Leonard Slatkin conducting. Photo by Lewel Li.

No doubt about, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin got his two-week concert series off to a strong start Saturday night (April 27, 2019) with three very different and very fascinating pieces.

The concert started with Loren Loiacono's 2017 "Smothered by Sky." The composer describes this six-minute work as a "mini-concerto for orchestra" and, in fact, it bristles with flashy writing for most of the sections in the orchestra. She keeps the percussion section especially busy, banging away on a wide variety of devices, including rarely heard instruments like the flexatone (a popular item in cartoon soundtracks) and non-instruments like brake drums.

Quoted in the SLSO program, Ms. Loiacono says the work deals with the concept of "escape velocity" in physics but goes on to note that the piece "does not attempt to literally depict a rocket taking off or a satellite going into orbit. Instead, it embraces the metaphor behind that narrative, of barreling through atmospheric chaos in order to transcend gravity itself."

To my ears, though, there was a distinct sense, as the work began, of taking flight in the energetic percussion sounds, followed by a feeling of weightlessness in music for the high strings and woodwinds. Frantic brass outbursts increase in frequency until everything suddenly evaporates with a quick passage on the sizzle cymbal. Is that the sound of breaking earthly bonds or a flameout? It's up to the listener to decide.

It was, in any case, given a thrilling performance by the band, with especially impressive work by percussionists Will James, Alan Stewart, and Stephen Kehner with the reliable Tom Stubbs on tympani.

Olga Kern
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

Next was an equally thrilling Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1. Originally written while Rachmaninoff was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, the concerto was later revised substantially on the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and it's not hard to hear the faint echoes of that turbulence in the sweep and drama of this remarkably concise and vigorous work.

Soloist Olga Kern displayed the same virtuosity and keen musical insight that I heard when she played Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" here with Mr. Slatkin in 2010. She pounded out those power chords in the first movement cadenza impressively and perfectly captured the wistful yearning of the second movement. In an interview with me n earlier in the week, Mr. Slatkin praised Ms. Kern's "wide variety and range of skills and styles," and you could certainly hear that in her performance.

Between the two of them, they generated positively volcanic energy in the opening pages and reveled in Rachmaninoff's unabashed Romanticism all the way to the end. Mr. Slatkin appears to have a solid sense of how to indulge Rachmaninoff without ever sounding indulgent. An enthusiastic standing ovation resulted in an electrifying encore from Ms. Kern: Prokofiev's motoric Etude Op. 2 No. 4, written when the composer was a brash young lad of 18.

The evening concluded with a stunning performance of Bernstein's highly theatrical Symphony No. 3 ("Kaddish"). Originally completed in 1963 just after the death of JFK and then revised in 1977, it's a work of wide-ranging theatricality and philosophical depth scored for massive forces (large orchestra, chorus, children's chorus, mezzo-soprano soloist, and speaker) that pushes everyone to their limits.

The work has not met with universal approval over the years. "Some of the responses to the new work were venomous," writes Tim Munro in his program notes. "The American press reactions to the original version," writes Jack Gottlieb in liner notes for Bernstein's 1978 recording of the revised edition, "read like notices of a controversial Broadway play: 'mustn't be missed!' and 'a melodramatic tearjerker!'"

Narrator Charlotte Blake Alston
Photo by Deborah Boardman

Some of the venom, no doubt, came from the narrator's confrontations with God, which condemn The Supreme Being for indifference to suffering and evil: "Tin God! Your bargain is tin! It crumples in my hand!" But as David Denby writes in a 2017 New Yorker article, this quasi-adversarial relationship with God is an essential facet of Bernstein's faith. "For Jews," he notes, "questioning not just God but the Old Testament itself--arguing with its contradictory assertions and laws--is an essential activity, central to the two-thousand-year-long project of interpretation."

Love it or hate it (I come down mostly on the "love it" side) the "Kaddish" Symphony can't fail to make a strong impression, especially in a performance as compelling as this one. A long-time champion of Bernstein's work, Mr. Slatkin pulled together the many disparate and complex elements of Bernstein's score into a powerful and consistently gripping whole.

That's not an easy task, given the sheer magnitude of the piece. The 90-piece orchestra and full chorus completely filled the stage, forcing the children's chorus and director Barbara Berner to perform on the orchestra floor in front of the stage. This could easily have been a recipe for chaos, but it all came together beautifully.

Narrator Charlotte Blake Alston delivered her lines with a gravitas that somewhat gave even the more melodramatic excesses of Bernstein's prose a sober dignity. Mezzo Sasha Cooke both sang and acted her part to perfection, most notably in the touching "Kaddish 2" portion of the second movement, which is a sort of lullaby for God.

Mezzo Sasha Cooke

I have praised Amy Kaiser and the St. Louis Symphony Chorus for their fine work in the past and they rose to the occasion once again in this challenging and complex score. The singers are required to hum, clap, and sing tricky counterpoint. At one point Bernstein breaks the chorus up into (at least) a half dozen small groups, each led by a different member of the chorus and each singing wildly divergent versions of '"amen." Only a chorus as polished as this one could make it all sound so coherent.

The first and only previous performance of this work by the SLSO was back in 1965, with Eleazar de Carvalho on the podium and Bernstein's wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre, as the narrator. That made it effectively a new piece for all concerned, which makes the high quality of the performance that much more impressive.

Leonard Slatkin concludes his two-week stint with the SLSO Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 3 pm, May 3 and 4, with a program of music by Tchaikovsky and Samuel Barber, along with the world premiere of "The Paper-Lined Shack" by Jeff Beal. Performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center.

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