Symphony Review: A hot time in the cold town Saturday night with Slatkin and the SLSO
By Chuck Lavazzi
Before he started his pre-concert chat with the audience at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert Saturday night (January 13) Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin smiled and said, “Look how many of you made it!”
[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]
He was referring to the fact that despite a light snowfall and Antarctic wind chill values, the Busch Concert Hall at the Touhill Center was packed (it was officially sold out, but bad weather always results in some no-shows). The audience was rewarded for braving the deep freeze by an impeccably performed and consistently entertaining program of music from (mostly) the 1920s.
|La création du monde
It was second of three concerts demonstrating the influence of what Slatkin calls “vernacular music”—jazz, folk, spirituals, theatre, and popular music in general—on the classical canon. It consisted of three infrequently heard works by European composers inspired by American jazz and dance tunes and was followed by one big whopping hit by an American composer inspired by a visit to Paris. It would have gotten serious points for variety even if it hadn’t been so well done.
It all started with the 1923 ballet “La création du monde” (The Creation of the World) by Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), a work heavily influenced by the composer’s brief infatuation with jazz and ragtime (even though the latter was in its sunset years by then). With a scenario by Blaise Cendrars based on the poet’s 1922 collection of African folk tales, the ballet featured Picasso-esque sets and costumes by Fernand Léger that looked impressive but were clumsy and awkward for the dancers. Which may explain why “La création du monde” is rarely seen but often heard.
Scored for a small wind ensemble, percussion (including a typical jazz drum kit), and a string quartet with the alto sax replacing the viola, it’s a piece in which every player can be clearly heard. But it’s also one in which quasi-independent instrumental lines often converge into what could, in less skilled hands, turn into mere cacophony. That makes it a bit of a challenge for both the players and the audience.
Section I, with its fast-moving fugue, is a good example. Keeping the individual lines clear here looks tricky in the score, but Slatkin and the musicians kept everything clearly delineated. This is music that requires close attention by the listener, and this neatly balanced performance made that easy. The roster of fine performers included Nathan Nabb on sax, Peter Henderson on piano, Kevin Ritenauer on the drum kit, and Jelena Dirks on oboe.
Parenthetical note: the tune of the oboe’s soulful, blues-drenched solo sounded so much like the one Gershwin wrote for his Concerto in F two years later that I suspect Milhaud’s theme might have been on his mind at the time.
Jazz was certainly on the mind of Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) in 1945 when he wrote his brief “Ebony Concerto” for clarinetist Woody Herman and his band. It crams a lot of musical variety into its ten minutes without overwhelming the listener with its ingenious mix of 1940’s jazz and the composer’s neoclassicism.
It also defies expectations by using the soloist more as a featured member of the band than as an individual player. There were long stretches in which SLSO Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews was more observer than participant, with prominent musical roles taken over by the large sax section. Still, when Andrews was given the chance to cut loose and strut his stuff, he did so beautifully, showing his wide expressive and dynamic range. I don’t often think of Stravinsky’s neoclassical works as being “fun,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe this one.
Intermission and another stage change brought the “Kleine Dreigroschenmusik” (“Little Threepenny Music”) by Kurt Weill (1900–1950). Scored for a 1920’s dance band with a bandoneon (a conertina much favored by Agentine tango composers) added for a bit of spice, it’s a suite of tunes from Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 “play with music” “Der Dreigroschenoper” (“The Threepenny Opera”) that the composer put together in 1929 at the request of legendary conductor Otto Klemperer. Without Bertolt Brecht’s pungent lyrics, most of the tunes sound deceptively cheerful, although even without its words, the “Kanonensong” (“Canon Song”) still feels dark and threatening.
Slatkin and the band gave us a performance marked by crisp, precise playing, careful attention to Weill’s small touches of humor, and more outstanding solo work. A tip of the hat is also due to Winnie Cheung on bandoneon. Her instrument is only called for in three of the eight movements, but the obvious joy in her performance was contagious.
When Weill and Brecht were completing work on “Der Dreigroschenoper” George Gershwin (1898–1937) was putting the finishing touches on the work that concluded Saturday night’s show, “An American in Paris.” As someone who loves visiting the City of Light, I have to say that Gershwin did a bang-up job of capturing city's lively sidewalk cafes and bustling boulevards as well as (in the blues-infused central section) the charm of Paris at night.
Slatkin could probably conduct this score blindfolded at this point. His 1974 recording with the SLSO (“that orchestra is all gone now,” he quipped, “but the conductor is still here”) is one of the best you can buy, especially in the digitally remastered version that came out last summer. His performance Saturday night was a perfect balance of lush romanticism and a scrupulous attention to orchestral detail. It was the perfect way to end an evening that was both engaging and revelatory.
As a bonus, we got an encore: an orchestration by Leonard Slatkin’s father Felix (1915–1963), the St. Louis-born violinist and concertmaster for Twentieth Century Fox Studios, of Alfred Newman’s main theme for the 1943 film “The Song of Bernadette.” It features prominent solos for the violin and cello which, on the original soundtrack, were played by Leonard Slatkin’s father and mother (Eleanor Aller).
Saturday night those parts played with great warmth by concertmaster David Halen and Principal Cello Daniel Lee. Newman’s music was shamelessly moving as only a vintage Hollywood score can be, especially when played this well. The arrangement was reconstructed from the soundtrack (a major accomplishment all by itself) by Leonard Slatkin's wife, composer Cindy McTee.
Finally, here’s a laurel wreath for the stage crew. Saturday’s concert effectively featured four different ensembles: Milhaud’s augmented quartet, Stravinsky’s 1940’s big band (plus harp), Weill’s 1920’s cabaret band, and Gershwin’s big, late Romantic orchestra. That meant three big stage changes with the biggest of the lot (from Weill to Gershwin) taking place while the audience watched. It’s a tribute to their professionalism that these changes all went quickly and smoothly, with the precision of a well-oiled machine.
Next from the SLSO: Leonard Slatkin and the orchestra return to the Touhill for two concerts. Slatkin conducts a joint performance by the orchestra and youth orchestra on Saturday, January 20, at 7:30 pm, with music by Brahms, Copland, and Tchaikovsky. On Sunday, January 21, at 3 pm, Slatkin conducts the orchestra and pianist Jeffrey Siegel in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in a program that also includes John Alden Carpenter’s “Krazy Kat” ballet, Paul Turok’s “A Jopin Overture,” and selections from Mary Lou Willams’s “Zodiac Suite” with guest artists The Aaron Diehl Trio.