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Sunday, 23 October 2011 21:14

Concert Review: Life, death and romance with Olga Kern and the Symphony conducted by Vasily Petrenko at Powell Hall Friday through Sunday, October 21 - 23

Isle of the Dead (third version, 1883) Isle of the Dead (third version, 1883)
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Every artist has his or her “greatest hit” – a work with which he or she is uniquely identified. Think of Bogart’s Sam Spade, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor”. The Russian composer’s “Isle of the Dead” – an impassioned performance of which opened this weekend’s St. Louis Symphony concerts - never made it to “greatest hit” status (the Symphony hasn’t performed it since 1976), but the painting that inspired it almost certainly was the most popular thing created by the Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin. The stark landscape of an island necropolis towards which a white-robed figure is being rowed apparently struck a sympathetic chord over a century ago and is still compelling today. Böcklin painted five different versions of it (one of which was destroyed in World War II) in the 1880s, and reproductions were apparently common in an early 20th century Europe still reeling from war and influenza.

Dominated by the “Dies Irae” theme that shows up in so much of Rachmaninoff’s work, “Isle of the Dead” captures the ominous and majestic feel of the painting remarkably well, considering that the composer had seen only a black and white print of the original. A rocking 5/8 theme, suggestive of the sea and the boat, begins in the low strings and gradually takes over the orchestra. A more lyrical second theme (intended to represent the life force) rises in the strings about half way through, only to be beaten down by a series of relentless brass-and-percussion hammer blows. The piece ends with a return to the eternal sea.

Guest conductor Vasily Petrenko clearly knows this music inside out. He conducted a wonderfully evocative performance and was expressive but not indulgent, never losing the rhythmic pulse and sense of motion that keep the music (you should pardon the word) afloat. The orchestra always plays with great skill these days, of course, and they did so here as well.

Coming after the Romantic gloom of the Rachmaninoff, the crystalline beauty of Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” was a welcome contrast, especially when performed with such skill and feeling by soloist Olga Kern. I had cause to admire Ms. Kern’s technical proficiency when she did the Rachmaninoff “Paganini” Variations last year. This time around I was able to admire how that virtuosity is wedded to a keen musical sensibility. This was especially evident in the “Romanze” second movement, in which Ms. Kern’s nuanced and deeply felt performance brought out the sense of smiling through tears that is so characteristic of Chopin at his most lyrical.

Ms. Kern is a striking figure on the stage, particularly when decked out (as she was Saturday night) in a flowing “Cardinal red” strapless gown with black accents and, briefly, matching baseball cap for a brief “pre encore” of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”. Her actual encore was “Spinning Wheel”, a bit of virtuoso flash by Charles Lisberg, a Swiss composer unknown to me. Ms. Kern said that she found the work in a library some years ago. Her son fell in love with it, and she has been apparently using it as an encore on a regular basis ever since. Both the piece and the story behind it were charming.

The evening concluded with a rousing performance of a work that could probably be classed as one of Edward Elgar’s greatest hits, the “Enigma Variations”. Effectively a musical family album, the fourteen variations are vivid little sound portraits of Elgar, his wife, and his friends. Even a pet bulldog puts in an appearance.

The “Enigma” of the title, according to Elgar, refers to “another and larger theme” which is “not played”. The composer never revealed what that theme might be and speculation has been lively, but I’m inclined to go along with the school of thought that the “theme” to which Elgar referred wasn’t musical at all but rather the common thread of friendship and good humor that pervades the music.

Certainly that sense of joy and affection was apparent in Mr. Petrenko’s conducting the musicians’ playing. Choice solo passages abound in the “Enigma Variations” and the symphony players made the most of all of them. Mr. Petrenko’s interpretation was full-blooded and overflowing with that life force that gets beaten down so ruthlessly in “Isle of the Dead”, making it a perfect way to end the program.

Next at Powell Hall: the orchestra celebrates Halloween with the 1925 film Phantom of the Opera featuring an original score written and performed live by Rick Friend October 28 and 29, 2011. For more information you may call 314-534-1700, visit, like the Saint Louis Symphony Facebook page, or follow @slso on Twitter.

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