Opening night for the 2009-10 season of the St. Louis Symphony brought together the works of two Jewish composers, born exactly 100 years apart, and on opposite sides of the globe, yet perhaps sharing bonds that transcend space and time. Osvaldo Golijov, born in 1960 in Argentina, brings a similar love of nature and folk/ethnic music that captivated Gustav Mahler, born in 1860 in Bohemia.
Golijov's new work for cello and orchestra, Azul, is his personal tribute to all of nature. The various sound effects are redolent of the ocean, the rainforest, mountain winds--or perhaps whatever inspires the listener. The piece is meditative and reflective, yet not devoid of passion. Soloist Daniel Lee, principal cellist with the Symphony, certainly imbued the work with intensity and insight. It is always a joy to watch cellists--the entire body and soul of the performer must work the instrument and wring forth the depth of its beauty. Lee did not disappoint; he seemed unwaveringly at one with the piece and with his instrument. It was clear that Lee had carefully devoted himself to this work.
In keeping with the inspiration he derives from world music, Golijov included additional percussion parts, played on various drums and rhythm instruments by Jamey Haddad and Keita Ogawa. The work also included a part for hyper-accordion (electronically enhanced), performed by Michael Ward-Bergerman. The effects added an almost ethereal atmosphere to the work, creating a true tapestry of orchestral sound.
Like Golijov, Gustav Mahler was also greatly inspired by the sounds of nature. Few composers have matched his depth of insight into our very souls. Although his music often calls for hundreds of performers at a time, yet he still finds the beauty in a single voice, as evidenced by the opening trumpet solo of the Symphony No. 5, performed by Susan Slaughter in her last year with the Symphony. Mahler has a way of finding the divine in the mundane; the folk songs we grow up with and the sounds of our everyday lives are transformed into the music of the universe in his hands. Mahler believed a symphony should reflect the macrocosm of all life, and his works always deliver.
Sometimes contemporary works do not always pair well with the classics, but that happily was not the case with this program. The opening work by Osvaldo Golijov was impressionistic and dream-like, which requires far more precision than audiences may realize. Mahler, on the other hand, requires the precision of careful phrasing and articulation. Music director David Robertson was able to deliver on both fronts. If anything, Robertson seems to have grown ever more secure and at ease with this orchestra, and his fluency was definitely apparent in this opening program. I have not always shared Robertson's devotion to certain new works (there is nothing magic in the word "contemporary", although we must always be open to new ideas), but this time he selected a winner.
The St. Louis Symphony is off to a fine start with this program. For information on upcoming events, contact the Symphony box office at 314-534-1700.
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