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Monday, 15 October 2012 10:14

Concert review: St. Louis Symphony sings of nature at Powell Hall Friday through Sunday, October 12 - 14

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Written by Gary Liam Scott
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Although Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral”, is a purely instrumental work, the weekend of October 12-14 at Powell Hall it assumed a choral sheen under the baton of guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos that seemed to utterly transform the work. 

the net result was an organic whole that illuminated the workings of a compositional genius of the 20th century.  On a personal note, I confess that although I love Beethoven and all his symphonies, nevertheless I had heard this one so many times that I wasn’t really looking forward to hearing it yet again.  However, Frühbeck infused the work with a resonance and steadiness of tone that seemed to revitalize the melodies and harmonies with a new freshness.  In my mind, I kept comparing the orchestra to a master chorus, one in which every vocal register is ably represented and carefully balanced against the others.  Although there were a few intonation issues here and there, Frühbeck's attentive phrasing helped listeners ignore them.  It also seemed clear that the performers themselves were laboring to improve the intonation as the symphony progressed.  Overall, it seemed as though the lyric quality of this symphony stood out more as never before. 

The bucolic melodies of this symphony formed the background of many music appreciation curricula for generations, and it is tragic that schoolchildren today do not immediately recognize such a masterwork.  Again, we see that the presence of the St. Louis Symphony within our community is perhaps our most important force for music education.  Perhaps it is just as well that the current season offers more conservative programming; such a move will provide a means for newer listeners to become acquainted with some of the standards of symphonic repertoire. 

This weekend’s concerts were themed “Nature’s Song,” and the concluding work on the program, Claude Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea), provided a different view of nature from that of Beethoven’s vision of forests and birds.  Yet both composers arguably portray the complexities of nature as no scientific textbook ever could.  Both composers use the orchestra as a palette of colors and a means of observing and interpreting the outer world.  Likewise, the works of both composers dramatically illustrate the power of harmony and melody to infuse an even greater sense of life into nature.  The same resonance that invigorated the performance of the Beethoven symphony was present in the Debussy tone poem as well, and de Burgos showed himself equally at home with differing styles and periods. 

The middle work on the program, the Piano Concerto in G Major by Maurice Ravel, with Pascal Rogé as soloist, at first glance can hardly be assumed to be depictive of nature.  And yet, the rugged contours and earthy jazz influences felt in this work seem to spring from a creative instinct that is totally natural and spontaneous.  Rogé is one of the finest pianists of his generation, and his talents seem particularly well-suited for interpreting the repertoire of his native land. 

Rogé’s style is markedly intense, to the point where, visually, he almost seems to cradle the piano in his arms.  As a performer he is totally involved with each note.  This concerto is filled with wildly disparate melodies and styles, yet Rogé’s attention to detail fused them together into a remarkable unity.  His rapid-fire technique both excites and hypnotizes.  Rogé, Frühbeck and the orchestra seemed to collaborate well together, and the net result was an organic whole that illuminated the workings of a compositional genius of the 20th century.

It is interesting to note that, thus far into the current season, the sounds and emotions of nature have played an important role in the St. Louis Symphony’s programming.  Through the pens of Beethoven, Debussy, Respighi, Mahler, Chopin and Ravel, listeners have reveled in the sounds of forests, birds, storms, oceans, the landscape of heaven itself, and the landscape of the human mind.  Although great music needs no justification, it is still significant to see such a broad intersection of art and life.

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