The Prokofiev was preceded by a powerful Ravel “Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand” with the great Leon Fleisher (84 and going strong) at the keyboard and a polished Rachmaninoff “Symphonic Dances”.
As we left, I heard another audience member remark that it was the best concert he’d ever seen at Powell. I wouldn’t go nearly that far, but there’s no doubt that Mr. Robertson and his players were at the to of their game Friday night. If the symphony’s canny marketing campaign emphasizing the “kick out the jams” aspect of the Prokofiev (see savepowellhall.com for details) brought some new listeners in this weekend, they certainly got their money’s worth.
Before the fireworks, though, there was the nocturne. When I first heard Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” (a 1961 LP recording by Eugene Ormandy, who conducted the work’s first performance in 1941), I was immediately struck by the “late night” feel of the piece—and not just because of the chimes in the last movement. I was not surprised to learn, then, that Rachmaninoff had originally titled the three sections “Noon,” “Twilight,” and “Midnight”. This was the composer’s last completed work, and there’s a sense throughout of a life approaching its conclusion.
The composer dropped the titles, preferring the let the music speak for itself, and it does so eloquently. The work is filled with evidence of Rachmaninoff’s genius as an orchestrator, with elaborate and complex string writing, inventive use of brasses and winds (including a short but poignant solo for alto sax), and an effective but never overwhelming use of the large percussion battery.
Mr. Robertson and his forces made the most of all of the composer’s genius with a sympathetic reading that gave all the orchestral details their due without losing the work’s sense of momentum. Rachmaninoff can be discursive and performances of his music can become bogged down, but that was not an issue here.
There’s a nocturnal feel as well to Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand”, written in 1930 on commission for pianist Paul Wittgenstein (older brother of famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), who had lost his right arm in World War I. It’s a remarkable piece, with a dark bitonal introduction featuring the contrabassoon (how often does that guy get a solo?), flashy cadenzas for the soloist, and a central march/scherzo with strong jazz and American pop music echoes. It’s as though the composer is inviting us to a dance in the graveyard—a celebration of renewed life in the shadow of the massive death of the “war to end all wars”. Ravel served as an ambulance driver in the cataclysm, and I think the horrors he saw influenced many of his post-war works, including this one.
Soloist Leon Fleisher has made something of a career out of performing left-handed piano music, having spent fifty of his eighty-four years unable to move two fingers of his right hand. He eventually regained the use of both hands (a journey recounted in the 2006 documentary “Two Hands”), but he’s still the king of this specialized repertoire. His performance Friday night was both powerful and elegant. Mr. Fleisher may walk like an octogenarian, but he doesn’t play like one. Mr. Robertson and the orchestra were with him every step of the way, with all the transparency and sensitivity to Ravel’s elaborate musical tapestry that one could ask for.
The audience rewarded everyone with a standing ovation. Mr. Fleisher responded by graciously making his way back into the orchestra to bring contrabassoonist Bradford Buckley to his feet to share in the applause. It was a lovely moment. How often does that rather unglamorous instrument get to be in the spotlight, after all?
The much-anticipated “Scythian Suite” was everything you might expect from a composer in his early twenties fired up by “Le Sacre du Printemps” and eager to make his mark on the scene. The music was originally intended to be part of a full-length ballet titled “Ala and Lolly” with a scenario by poet Sergey Gorodetzky involving prehistoric Scythian warrior Lolly, his love for the sun god’s daughter Ala, and his battle with Chuzhbog, the god of darkness. It was proposed to (and rejected by) Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes. Prokofiev salvaged a four-movement suite from it, which he conducted to howls of outrage from the Russian musical establishment (“noisy,” “rowdy,” and “barbarous” were some of the nicer descriptions) in 1916. Later American performances resulted in accusations of “Bolshevism”. Some days you just can’t win.
The outrage is somewhat understandable. Scored for an orchestra of Mahlerian proportions with a massive brass section and imposing percussion battery, the “Scythian Suite” achieves rock concert-level volume in the violent opening section and is filled with a kind of gleefully modernist primitivism. There are also beautifully transparent sections, though, and overall the “Scythian Suite” is a lot more than just a joyful noise. There’s tremendous creativity and fire here and, as with the rest of this weekend’s program, lavish orchestral invention.
I’ve been a fan of this piece since I first encountered Eric Leinsdorf’s recording in 1967, but this was my first opportunity to hear it live as the size of the forces required make performances expensive and therefore rare. I was not disappointed. Mr. Robertson, always a very physical conductor, threw himself into this vital music with more than his usual enthusiasm, drawing out brilliant and precise playing from everyone. With big musical canvases like this, attention to detail becomes, somewhat paradoxically, that much more important.
[Download the complete St. Louis symphony program notes in PDF format]
Next at Powell Hall: Symphony Principal Cello Danny Lee performs Dvořák’s “Cello Concerto” along with Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 2 (Little Russian)” and Smetana’s “Šárka”from “Má vlast” Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, April 20-22. Peter Oundjian is at the podium. For more information you may call 314-534-1700 or visit stlsymphony.org.