussion). He also congratulated us for our singing during “The Star Spangled Banner” at the top of the concert, but that might be pro forma (I note wryly).

The concert repeats Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 PM, September 21 and 22. The Saturday concert will be simulcast on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM and HD 1.  For more background on the music, check out Paul Schiavo's program notes on the St. Louis Symphony web site.

Next week: that famed tribute to Richard Strauss’s ego “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”) along with Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” and Patrick Harlin’s 2011 “Rapture,” inspired by his quasi-religious experience plumbing the depths of Kubera Cave. Lars Vogt is the pianist and the orchestra is conducted by Stéphane Denève, who gave us such a splendid “Daphnis et Chloé” in May of 2011. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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