As is probably obvious by now, I usually write reviews on rock music, and I don't think I've yet even really gone into jazz or folk (but maybe a little dance or pop). I've also spurned classical music... until now. I actually saw the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra about a month ago, but I didn't review it because I didn't feel qualified or knowledgeable enough on the subject. Although I still feel that way, I was invited by Chris Maue of Highway 61 Revised to see the symphony again, as he was invited by Eddie Silva, Publications Manager of the SLSO, for a so-called "Blogger's Night". Other reviews and commentaries on the night by the other invited bloggers should be available from www.slso.org/blog/. (Chris' can be found here.) Due to the nature of the event and my invitation, I figure that it's only appropriate for me to comment. And in the future, maybe I'll review other classical concerts I attend. Anyway, on to the review:
Event: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (loosely part of the Guitar Festival), conducted by David Robertson
Venue: Powell Hall
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 15 November 2008
1. A Prayer Out of Stillness, composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage, 2007, featuring John Patitucci on acoustic bass and electric bass guitar
2. Beautiful Passing, composed by Steven Mackey, 2008, featuring Leila Josefowicz on violin
3. The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky, 1911-13
I took four pages of notes while listening, but most of them are incomprehensible and I think that getting that detailed wouldn't be helpful. I'll just go a work at a time and then give an overall impression.
The first piece, A Prayer Out of Stillness, was probably the one that netted the association with the Guitar Festival, which was actually more related to the previous Thursday, where the SLSO played Frank Zappa and some other out-of-the-ordinary pieces at the Pageant. Regardless, this piece featured John Patitucci on electric 6-string Yamaha bass for half of it. The work is divided into four parts, and each did have a different feel.
The first part, "First Prayer," featured Patitucci on his upright bass, mostly plucking in the higher registers, but then also bowing. The second part, "Second Prayer," had Patitucci switch to the electric bass for some intense fingerpicking runs in the higher strings. Throughout, the rest of the orchestra, using only a fairly small set of musicians, played fairly simple parts, clearly just laying a foundation for the soloist to work off of.
The third part, "Call and Response," was just that: a second bassist came out on an upright, and Patitucci stayed on his electric. The other musicians remained silent as the two bassists held what in the rock world would be called a bass-off. I figure there are two ways to view this: either it's a very, very skilled, theoretically masterful improvisation, or it's just "disconnected noodling" (as my compatriot half-jokingly quipped). I was fairly absorbed by it all, really. The dual nature of flawless electric fingerpick-soloing and comparable bowing in the lower ranges on the acoustic bass was pretty cool. The fourth part, "Third Prayer," was something of a reprise if the second part, with Patitucci on acoustic bass and the rest of the orchestra again in tow.
Instrumentally and compositionally speaking, Beautiful Passing was a step higher. The orchestra brought out some percussion (including a drumset!), a harp, a piano, and the woodwinds and brass (which were notably absent from the previous piece). Leila Josefowicz was featured on violin. She led things off, but then the orchestra started doing short crazy parts every few measures. The piece continually alternated between very frenetic segments and much calmer parts with Josefowicz a bit more prominent. At the height of it all, she was bowing her highest notes, then doing great trills accompanied by the woodwinds, and then sliding all over the strings. Things got progressively louder and louder, more and more intense, with Josefowicz all over the place and the orchestra crashing hard on the percussion and hitting some dark notes. Eventually it calmed down and came to a slow end with Josefowicz on a final long note.
The Rite of Spring was probably the highlight of the night. Although I'd heard the piece before, I'd never seen it performed, and it is quite the experience. A video projector carried explanatory text during the piece, as it was originally written for a ballet, and the context would have been otherwise lacking. "Part One: The Adoration of the Earth" begins with a pleasant festival, with the woodwinds, brass, and strings all doing nice bits, but slowly moving in some more intense and dark parts. Before long, timpani entered, the cellists were tapping their bows against the strings, and the other string musicians were doing great pizzicato parts.
As the festival dance gets a bit more extreme, things continued to amp up and get darker. The cellos in particular were great, and the timpani and cymbals let us know things were awry. During a duel with a rival tribesman, the instruments exhibited jabs in line with what must have been the fight. A new cacophony rose as a sage appeared, but then suddenly things settled down significantly. The music droned at low volume and got steadily more intense before pausing briefly to transition to "Part Two: the Sacrifice". Strange sounds started things off; the violins did a quick repeating ascending part, then the music became more drone-like before once again becoming very intense. As a girl is sacrificed, the strings shrieked and the percussion crashed about. After slowing and calming down for a minute, the music returned to the frenzy, and as the sacrificial girl fell, the pitch of the instruments rose and suddenly stopped.
For the most part, the music of A Prayer Out of Stillness failed to impress, but I understand that the main draw was the featured bassist, and Patitucci was certainly talented. I rather wish that I could have seen him perform a good melody over a more interesting piece. Beautiful Passing was more complex and dynamic, and Josefowicz instilled a lot of passion into the piece and helped keep my attention. However, even she was no match for The Rite of Spring, which blew me out of the water. I can't think of any other piece I've heard that is quite as extreme and dramatic and nearly avant-garde (while still maintaining structure) as this one. The orchestra really put a lot of energy into the work and it showed well.
As a sort of sidenote, I rather enjoy observing the nature of a symphony concert. The culture is somewhat fascinating. Everyone dresses up very well and barely so much as coughs during the performance. (Imagine a rock band demanding that kind of respect!) I'm never sure what other people think about a young, longhaired (post-)punk coming and making postmodern social commentary, but maybe if the orchestra can go out on a limb and do The Rite of Spring, I don't stick out too much.
Thanks again to Eddie and Chris.
[Edit 2008.11.22: Here is the permanent link to Eddie's main post on the SLSO blog (hilariously titled after a panel in Chris' comic), here is a link to another review of the show by Jen from the Euclid Records blog, and here is a link to a related post on Confluence City.]