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Saturday, 16 February 2013 14:16

Hard-boiled Adams and anxious Bernstein with Orli Shaham and the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall, Friday and Saturday, February 15 and 16

Orli Shaham Orli Shaham orlishaham.com / Christian Steiner
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.” – Raymond Chandler, “Red Wind” (1938)

In his notes for the 2009 world premiere of “City Noir” by the Los Angeles Philharmonic composer John Adams doesn’t list Raymond Chandler as a source of inspiration, although he does mention “Chinatown” and “The Naked City” (which are surely related). Listening to the bravura performance of “City Noir” that closed Friday morning’s concert, though, it was that quote from the beginning of “Red Wind” that came immediately to mind.

Like that story, “City Noir” is a mix of violence (sometime suppressed, sometimes overt) and sensuality with an “anything can happen” edginess. Written for a large orchestra, including a massive percussion section, a jazz drummer, and an alto sax soloist, the music has the kind of cinematic sweep that suggests a classic private eye flick on steroids. It’s mostly exciting stuff but after a while, especially towards the end of the frenzied first movement, “The City and Its Double,” I began to feel a bit like Marlowe after a working-over by a couple of thugs. This is complex music, but subtle it mostly ain’t.

Still, it gave Mr. Robertson and his forces a chance to show what fine musicians they are. Everyone played well, of course, but Principal Tim Meyers’s “walking” trombone solo in the second movement and Acting Principal Tom Drake’s performance of what Adams describes as a “moody ‘Chinatown’ trumpet solo” in the third were standouts. So was the virtuoso alto sax work of guest soloist Tim McAllister. Principal horn Roger Kaza and the new Principal Violist Beth Guterman Chu also had nice moments in one of the work’s few quieter passages at the end of the second movement. Mr. Robertson conducted with his usual all-in commitment and precision.

This weekend’s performances of “City Noir” are being recorded by Nonesuch for a later commercial release along with Adams’s “Saxophone Concerto” (which the symphony is performing in October). I think the record company will be pleased with the results. They’ll also be happy with the lack of coughs, cell phones, or other audience noise during the softer passages, demonstrating that people actually can be quiet when they put their minds to it—or at least when symphony CEO Fred Bronstein makes a personal appeal to do so before the concert.

Like “City Noir,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphony No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety)” is urban music. In Bernstein’s case, though, New York is just the backdrop for musings on the difficulty of finding The Meaning of Life in an age when God is either dead or (to quote Walt Kelly) merely unemployed.

The program for this hybrid of piano concerto and symphony comes from W. H. Auden’s 1947 epic poem of the same name about four angst-ridden young people who meet in a New York bar and try to find the answer to, as Douglas Adams put it, the question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Over the course of the work’s six sections the protagonists reflect on the meaning of life, fantasize about happiness, mourn the death of God (Auden’s “Colossal Dad”), abandon themselves to hedonism in a late-night party, and finally find some sort of faith, or at least a sense of resolution. In a 1977 press conference at the offices of Deutsche Gramophon (where Bernstein was recording “Age of Anxiety”), the composer said that resolution was the “Buddhistic idea” that God was everywhere.” That notion is probably more Bernstein than Auden, of course.

That’s pretty ambitious stuff for a purely orchestral work (although no more so than, say, “Also Sprach Zarathustra”) but even without the extra-musical program, “The Age of Anxiety” still makes perfect sense, with a clearly laid-out structure and irresistible thematic material that is classic Bernstein. Indeed, in the 1977 interview cited above, the composer said that the work had “acquired a life of its own” and that the poem and the symphony were no longer “mutually integral.”

Speaking of interviews, in a Valentine’s Day interview for “St. Louis Magazine” piano soloist Orli Shaham notes that she and her husband Maestro Robertson have frequently collaborated on “Age of Anxiety.” “I feel in many ways as I’ve grown with the piece,” she says. “We’ve grown with it together. It’s grown in direct relation to what the other one of us thinks about the piece.” Indeed, Mr. Robertson has even prepared the version of the score she uses (cut and pasted to minimize page turning).

No surprise, then, that their performance Friday morning was of the “two minds with but a single thought” variety. Ms. Shaham was strongly invested in the music, to the point where you could almost see her acting out the parts of Auden’s characters. I’ve always found this somewhat theatrical aspect of Ms. Shaham’s keyboard style very appealing, especially given her formidable technique, and Friday was no exception. Mr. Robertson’s direction made the most of the dramatic contrasts in the score and the overall result was just stunning. The standing ovation that followed should have gone on longer and would have if it had been up to me.

As in the Adams, there were some solo performances in the orchestra that deserve a nod. Tina Ward and Principal Scott Andrews were perfect in the highly exposed clarinet duet that opens the work; Principal double bassist Erik Harris tore up the joint with his “slap bass” part in “The Masque”, which also featured some very flashy work by the percussion section; and Peter Henderson provided some nice accents on celesta and the small (but critical) offstage piano part that Bernstein (as he notes in that 1977 interview) uses as a way to indicate “the separation of self from reality.”

The concert opened with Copland’s short suite of themes from his score for the 1939 film version of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” This peaceful evocation of Grovers Corners, the fictional New England “everytown” of the early 20th century, is about as distant from the tightly wound urban soundscapes of Adams and Bernstein as you can get. But, like them, it strongly evokes a sense of place and time. Mr. Robertson’s interpretation stressed the lyrical a bit more than I prefer, but it was a lovely performance nevertheless. The applause for it was shockingly brief, I thought, given the quality of the performance. Maybe the audience was insufficiently caffeinated.

Next on the regular calendar: DanceWorks Chicago joins the symphony for a Family Concert featuring Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” on Sunday, February 17, at 3 PM. There’s a Black History Month concert with the IN UNISON® Chorus on Thursday, February 22 at 7:30 PM and an appearance by jazz trumpeter Chris Botti on Friday, February 23, also at 7:30. The regular season resumes on Friday and Saturday, March 1 and 2, at 8 PM with Delius’s “The Walk to the Paradise Garden,” Elgar’s “Violin Concerto” (with Tasmin Little), and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 4.” Sir Andrew Davis conducts. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org

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