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Friday, 06 May 2011 22:59

Concert review: Rousing Rouse and opulent Orff with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Powell Hall, Thursday through Sunday, May 5 - 8

Concert review: Rousing Rouse and opulent Orff with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Powell Hall, Thursday through Sunday, May 5 - 8
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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If you harbor any lingering doubts as to the St. Louis Symphony’s status as a top-drawer orchestra, you should hie yourself to Powell Hall this weekend. The sheer virtuosity on display in every minute of the world premiere performance of Christopher Rouse’s manic Symphony No. 3 – accurately described as a “wild ride” in David Robertson’s brief introduction – will surely win you over, even if the piece itself does not. The Carmina Burana that followed it was pretty hot stuff as well.

Inspired by (and strongly resembling, right down to some of the orchestration) Prokofiev’s machine-age Symphony No. 2 (which was itself inspired by Beethoven’s final piano sonata), Rouse’s Third is a fiercely challenging work that demands remarkable stamina and skill from every member of the orchestra. In that last respect it reminded me as much of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra as it did of the Prokofiev work. An aggressive mix of wild cacophony and surprising lyricism, the piece was clearly not received with enthusiasm by everyone, but my wife and I both found it bracing. Tempi in places were insanely fast, reminiscent of some of Frank Zappa’s more cheerfully deranged efforts. I was impressed that everyone could simply keep together, much less play with such precision.

Mr. Robertson said that he hoped the audience would enjoy hearing the symphony as much as the orchestra enjoyed playing it. Many of us clearly did, judging by the standing ovation that the performance received.

It was back to the familiar after intermission with what British critic Richard Osborne once described as “the best known new composition to emerge from Nazi Germany”, Carl Orff’s 1936 Carmina Burana. The first (and least sexually explicit) of Orff’s Trionfi trilogy of choral theatre works, the composition derives its title from an 1847 collection of secular poetry by anonymous authors from the 12th and 13th centuries that turned up in 1803 in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren, Germany. As befits their “vulgar” status, the poems celebrate not the theoretical joys of heaven but rather the practical ones of earth: spring, sex, food, sex, drink, gambling, and sex. They also recognize something that we moderns have lost track of, to our detriment: the heavy influence of blind chance on our lives. The setting of “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” (“Fortune, Empress of the World”), which opens and closes the work, reminds us that the wheel of fortune is always turning and that none of us should get too cocky, as the universe has a tendency to dope-slap the excessively smug.

Orff envisioned this material as the basis for a choral cantata with some mimed action and “magic tableaux”, and while it’s usually performed strictly as a concert piece these days (we haven’t had a staged performance here in over a decade), the composer’s theatrical intentions are evident in every note. Mr. Robertson’s reading honored those intentions without ever sacrificing musical beauty, and included a few wonderfully dramatic touches. It lacked the marked contrasts of both tempo and dynamics that characterized Peter Oundjian’s fine performance in 2008 or David Amado’s somewhat controversial one in 2003, but I found myself smitten nevertheless. One hopes New Yorkers will feel the same way when Mr. Robertson conducts what’s being billed as “a definitive performance” of the work with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a “mass choir of New York City students” as part of the Carmina Burana Project in February of 2012.

The balance between orchestra and chorus was not always ideal, at least from where we sat in the dress circle, especially when the former was playing at full volume. It’s a problem I’ve noticed before at Powell, and may simply be an unavoidable by-product of the hall’s acoustics. Performances, in any case, were beyond reproach. There was also fine work from the Children’s Chorus, brought in from the wings to stand in front of the stage for their brief appearance in the “Court of Love” section.

All three vocal soloists had plenty of legit opera credentials, so it’s no surprise that they acted their various roles as effectively as they sang them. Baritone David Adam Moore has the most to do, portraying everything from a pining lover (“Dies, nox et omnia” – a killer aria that switches rapidly between falsetto and chest voice) to tormented libertine (“Estuans interius”). His Abbot of “Cucaniensis” (which I’ve seen translated as Cuckoominster or Cockaigne, among other things) was spot on as well. Soprano Cyndia Sieden was utterly charming in “Stetit puella”, and she nailed the daunting glissando that opens “Dulcissime” with ease and delicacy.

The tenor has only one song – the chilling “Olim lacus coleuram”, in which a swan laments being roasted for dinner – but Richard Troxell made the most of it, singing from memory and with great dramatic effect. The number lies absurdly high, forcing the singer almost entirely into falsetto, but Mr. Troxell sounded completely comfortable. Mr. Robertson had him enter through the orchestra during the orchestral introduction – one of those nice dramatic touches referred to above.

This concluding concert of the 2010–2011 season will be presented again Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, May 7 and 8. It’s a splendid night of vivid, colorful, music making and a fine way to welcome the season. As they sing in the “Primo Vere” (“Early Spring”) section of Carmina Burana:

Rerum tanta novitas in solemni vere
et veris auctoritas iubet nos guadere

“Nature's great renewal in solemn Springtime
and Spring's spectacle bids us to rejoice.”

For more information, including details of the 2011 – 2012 season, you can call 314-534-1700, visit slso.org, or follow @slso on Twitter.

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