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Saturday, 10 May 2014 23:36

Concert review: Everything is illuminated with tenor Nicholas Phan and the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall Friday through Sunday, May 9-11 + Video

Tenor Nicholas Phan Tenor Nicholas Phan
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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If you're going to bring in a singer as a last-minute substitute, it's good to have one like tenor Nicholas Phan, who has clearly internalized the music and made it his own. His performance of Britten's song cycle "Les Illuminations" with David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Friday night was—well—luminous. So was Marc-André Dalbavie's ethereally lovely "La Source d'un regard," a 2007 work getting its local premiere. The evening closed with a bold and dramatic Tchaikovsky "Symphony No. 5" which was not to be missed.

Mr. Phan was actually the third performer scheduled to sing the Britten this weekend. When the concert was first announced, the soloist was to be a local favorite, soprano Christine Brewer. Last July, though, she had to pull out because her agent had double-booked her with an engagement with Chicago Lyric Opera. She was replaced with tenor Andrew Kennedy who was in turn replaced on April 29th with Mr. Phan.

Mr. Phan has performed "Les Illuminations" before and, indeed, talked about being "obsessed with" Britten's music in a 2010 interview. His performance Friday night was certainly assured. Singing without a score, Mr. Phan was thoroughly engaged with the vivid and surrealistic Rimbaud poems that constitute the text of "Les Illuminations."

Possibly written under the mind-altering influences of absinthe and hashish, the poems present a succession of surrealistic pictures, culminating in a somewhat nightmarish parade. It's fanciful and fascinating stuff, especially sung with this kind of commitment. Mr. Phan's voice was wonderfully flexible and he sounded entirely comfortable even when the music pulled him up towards the top of his register.

The music is officially designated as being for "high voice," by the way, which is why it can be sung by either a tenor or soprano. It was dedicated to and first performed by Sophie Wyss in 1940, but Britten and his life partner, the legendary English tenor Peter Pears, made a recording of it with the English Chamber Orchestra that is also highly regarded.

""Les Illuminations" is scored for string ensemble, which gave the symphony strings a chance to show off. The sound was lovely, with fine solo work by Concertmaster David Halen, Principal Viola Beth Guterman Chu, and Principal Cello Daniel Lee. Mr. Robertson and Mr. Phan were clearly on the same wavelength throughout, producing a wonderfully evocative performance of this wildly imaginative music.

Before the Britten we had the evanescent and often oddly beautiful "La Source d'un regard" by Marc-André Dalbavie. An admirer of the influential Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), Dalbavie, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, "is one of a number of recent composers, mostly French, who have developed what has come to be called 'spectralism,' a music that derives its harmonies from overtones, the high-pitched resonance that accompanies musical pitches, usually below the threshold of hearing." "La Source d'un regard," to my ears, sounded rather like Debussy crossed with Charles Ives's "The Housatonic at Stockbridge": a swirl of microtonal harmonies, a shifting and often barely discernable rhythmic pulse, and a sense of time standing still—or at least suspended.

This was music so gossamer-thin that at times it was hardly there at all and defies easy description. It was minimalist in some ways, but minimalist through subtlety rather than (as in the case of Reich's "The Four Sections" from last week) endless repetition. Unlike the Reich, "La Source d'un regard" sounds like a piece that leaves a fair amount of room for interpretation, and I expect it must be rewarding to play. Mr. Robertson and his forces undoubtedly made a strong case for it, with superb work by all concerned.

The concert closed with what was, I'm sure, the big draw for many members of the audience: Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 5 in E minor," Op. 64, from 1888. Like the symphonies that bracket it, the fifth deals with the composer's obsession with fate and his attempt to find happiness despite his depression and the stress of being gay in Czarist Russia. The fifth is less structurally coherent than the sixth or (especially) the fourth symphonies, but its triumphant final pages have a power that can't be denied.

Mr. Robertson's approach didn't stint on the power, but he also brought out the passion. The orchestra's sound was particularly lush and Mr. Robertson's measure use of rubato in (for example) the second subject of the first movement brought out just that extra measure of drama.

In an essay for the 1966 Penguin collection "The Symphony," the Austrian-born British music writer Hans Keller noted that the Fifth "may be the most consistently outstanding" of all Tchaikovsky's symphonies in the way that the orchestration "offers original sounds at every change of texture. If this is not generally recognized, it is only because all these sonorities seem as natural and necessary as the hills." Mr. Robertson's approach very much emphasized the originality and beauty of that orchestration—something that can get lost in the work's bombast.

There was some very fine solo work here. Principal Horn Roger Kaza, of course, takes pride of place for his golden, burnished tone in the famous opening pages of the second movement, followed closely by clarinetists Scott Andrews and Timothy Zavadil in the opening "fate" motif. Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo, Acting Co-Principal Oboe Phil Ross, and Principal Flute Mark Sparks all had standout moments, as did Shannon Wood on tympani.

This was, in sum, a perfectly balanced Tchaikovsky Fifth, and a fine way to end the regular concert season. You have one more chance to catch it live on Sunday, May 11, at 3 PM. For more information:

Next at Powell Hall, the first in a series of post-season concerts as the symphony performs "Stayin' Alive: a Tribute to the Bee Gees" on Saturday, May 17, at 7:30 PM.

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