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Sunday, 15 January 2012 20:49

Concert review: Darkness, light, and shadow with Christine Brewer and the Symphony at Powell Hall Friday and Saturday, January 13 and 14

operagasm.com operagasm.com
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Darkness was audible at the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra this weekend with a slightly rocky but satisfying Dvořák Seventh Symphony and a uniformly elegiac "Four Last Songs" with Christine Brewer. George Crumb's whimsical "Haunted Landscape" was a contrasting kaleidoscopic light show.

As an accompaniment to the few brief days of seasonal weather this winter, the program could not have been more appropriate.

Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 7” has always been a favorite of mine, for reasons that are difficult to articulate. I can’t hear it without thinking of a long journey down a dark mountain river. Flashes of light illuminate the trip, but we don’t see the sun until the work’s final moments, when the tonality changes from D minor to D major.

Maintaining a strong rhythmic pulse and a sense of momentum, then, have always been the hallmarks of a great Dvořák 7th for me, especially in the first movement. Mr. Robertson didn’t appear to be going in that direction with his somewhat magisterial approach to the opening of the first movement (this was an allegro maestoso with the emphasis on the maestoso), but by the time we got the to development his approach had built up enough dramatic tension that I was largely won over. The beautifully wrought Poco adagio second movement (with some exceptionally fine playing by the woodwinds) and driving Scherzo completed the process, nicely paving the way for a crackling dynamo of a final movement. When that D-major sun finally rose, all I needed was a set of shades.

That said, the orchestral playing was a bit ragged in spots during the Dvořák — rather surprising given the ensemble’s usual polish. My guess (and it’s only that) is that it got less rehearsal time because of the complexity of the 1984 George Crumb work that had its local premiere Friday night.

Based on the title, you might think “A Haunted Landscape” would be another exercise in musical shadow. Not a bit of it. As the composer explains on his web site, the title “reflects my feeling that certain places on the planet Earth are imbued with an aura of mystery.” “Places,” he notes, “can inspire feelings of reverence or of brooding menace (like the deserted battlefields of ancient wars).”

To reflect those varied moods, Mr. Crumb assembled a score that is not so much music in the conventional sense as it is a sound collage that uses music as an element. The orchestral forces are huge, consisting not only the usual strings and a full complement of winds but of a massive percussion battery as well. One of the delights of “Haunted Landscape”, in fact, is watching the skill with which the percussionists handle a wide variety of exotic items such as Cambodian angklungs, Japanese Kabuki blocks, the Brazilian cuica, the Appalachian hammered dulcimer, and a piano struck, plucked, and generally manhandled in the style of John Cage or Conlon Nancarrow.

“Haunted Landscape”, in other words, is a kind of musical theme park. There’s a little bit of everything here: Ivesian string chorales set against orchestral cacophony, moments of breathtaking stillness alternating with aggressive outbursts of brass and percussion, and a stunning array of unusual and even unearthly sounds from all those percussion instruments, some of them so subtle (e.g. stroking cymbals with string instrument bows) that they barely break what Johann Friedrich Herbart called the “limen of consciousness”.

I don’t know whether I’d want to own this piece, but it was certainly fun to hear it, especially when performed with such precision — an impressive feat, considering that this was the work’s St. Louis premiere. I can’t imagine how many hours of rehearsal were necessary to make this complex music funhouse work, but they certainly paid off on opening night.

I suspect that the rehearsals for Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”, on the other hand, were like a reunion of old friends. It has been less than five years since soprano soloist Christine Brewer and Mr. Robertson performed these moving contemplations on mortality that were the composer’s final utterances before his death in 1949. Both the conductor and orchestra clearly have a great deal of affection for Ms. Brewer, a hometown gal who has made it big in the opera and concert world, and she clearly feels the same way about them. Her demeanor was more that of a featured ensemble player than a soloist, listening attentively to the orchestra and, in particular, to Concertmaster David Halen’s meltingly beautiful violin solo during the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen” (“Going to Sleep”).

In a post on the symphony blog last week, Eddie Silva quoted a friend of his to the effect that “Four Last Songs” “is one of the few works that often sounds better on recording, because it calls for such vocal subtlety that few singers can perform it appropriately in a concert hall”. I agree, but for a different reason. Despite the delicacy of much of the scoring there’s no escaping the fact that all four of these songs, like most of Strauss’s other works, call for a large orchestra. I think it’s a challenge, even for a Wagner and Strauss specialist of Ms. Brewer’s caliber, to be heard clearly over that many players while remaining true to the elegiac tone of the music. And, in fact, from our seats in the dress circle boxes she was often overwhelmed by the orchestra. You can compensate for that in the studio or in a live broadcast.

Balance issues aside, though, Ms. Brewer’s voice was as lovely as ever. From a purely theatrical perspective, I would have preferred to see more differentiation among the narrative voices in the songs. Granted, they all deal with death, but they do it in very different ways. The audience as a whole clearly had no such reservations, however, awarding all concerned with a standing ovation and earning the process a charming encore: Strauss’s “Morgen!” (“Tomorrow!”). Composed to a text by John Henry Mackay when Strauss was a young man of 30, it was a perfect choice, nicely balancing the somber resignation of all that had gone before.

Next at Powell Hall: violinist Christian Tetzlaff joins Maestro Robertson and the orchestra for Sibelius’s “Violin Concerto” on Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, January 21 and 22. Also on the program is the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal and John Adams’s “Harmonium” with the Symphony Chorus. For more information you may call 314-534-1700, visit stlsymphony.org, like the Saint Louis Symphony Facebook page, or follow @slso on Twitter.

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