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Saturday, 22 March 2014 15:27

Concert review: Dramatic Dvorak and Korngold highlight the St. Louis Symphony Friday and Saturday, March 21 and 22 + Video

Gil Shaham Gil Shaham opus3artists.com
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Highlighting this weekend's St. Louis Symphony concerts is a pair impressive performances of works written right here in the good old USA (including one premiered in St. Louis) by visitors from abroad: Erich Wolfgang Korngold's 1945 "Violin Concerto" and Dvořák's 1893 "Symphony No. 9" ("From the New World").

[Find out more about the music with the symphony program notes and my Symphony Preview article.]

Although separated by an almost fifty turbulent years in music history, the harmonic language of the two pieces isn't that much different—which is why the Korngold's concerto had to wait until the wave of Serialism and related compositional trends had begun to wane before it could start to get some respect. Amply supplied with tunes recycled from Korngold's work as a film composer, the concerto has the late Romantic richness that you hear in the work of Richard Strauss and the other post Wagnerians coupled with ingenious and often unexpected bits of orchestration. The celesta part (expertly played by Peter Henderson), for example, is large enough to almost make it a second solo instrument. Combined with Allegra Lilly's fine harp work, the result was a kind of hallucinatory filigree that suggested a Hollywood dream sequence.

The concerto is probably familiar territory to soloist Gil Shaham (he recorded it with Andre Previn and the London Symphony back in 1994), so it's not surprising that he negotiated its many technically tricky passages with ease while not neglecting the lyricism that is at the heart of the piece. "In spite of the demand for virtuosity in the finale," wrote the composer after hearing the concerto's premiere with Jascha Heifetz and the SLSO in 1947, "the work with its many melodic and lyric episodes was contemplated more for a Caruso than a Paganini." There's a sense of longing in both the main theme of the first movement and (most notably) in all of the second movement "Romance" that needs to come through clearly, and we definitely got it from Mr. Shaham and Mr. Robertson Friday night.

That said, the balance between soloist and ensemble was less than ideal. At least from our perch in row D of the dress circle, Mr. Shaham was often overwhelmed by the orchestra (which is, to be fair, a large one), even when he moved farther downstage. I don't know how much of that was a performance issue and how much an acoustical one, although I'm inclined to suspect it's mostly the latter.

Mr. Shaham was warmly received by the audience Friday night, which applauded after every movement (something which was once commonplace in concert halls) and gave him a standing ovation at the end. Mr. Shaham and Mr. Robertson responded with an encore: an echt Viennese (with really major luftpausen) of Kreisler's charming "Schön Rosmarin," including a bit of clowning around between Mr. Robertson and Mr. Shaham (who is, after all, his brother-in-law).

The concert concluded with a world class (or is that "new world class"?) Dvořák 9th from Mr. Robertson and the orchestra. From the dramatically charged introduction to the electrifying final bars of the Allegro con fuoco, this was a "New World" that bristled with excitement and fine orchestral playing. The famous "Goin' Home" English horn theme in the second movement was lovingly played by Cally Banham, the flute theme in the first movement got a particularly expressive treatment from Mark Sparks, and the brass section generally did itself proud.

Mr. Robertson intelligently shaped and paced this performance in ways that made the most of the work's strengths while minimizing its weaknesses (much as I love this piece, I understand how episodic it can be). Tempi were well chosen, dynamics were just right—it all added up to a wonderfully coherent reading that revealed new aspects of a work which, I expect, many of us have heard so often that we could almost conduct it ourselves.

The concert opened with a relatively new work (it premiered in 2004): "Bright Kingdoms" by Connecticut-based composer Ingram Marshall. Mr. Marshall is friend of composer John Adams (who is a major booster of Mr. Ingram's work) and a great lover of the compositional technique of mixing live and recorded sounds, which he's been doing since the 1970s. Both approaches are evident in this music, which struck me as the sort of thing you might experience if you were listening to an Adams composition while someone in the next room was playing an old Tomita LP.

For me, the best thing about "Bright Kingdoms" was the lovely fugal central section for strings based on the hymn "Eventide" (most often heard with the words "Abide with Me"). The tune is also, apparently, the basis for a Swedish hymn, a distorted children's choir version of which is the basis for a long recorded section that takes up much of the final third of this 17-minute piece. "Bright Kingdoms" rather wore out its welcome for me after that string chorale. Judging from the polite applause, I probably wasn't the only one who thought so.

There's one more performance of this program tonight (Saturday, March 22) at 8 PM at Powell Hall, 718 North Grand. Note that there is also a show at the Fox this weekend, so allow extra time to get to the lot and park. The concert will also be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via live Internet stream.

Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the orchestra and soprano Karita Mattila in Wagner's Prelude to "Tristan and Isolde," Brahms's "Symphony No. 3," and Schoenberg's "Erwartung" on Friday and Saturday at 8 PM March 28 and 29. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

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