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Thursday, 20 October 2011 14:26

Concert Review: Nordic freshness of Sibelius, Teutonic swagger of Wagner, and retro avant-garde of Philippe Manoury at Powell Hall with the St. Louis Symphony, October 14 and 15

Philippe Manoury Philippe Manoury www.philippemanoury.com
Written by Gary Liam Scott
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David Robertson's on-stage introduction to Philippe Manoury's "Synapse", for violine and orchestra, made more sense than the composer's own description, which fluttered about such terms as "blocks", "formulas" and "specific grammar" without really explaining their true meaning. However, Robertson's substantial personal charisma seemed insufficient to make such a piece palatable to what was easily the sparsest audience in memory at a St. Louis Symphony concert.

If a synapse can be defined as the process by which one neuron passes a signal to another, then the French-born Manoury was simply re-inventing the wheel. Ideas influence and develop from one another in any well crafted piece of music, and sincere composers always strive to create an organic whole. At best, Manoury's composition seemed to consist of a sequence of musical figures no more than latched together. But, as with all new works, time--and the impact of a piece on the hearts and minds of listeners--make better judges than do critics.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes brought to the solo part all the skill and finess that have made him famous. He performed the 31-minutes piece with unwavering concentration, aided by the lithe energy of his own synapses. Conductor David Robertson likewise gave the work his all, but it can take more than dedication and talent to breathe life into such a work.

Manoury's splashes of tone and timbre seemed more redolent of avant-garde compositions from the 1950's or 60's than of the 21st century. The brash chords, intervals and tone clusters that first clamored for attention decades ago now seem to sound trite and hackneyed, making this work seem more retro than avant-garde. Manoury is clearly a talented and thoughtful composer; he is capable of much. It is to be hoped that he will reflect more fully on the contribution he wants his voice to make.

"Synapse" was sandwiched between two standards, Wagner's Overture to "The Flying Dutchman" and Sibelius' "Symphony No. 1". Both are magnificent works, full of soaring imagination and a spirit of adventure. It seemed, though, that the Manoury piece had garnered the lion's share of rehearsal time. The balance and precision that have become hallmarks of the SLSO under David Robertson were not quite as evident in this performance as we have come to expect. In particular, the timpani, though played with brilliance and excitement, overshadowed much of the orchestra, as also did the brass at times.

It is simply not possible for this orchestra to turn in a bad performance, and there was plenty of profound beauty and eloquence to go around in this performance. Each and every performer played with with the passion and skill born of years of dedication. Powell Hall seemed scarcely one-third full on Saturday night--with no baseball game to blame. Clearly we have a disconnect between audience and repertoire, which must be addressed. This ensemble, one of America's finest, deserves nothing less.

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