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Wednesday, 09 April 2014 23:32

Concert review: Two towering masterpieces with Christian Tetzlaff and the St. Louis Symphony Saturday and Sunday, April 5 and 6 + Video

Christian Tetzlaff Christian Tetzlaff
Written by Gary Liam Scott

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Although both Jean Sibelius and Dmitry Shostakovich are both products of the early and mid-20th century, many differences separate the two. Sibelius was more oriented towards traditional harmony and melody, whereas Shostakovich tilted at times to the atonality and abruptness that eventually became a tradition of its own by the end of the 20th century, and perhaps a trite one at that.

However, Shostakovich’s genius and creativity never failed him, and the two men shared in common a vision of the vastness of the musical landscape. Both men produced monumental works, and it could be argued that both were Romantics in the sense that they each demonstrated the rugged individualism and willingness to experiment that we associate with the Romantic style.

The program of the St. Louis Symphony last weekend was composed of two towering works from these towering figures. Christian Tetzlaff joined the orchestra for the "Concerto No. 1 for Violin in A Minor" by Shostakovich. Like much of Shostakovich’s music, this is a work that defies categorization. There are moments of soft and rambling atonality coupled with fire and brilliance inspired by Jewish folk songs. Through it all, the violinist must remain completely focused and flexible according to the needs of the music.

Fortunately, Tetzlaff was able to deliver on all accounts. As one of the principal violinists of his generation, his playing is unyielding in its strength and energy. Particularly noticeable in this performance was the cohesion between soloist and orchestra. Shostakovich calls for a particularly orchestra in this work, including two harps and a full brass section. Balance between soloist and orchestra is difficult to achieve and maintain, but it was generally quite good.

The second and concluding work on the program was Sibelius "Symphony No. 2 in D Major." Like most Scandinavian composers, Sibelius is redolent of nature, and listeners were quickly transported to the forests, rivers and arching landscapes of northern Europe. Although Sibelius eschewed such associations, it could be argued that the Scandinavian landscape was as much a part of his being as flesh and bone.

Such considerations aside, what remains is the fact that this symphony is a work of deep eloquence, mystery and spirituality. Hearing it is like entering a temple; a sense of reverence and wonderment pervades this work. We cheat our young people of their cultural heritage when we fail to expose them to music of grandeur such as this.

Although David Robertson’s gifts as a conductor are unquestioned, this concert seems to be among his very best. He seemed on top of his game throughout, and the orchestra responded. Even his brief (and understandable) comment to the audience between movements that this would be a good time to blow their noses failed to break the nobility of this performance. After such a rigorous program, one would expect all the performers to be tired and overwhelmed, yet their seemed to be no sign of this.

Of course there is room for improvement in any performance. Occasionally I would have liked the brass to be a bit more subdued in passages where they were the accompanying voices; maybe here and there a particular phrase could have been inlaid into the musical fabric just a bit more solidly. But the fact remains that this was a performance of two monumental works that was in itself monumental. The dedication of the performers, their unity with the music, their technical command and the conviction with which they spoke combined to present a performance that was breathtaking and will hopefully be repeated.

Although all the musicians in the orchestra give their all 100% of the time—and then some—a special shout must be given to Shannon Wood for his all-out effort in the Sibelius symphony. Although young and still a bit of a newcomer to the orchestra, Wood’s enthusiasm and zeal for his job are contagious. There is something truly beautiful about seeing performers who are fully engaged with the music, and the SLSO has been blessed with countless such artists.

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