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Tuesday, 23 November 2010 00:18

Concert review: The 13th century rocks

Concert review: The 13th century rocks Alexander Nevsky poster
Written by Gary Liam Scott
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Few human emotions are not found in Sergei Prokofiev's epic cantata Alexander Nevsky. Fear, bravery, adrenaline rush, grief, thirst for freedom, love, the thrill of victory, and, ultimately, happiness -- all were delivered handsomely on November 19-20 by the St. Louis Symphony and Chorus under David Robertson.

Alexander Nevsky was the 13th century warrior-prince and, eventually, saint who guided the Russian people in their resistance to invading hordes from Sweden and Germany, sent with a papal blessing. In 1938 Russia was poised to meet perhaps its greatest challenge of all, World War II, and the legendary film director Sergei Eisenstein teamed with composer Sergei Prokofiev to produce a movie that would inspire and encourage the already war-weary Russian people. Prokofiev produced some of his finest music ever, which he later crafted into a cantata for chorus and orchestra with soprano solo. The drama and fireworks of this piece form an unforgettable experience. The ripping percussion, bells and brass, combined with the soul-penetrating intensity of the massed strings and woodwinds, and the moving voice of a chorus of over 150, almost made the film itself, magnificent as it is, unnecessary. In the presence of such a feast for the senses, we felt as though we were living witnesses to the history of over 700 years ago.

Mezzo soprano Elena Manistina, herself of Russian birth, marked her debut with the SLSO in these concerts. Her brief solo, a wrenching lament over the Russian war dead, is short yet searing.  Manistina's voice is earthy and velvet-coated. Although her tone never lost its warmth, here and there was a certain rough edge to her voice that seemed completely appropriate for a dirge that springs from deep within. Hopefully this will be the first of several appearances with the Symphony.

The program opened with Stravinsky's Symphony No. 1 in E Flat Major, dating from 1907 and performed for the first time in  St. Louis. This is a remarkably Romantic work, and belies the iconoclasm that we normally associate with Stravinsky's style. Although the melodies may not have been memorable, this performance gave us a fascinating glimpse of a little known aspect of Stravinsky's constantly changing style. The music is sensual and spirited, and was served with gusto and energy by the musicians.

Following the intermission, the program resumed with three short a cappella chants by Stravinsky based on texts from the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, corresponding to the Ave Maria, Credo and the Our Father. Once again, we caught a glimpse of Stravinsky apart from the guise in which we usually think of him. These chants exuded the classic reverence and dignity of expression that we have come to associate with the Orthodox church -- and, it should be noted, Stravinsky devoted considerable effort to works of liturgical music, such as the Symphony of Psalms.

Under the preparation of chorus master Amy Kaiser, the Symphony chorus performed with skill and seeming ease, remarkably so, considering the demands of Russian diction. Having studied a bit of the Russian language, I can attest that it is not nearly so difficult as some might believe, but the clumping of consonants and the unfamiliar vowels give singers a special challenge. As we have grown to expect, this chorus never seemed to falter in its diction that evening, and both the Prokofiev and Stravinsky works were delivered with strength and conviction. Balance between the various sections was excellent, and the choir delivered a rather "stereophonic" impression, rich in resonance and giving the feeling of coming at the listener from all sides. Intonation was highly accurate throughout the performance.  If anything, the choir seemed to enjoy this music, as they should. 

Russian recordings of Alexander Nevsky tend to impart a more frenetic, thinly textured interpretation to this work (check out You Tube), almost like the clash of swords and ice, yet the resounding, lush interpretation we heard in Powell Hall never lacked in brilliance or pounding energy.

Although we already know that David Robertson is one of the great conductors of today, his talents seemed to particularly shine in this concert. Careful balance and dynamic control have always been hallmarks of Robertson's style, and they seemed almost perfect in this performance. The homogeneity of sound that has come to characterize the output of this orchestra was particularly evident. An orchestra of nearly 100 musicians and a chorus of over 150 spoke with a singular eloquence.

Who would not want to hear--and see--a concert as magnificent as this? And yet, Powell Hall was sadly far from filled. Performers who work as hard as these, and serve their community so faithfully, are worthy of all the support we can muster. Does the problem lie with our present economic situation? Or is the problem symptomatic of the decline of our education system? Money alone will not fix the problem. With a budget dependent on ticket sales and contributions, the St. Louis Symphony has become an educational institution in its own right. The purpose of music education is to produce astute performers and listeners. We need to work harder on that.

The next scheduled performance in the SLSO subscription series will feature pianist Olga Kern and conductor emeritus Leonard Slatkin performing music of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, and will take place on November 26, 27, 28. For more information, call the Symphony box office at 314-534-1700 or visit

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