The clarity of his communication with the orchestra and the intensity of his focus are impressive, as is his very visceral style on the podium. Like David Robertson, he physically throws himself into the music, although never in a showy or distracting way.
All of those characteristics were on display Friday as he conducted the symphony in a wonderfully balanced program of German music spanning the tumultuous period from the late 1860s to the early 1900s. At one end of the time line we had Johann Strauss Jr.’s 1867 “Artist’s Life” waltz, and at the other a suite from that hallucinatory tribute to Vienna, Richard Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier” (1909-1910). In between was a pair of echt Teutonic choral works by Brahms—“Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates)” from 1882 and “Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny)” from 1868-1871, bracketing Webern’s lushly romantic “Im Sommerwind (In the Summer Breeze)” from 1904.
It was, in short, a well-chosen mix of drama, romance, and irresistible dance rhythms. There was even, in the Webern, some perky humor (which one does not normally associate with Webern).
In a somewhat unorthodox move, Mr. Stare elected to perform the first three works on the program—“Gesang der Parzen,” “Im Sommerwind,” and “Schicksalslied”—without breaks for applause in between, as though they were three movements of a single piece. That might seem odd, given that nearly forty years separates the oldest work from newest, but in practice it made great emotional sense. Webern wrote “Sommerwind” when he was 21, before being seduced by Serialism, so it looks backward to the romanticism of the mid-19th century, while the Brahms works are rather forward looking in their harmonies. The resulting juxtaposition highlighted their similarities more than their differences.
This was most apparent in the “Schicksalslied.” The serenity of its opening section, with lyrics describing “the paradisiacal existence of the deities” (to quote Paul Schiavo’s program notes), seemed to flow logically from the shimmering, Richard Straussian languor of “Sommerwind”. The parallel is emphasized by the references in the lyrics to “gleaming breezes divine” (“Glänzende Götterlüfte”) and “sacred harp strings” (“Heilige Saiten).” The contrast between the idyllic world of the Webern and the rather medieval fatalism of the reflections on the indifference of the gods in “Gesang der Parzen” (“O Fortuna,” anyone?) was also very effective. As an old radio guy, I suppose I’m a bit of a sucker for the ingenious segue, but I really think this was an exceptionally smart bit of programming on Mr. Stare’s part.
It has been decades since “Schicksalslied” and “Im Sommerwind” were performed at Powell (“Gesang der Parzen” was a symphony premiere) so this music was probably unfamiliar to most of the musicians. You wouldn’t have known that, though, from the quality of the performances. Amy Kaiser’s chorus sounded and robust and polished as usual and the many little solo passages sprinkled throughout the Webern were lovely. Principal Flautist Mark Sparks, Acting Co-Principal oboe Barbara Orland, Principal bassoon Andrew Cuneo, and Associate Concertmaster Heidi Harris all had chances to shine here. I also loved the way Mr. Stare drew out that final, ethereal chord in “Sommerwind” and held the silence for a few seconds.
The second half of the evening, suffused as it was with the spirit of the Viennese waltz, offered a nice contrast to the philosophical weight of the first half. I was reminded that one of the many things Mr. Stare and Mr. Robertson have in common is their willingness to accord “light” music like the “Artist’s Life” waltz the same respect as the more heavy-duty stuff. He gave us a lilting and nuanced performance that felt just right.
The closing suite from Richard Strauss’s romantic comedy/drama “Rosenkavalier” was impressive as well, from the exceptionally dramatic reading of the opening Con molto agitato, graphically depicting the exuberant and perhaps overly fast love-making of the young page Octavian (with those jubilant horn yelps flawlessly played by Roger Kaza and company), to the final “fast waltz” (Schneller Walzer, Molto Con Moto), in which Baron Ochs gets his comeuppance, this was a wonderfully paced and impeccably played performance.
Although scored for a large orchestra, the suite contains many moments of intimacy that provide multiple opportunities for individual players to take center stage. Those included, once again, Mr. Sparks, Mr. Cuneo, and Ms. Harris (who got a big hug from Mr. Stare), as well as Principal clarinet Scott Andrews, the ever-reliable Peter Henderson on celesta, Associate Principal cello Melissa Brooks, Toronto Symphony Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless, and harpists Megan Stout and Claire Happel. The percussion section deserves a big pat on the back as well.
P.S.: Because they are being so echt German, the symphony is providing free beer and pretzels at the concerts, courtesy of Anehuser-Busch and Companion, respectively. I passed on the Bud Light (insert "making love in a canoe" joke here), but the pretzel was tasty.
Next on the calendar: Friday, April 26, at 10:30 AM and 8 PM and Saturday, April 27, at 8 PM, Bernard Labadie conducts an all-Mozart program consisting of the 33rd and 40th symphonies and the Clarinet Concerto with Scott Andrews as soloist. For more information: stlsymphony.org.