Review: The American way
Cristian Macelaru led the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra this weekend (November 16 and 17) in a program which demonstrated once again his impressive versatility as a conductor. I have been impressed in the past with his performances of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Vaughan Williams. This time around he proved equally adept with an evening of American music, including a world premiere.
The world premiere in question was the Bassoon Concerto by Christopher Rouse (b. 1949), who seems determined to work his way through the orchestra with a solo work for every instrument. In an interview I did with Mr. Rouse last week, he described the concerto as a genial work designed to "engage the ears of the listener and provide some pleasure," and now that I've heard it, I'd say he has achieved his goal.
The first movement bubbled with a kind of Haydnesque good humor, the haunted second with its ominous tympani rolls brought to mind the "Scène aux Champs" movement from Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," and the headlong finale was a veritable "Mr. Toad's wild ride," requiring the soloist to play what sounded like very challenging volleys of rapid-fire passages. SLSO Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo handled it all with aplomb, delivering a flawless performance Saturday night that brought the audience to its feet. A shout-out is also due to Mr. Cuneo's fellow bassoonists Andrew Gott and Felicia Foland who were at times called upon to play together with the soloist to create what Mr. Rouse calls a "mega bassoon" sound.
I don't know whether or not the concerto will become part of the standard orchestral repertoire, but it's certainly a lively and appealing piece, which should count for something. And once you get past the Baroque and Classical eras, it's not like there's a wealth of solo material for the instrument.
The concert opened with a work which, while not a local premiere, is still a relative rarity on the concert stage: "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance," from the score Samuel Barber wrote for a 1946 Martha Graham ballet based on the Greek Medea myth. It's powerful music, to say the least, with an ominous opening that eventually gives way to a wild and violent finale, and it got a tremendously exciting reading from Mr. Macelaru and the orchestra.
The percussion section, including pianist Peter Henderson, got quite a workout here, and Cally Banham really killed it (you should pardon the expression) in the heartfelt solo that leads from the meditation into the dance. Like many listeners, I expect, I know this work primarily because of recordings (in my case, the 1959 recording for Mercury by composer Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra), but this performance was potent enough to supplant that recording in my memory.
The concert concluded with a work last heard here a little over four years ago, the Symphony No. 3 by Aaron Copland. A product of the final years of World War II, the symphony perfectly captures the forward-looking optimism that characterized America Victorious. As Copland writes in his autobiography, the Third "was a wartime piece--or, more accurately, and end-of-war piece--intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time." The work's open harmonies are a perfect musical reflection of a time when the American character was marked by optimism and engagement.
At a time when the national character is becoming infected with pessimism and paranoia, Copland's music is a welcome reminder of a time when we thought better of ourselves and of our place in the world. It's majestic music and got a powerfully magisterial reading from Mr. Macelaru and excellent playing from the orchestra. The opening moments of the Molto moderato first movement had a reverential quality that served as an effective contrast to the grand statement of the main theme that followed. The rapid syncopation of the Allegro molto second movement was executed with great precision and the transparency string sound added real weight to the emotionally intense third movement. The final movement with its confident opening fanfare based on Copland's 1942 hit "Fanfare for the Common Man" wrapped everything up in fine, exuberant style.
There was plenty of impressive solo work throughout the symphony. Mr. Macelaru singled out all of the first chair players for well-earned curtain calls, but I'd like to direct some applause as well to Jennifer Nichtman and Ann Choomack for their fine playing of the important piccolo parts.
Next at Powell Hall: Michael Francis conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violinist Joshua Bell Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 23-25. The program consists of Elgar's overture "In the South (Alassio)", Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, and Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 2 ("A London Symphony"). Performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.