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Wednesday, 27 March 2013 00:00

Concert review: St. Louis Symphony presents 'American Masters' at Powell Hall, Saturday and Sunday, March 23 and 24

Mark Sparks Mark Sparks stlsymphony,org
Written by Gary Liam Scott
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Just as I was thinking that a concert devoted to American music would be incomplete without including a work by Samuel Barber,  I arrived at Powell Hall to discover that—sadly—due to a soloist’s illness, Aaron Copland’s "Quiet City" would be replaced by Barber’s famous "Adagio for Strings".  With fervent hopes for the soloist’s recovery, the inclusion of the Barber rounded out a program that was a veritable showcase of some of the many jewels of American music.

Although it would have been good to hear one of Barber’s lesser known works, the "Adagio" still works its magic with audiences.  Considering that the piece was a last-minute substitution, coming on the heels of a packed California tour, the seamless and well-structured performance by the orchestral strings was particularly noteworthy.

Principal flutist Mark Sparks appeared as soloist in the haunting Flute Concerto by Christopher Rouse.  First performed in 1994, this concerto defies categorization.  Combining some beautifully romantic and expressive passages with some of the rhythmic and atonal crash and bang that was obligatory for probably too much of the late 20th century, this work nevertheless displays a keen inventiveness that captures the listener almost immediately.  It is a challenging piece to play, requiring close coordination between soloist and orchestra, but the performers and conductor David Robertson rose to the challenge.  Sparks seemed fully in control of the technical demands of the piece.  At times, particularly during the beautifully meandering opening soliloquy, one wondered where he was able to draw his breath.  The overall effect of this work was almost like an opera for one person—the flutist—sung without words.  This is a work worthy of the attention of skilled performers, and the kind of piece that invites audiences to pay more attention to contemporary music.  With selections of this quality, audiences will not flee performances that feature living composers.

Following the intermission, Concertmaster David Halen took the stage as soloist in Leonard Bernstein’s "Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)", a loosely programmatic work for solo violin, strings and percussion inspired by Plato’s famous treatise on the nature of love.  The music mirrors both the characters assembled at Plato’s literary dinner party and their reflections and discussion.  Halen played with the smooth elegance and impeccable intonation we have come to expect.  Although not as dramatic or throbbing as some of the Romantic concertos, this work nevertheless offers both technical and interpretive challenges.  Halen opted for an interpretation with clean melodic lines and which was not overly wrung out.  It is possible to envision a more romanticized interpretation, which some listeners and performers might prefer, but Halen’s approach allowed the music to speak for itself.

The concluding fireworks on the program were provided by Aaron Copland’s famous “Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo”, which enabled the entire orchestra and conductor Robertson to shine.  Dripping with audience appeal, this work is finely crafted and a tribute to the American spirit.  Although full of percussive and idiomatic effects, Copland’s meditative spirit still manages to shine through, demonstrating why Copland is such a genius of the people. 

This entire concert was an illustration of the power and uniqueness of American music, and its contents are only a small sample of the vast American repertoire.  It was also a showcase for the skills of American performers, whose talents were proclaimed, thankfully, to a packed house of avid listeners.

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