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Saturday, 08 February 2014 18:16

Concert review: Brahms' hymn to friendship gets a winning performance by David Halen, Daniel Lee, and the symphony under James Gaffigan Friday through Sunday, February 7-9 + Video

James Gaffigan James Gaffigan jamesgaffigan.com
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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St. Louis Symphony Orchestra guest conductor (and fellow Rice University alum) James Gaffigan gave us a highly dramatic and immensely satisfying Mendelssohn "Symphony No. 3 in A minor," op. 56 ("Scottish"), Friday morning, along with an equally impassioned Brahms "Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra (Double Concerto)," op. 102. Symphony Concertmaster David Halen and Principal Cello Daniel Lee were the soloists in the Brahms, demonstrating that you don't have to fly in stars to get stellar performances.

[Want to know more about the music? Check out the symphony program notes and my Symphony Preview post.]

"The lovable side of Brahms' nature," write Wallace Brockway and Herbert Weinstock in their chatty "Men of Music," "is nowhere better illustrated than in the circumstances surrounding the composition...of the "Double Concerto." Brahms wrote it in 1887 in an attempt to mend fences with his friend and musical collaborator Joseph Joachim, from whom he had been estranged for six years after Brahms was caught in the crossfire of Joachim's messy divorce.

The attempt was apparently successful. Joachim and cellist Robert Hausmann (who had commissioned the work) gave the first performance with Brahms on the podium. Indeed, listening to the intimate relationship between the violin and cello in this music, it's impossible not to picture the kind of close friendship Brahms wanted to rekindle. As Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, "the cello and violin are equal partners, paradoxically both solo, yet conjoined... The violin finishes the cello's sentences; the cello chuckles at the violin's jokes. They are having an intimate conversation, really listening to each other, supporting, and forgiving each other."

Daniel Lee and David Halen

In giving the solo roles in the concerto to colleagues who have worked together for years, I think the symphony has given us a performance with an extra degree of depth and resonance. Mr. Halen and Mr. Lee were clearly very much in synch with each other throughout the concerto, taking on the role of old friends Brahms has written for them.

For me, the whole collaboration was neatly captured in a moment during the Vivace non troppo finale when, after the statement of the first theme of the rondo, Mr. Halen and Mr. Lee looked at each other and shared a smile as if to say, "that was fun, wasn't it?" That attitude comes across to an audience, which is probably one reason why they got a smattering of spontaneous applause after the first movement and a well-earned standing ovation at the end.

This is difficult material to perform, by the way. That's partly because, as Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann, he was "writing for instruments whose character and sound one can only incidentally imagine" and partly because the soloists have to work so closely, often trading licks like traditional fiddlers. Mr. Halen and Mr. Lee played together like a single instrument, weaving a seamless garment of sound. Nicely done, gentlemen.

Mendelssohn got the idea for his "Symphony No. 3 in A minor", op. 56, ("Scottish") back in 1829 during a walking tour of the British aisles. Scotland in general and Edinburgh in particular made a strong impression on him. Although most of the symphony wasn't written until 1842, Mendelssohn got the idea for the slow introduction to the first movement when he visited the ruined Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh. "In the evening twilight," he wrote, "we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved... Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I today found in that old chapel the beginning of my 'Scottish' Symphony."

Holyrood Chapel

The actual "Scottishness" of the rest of the symphony has been a subject of some debate among critics over the years, but everyone seems to agree that this dramatic and engaging work is one of Mendelssohn's best. It was also, despite the number assigned to it, his last; he died five years after its 1842 premiere.

James Gaffigan gave it the full Romantic treatment, beginning with a forceful declaration of that "Holyrood" introduction followed by a statement of the main theme that brought out the clarinet melody more prominently than usual—a nice touch. That set the tone for the rest of this highly charged performance, which emphasized strong tempo and dynamic contrasts and left many individual moments lingering in my memory.

The clarinet theme of the second movement, for example, sounded especially perky in the hands of Scott Andrews, as did the oboe reply from Phil Ross. The horns, led by Associate Principal Thomas Jöstlein, also impressed me with their balance of power and precision in the rapid passages here. In fact, the winds and brasses sounded excellent all the way through, which is no small accomplishment for a morning concert. Warm-ups must have started fairly early.

The third movement Adagio was powerfully majestic and the A major restatement of the "Holyrood" theme at the end sounded notably jubilant, bringing everything to a highly satisfying conclusion.

The concert opened with an equally fine reading of Mendelssohn's "Die schöne Melusine (The Fair Melusina) Overture," op. 32 from 1833, inspired by a medieval French fairy tale about a water sprite's unhappy love affair with a human prince. The piece is a bit discursive in places but offers opportunities for the winds to show off. And so they did, with the limpid melody that represents the heroine first stated by the clarinets and played quite effectively Friday morning by Associate Principal Diana Haskell and Tina Ward and later picked up beautifully by the flutes (Ann Choomack and Associate Principal Andrea Caplan). This strikes me as somewhat minor league Mendelssohn, but Mr. Gaffigan and the symphony musicians certainly made a fine case for it.

For what it's worth, I couldn't help noticing that Mr. Gaffigan, like many of the symphony's guest conductors, had a very physically demonstrative style on the podium, often favoring big gestures and generally characterized by what seems to be a real joy in music making so large that it can barely be contained. As an audience member, I've always found that approach appealing.

The concerts repeat today (Saturday) at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, February 7 and 8. The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio 90.7 and HD 1.

Next on the schedule: Lift Every Voice: A Black History Month Celebration with Kevin McBeth conducting the orchestra and IN UNISON chorus Friday, February 14, at 7:30 PM. Then Steven Jarvi conducts the orchestra for a live performance of Max Steiner's score for Casablanca, accompanying a showing of the classic film. There will be a drink special, popcorn, another movie-themed goodies, all of which you can take into the hall with you. The opening credits roll at 7 PM on Saturday and 2 PM on Sunday, February 15 and 16, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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